Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
The Book of Vayikrah is…
• The shortest of the five books of the Torah
• Inaccurately translated as Leviticus (from Latin/Greek) which suggests focus on the Tribe of Levi, when in fact it is the Priests (kohanim) who are the focal point
• Fundamentally different than the first two Books of the Torah that are narrative in nature, tracing the creation of the world to the saga of the Patriarchs to our slavery and then Exodus to the Mt. Sinai experience to the building of the Mishkan
• Filled with Mitzvahs-- with the exception of two narratives (namely, dedication of the Mishkan, including the death of Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu; and blasphemer who was executed)
• Referred to as torat kohanim, “the law guide for priests”, but also meaning a manual for every one of us on how to achieve the priestly status as in God’s promise that “You shall be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”.
Broad Outline of the Book of Vayikrah
Laws of offerings (korbanot) for the individual, for the congregation and for the priest
Dedication of the Mishkan and ordination of the Priests
Laws of defilement and purification
Defilement and purification
Additional laws about sacrifice and food
Permitted and forbidden sexual relations
Ethical and ritual laws creating holiness
Laws for the priesthood
Sabbath and festivals
Shmitta (Sabbatical) and Yovel (Jubilee) years
Blessings for observance of the law and curses for its violation
Laws concerning vows, gifts and dues
Separation is a major theme. Professor Robert Alter notes that the concept of setting apart (havdil root) is repeatedly manifest in the broad range of ritual, dietary and sexual laws. By accepting these rules, we set ourselves apart from other peoples (i.e., become holy). The Torah repeatedly reminds us of the need to keep our distance from the sacred Mishkan; no unauthorized person may encroach (“lo sikrav”). Rabbi Dr. J.H. Hertz points out that in Torah Judaism “holiness is an active principle, shaping and regulating every sphere of human life and activity”. God’s nation was to avoid both moral transgressions as well as ceremonial defilement to protect itself against the surrounding forces of pagan heathenism and animalism that threatened them.
Purification is another major theme. Profaning pollutants that need to be avoided include…
Various skin conditions;
Mildew and other blights in buildings, utensils and fabrics
Pagans viewed these biological phenomena as portents of evil consequences necessitating incantations and rituals to avoid. The Torah approach is to define rules for dealing with the symptoms.
There exist four prime substances in the Mishkan and their global correspondence is in Nature according to anthropologist Mary Douglas (cited by Professor Alter):
Fire is about the Divine. God is manifest in fire as experienced…
In the burning bush
In the Mt. Sinai, awesome pyrotechnic display
In the travelling pillar of fire at night
In Olah offerings that are completely consumed by fire
Blood, which courses through the veins of all living creatures, has a purgative effect whether spilled, smeared or sprinkled as part of the sanctuary ritual. The drinking of blood, the very life of the living, is prohibited
(Olive) Oil, a product of agriculture, is used for dedication of kings and priests
Water, existing in Nature without human intervention, is the universal symbol of purification and cleansing
Teaching Children Sefer Vayikrah
This age-old custom in Jewish education of starting young children off with the study of Vayikra instead of Bereshit is based on the Talmudic dictum “…children are tahor (pure) and offerings are tahor. Let the tahor come and occupy themselves with tahor”. Rabbi Dr. J.H. Hertz’s view is that “ as a result of its stern legislation, Israel’s sons and daughters were freed from the ignoble and the vile—from all brutality and bestiality.”
The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that because God’s love is unconditional the inherent bond between the Jew and God cannot become impure or soiled. He loves both the innocent child who has not yet studied Torah or performed Mitzvahs just as He loves the adult who “has gone off the path” but now seeks to mend his ways by bringing an offering.
Dr. Yehuda Valladares observes that a child’s mind is like a blank piece of paper. By studying Vayikra the child is given a framework for coping with death, blood and other painful experiences that he will confront in his life. Growing up in an agrarian society, children were exposed to and comfortable with things like blood and animals and death. Children also are being taught at an early age that there can be forgiveness even if the “purest” person sins.
It may also be that the Rabbis want to expose the pure, unadulterated, clear-thinking minds of children to the profound human relationship concepts symbolized by and embedded in the korbanot. Let them absorb these ideas (unconsciously?) before their minds develop psychological barriers like denial, rationalization, and sublimation. I think it is significant that Avraham Avenu discovered God when he was only three years old. He found the Truth with clarity (“out of the mouth of babes”) before his conclusions and beliefs could be undermined by these psychological mechanisms.
Rabbinical commentaries to the Torah are called Midrash--stories, homilies, parables, and legal exegesis based on the biblical text. Collections that contain mostly stories, parables, and homilies are classified as Midrash aggadah, while collections focused primarily on the derivation of law are called Midrash halakhah. [Note: The word Midrash comes from the Hebrew root 'darash', meaning to search or investigate.] Midrash attempts, through minute examination and interpretation, to bring out the deeper or ethical meaning of the text:
Midrash Rabbah (meaning “the big Midrash”) contains volumes on the Chumash (Five Books of Moses) and the five Megillot (Five Scrolls, from Ketuvim).
Mechilta (Tractate) is a Midrash to Shemot (Exodus).
Sifra (Book) is a Midrash to Vayikra (Leviticus).
Sifre (Books) is a Midrash to Bamidbar (Numbers) and Devarim (Deuteronomy).
All are mainly Halachic. Some Midrashim are sometimes repeated in different collections.
Torat Kohanim or Sifra is among the longest and is believed to be based on expositions of the second century Rabbi Akiva and his disciples. Another, Vayikra Rabbah, was probably compiled around the fifth century CE, but includes material dating back at least to the third or fourth century.
Throughout history man has felt the need to bring offerings to his deity. Primitive cultures employed these offerings (including human sacrifice) as a means of placating the deity or evoking blessings for successful agricultural harvests. But the spontaneous offerings recorded in the Torah are different in that they are meant to express thanks and draw closer to God. In gratitude Cain brings grain; Hevel brings sheep; and Noah brings animal offerings when he emerges from the Ark.
On a psychological level, korbanot may reflect Man’s earliest aggressive murderous behavior, especially manifest in the offering of human sacrifices. In the depths of his soul (unconscious?), Man senses that killing of live animals, though necessary for eating and survival is wrong and violates a sense of cosmic order. Gaining control over the guilt of killing entails repetitive ritualization of animal offerings. This shared experience may create a kind of universal bonding that enables us to better deal with these deep-rooted anxieties and guilt.
In contrast to primitive pagan rituals whose details were only known by their priests, the Torah spells out all the associated rules and regulations and makes it our obligation to study. The Temple offerings, accompanied by Levites singing and music, inspired an elevating spiritual experience.
In addressing the new-born Jewish nation upon its Exodus from Egyptian society, the Torah states " ADAM KI YAKRIV MEKEM” (“Any man that brings a korban to Hashem close from you ”). The key is that when we bring a korban we are offering something of ourselves—our energies, our thoughts and our emotions. “Even a heathen may bring an offering, if he is moved to do so” notes Rabbi Hertz, but an apostate is denied the privilege of bringing an offering. Good intentions and positive thoughts are critical parts of the ritual.
The word korban is usually translated as “sacrifice”, from the Latin “to make sacred.” The word “sacrifice” has a negative connotation—to destroy, surrender or suffer to be lost for the sake of something; to destroy; to kill.
But the word korban in Hebrew also has a very positive meaning, related to the root-word karov, which means drawing near. A korban is an offering through which Man builds or reaffirms a relationship with God. The donation emanates from a sincere inner desire to reach out and become close to God. The offerer’s placing of his hands between the horns of the animal at the beginning of the ritual emphasizes that the animal is the man’s representative or substitute. Others explain that the action indicates that it is his property that he is devoting it as his offering. There was no laying of the hands on a fowl offering and the entire ceremony was performed by the priest, possibly to enhance the importance of this poor man’s offering. Birds were not accepted as peace offerings(shlamim) because they were not considered sufficient for a sacrificial meal, according to Rabbi Hertz.
Rabbi Hertz reasons that it is improbable that the sacrificial acts were performed in silence. Most likely they were accompanied by prayer and confession that imbued the ritual with spiritual significance. The eating of the Korban may be likened to “breaking bread” with a friend or a celebratory business meal. Salt, for preserving meat and used by the ancients for expression of friendship and for finalizing agreements, plays an important and symbolic role. It is put on all korbanot.
Certain korbanot can atone for unintentional sins (i.e., forgetting that a behavior was sinful) but not for deliberate, malicious sinning. But forgiveness occurs only if the offering is accompanied by sincere remorse and true repentance by the person bringing it. Too, in the event the sin involves harm to another, restitution must be made.
Following are approaches to understanding korbanot and their purpose, some of which are cited by Nechama Leibowitz:
Rambam advocates a rational approach to korbanot. The Jewish people, having grown up in and accustomed to a society in which animal sacrificial service was a universal method of worship, could not be expected to suddenly abandon this ceremony. They needed to gradually be weaned off this behavior. The animal offerings, as a first step, were designed to shift the focus away from a pagan deity to a deeper, meaningful relationship with God. The magic, magical incantations, blood drinking, violent and sexual orgies of the pagans were banned by the Torah. The korban was confined to one place, the Mishkan/Temple.
S.D. Luzzato (Shadal) the 19th century Italian commentator sees in these offerings an elevation of Man’s spirit. Instead of addressing a human king, he is serving the Divine One. Placing a korban on a fire converts the physical to the abstract. According to Shadal, the Hebrew word for holy (KoDeSH) derives from the Hebrew words yeKuD aySH (burnt by fire).
Rav S. R. Hirsch and others see the bringing of an animal offering expressing the idea that in sinning, one somehow had lost his intelligence and behaved in an animal-like way. By his placing of his hands on the head of the animal being offered the person realizes that by right it is he and not the animal that should be punished. This insight may help prevent repetition of sinful behavior.
Rabbi David Hoffman, following Ramban, thinks that the animal offerings are a positive means of promoting communion with God and symbolize one’s complete surrender to the Will of God (i.e., “sacrifice of the human ego on the altar of Divine will”).The Israelites were commanded to partake only of the meat of sacrifices, so as to sit at God’s table.(Note: the Midrash Vayikra Rabbah compares the bringing of sacrifices to a remedy proposed by a king to deal with his son’s addiction to forbidden meats. The king demands that his son always eat at the royal table to break his harmful eating habits.)
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ analysis is that what we are offering up to God is not only the physical animal but, more importantly, the animal-like aspect of our personality.[Note: no wild aggressive animals were permitted.] Each of the animal groupings mentioned represents one facet of our persona:
Behama (animal) refers to domesticated creatures, spending their time searching for food in the struggle to survive. “Sacrificing the animal within us is to be moved by something more than mere survival”.
Bakar (cattle) stampede without respect for boundaries. “To sacrifice the bakar is to learn to recognize and respect boundaries - between holy and profane, pure and impure, permitted and forbidden. Barriers of the mind can sometimes be stronger than walls”.
Tzon (flocks) is about the herd instinct to “follow the crowd”. Historically, our great leaders stood apart from and challenged prevailing unethical and immoral behavior. Sacrificing tzon is an act of renouncing and separating ourselves from the group, thereby becoming kadosh –set apart and distinct.
Rabbi Sacks concludes that korbanot “can redirect our animal instincts. We can rise above mere survival. We are capable of honoring boundaries. We can step outside our environment…No animal is capable of self-transformation; but we are. Poetry, music, love, wonder - the things that have no survival value but which speak to our deepest sense of being - all tell us that we are not mere animals, assemblages of selfish genes. By bringing that which is animal within us close to God, we allow the material to be suffused with the spiritual and we become something else: no longer slaves of nature but servants of the living God.”
The Name of God that the Torah uses with respect to the offerings is the Tetragrammaton (yud-hey-vav-hey) the attribute of Divine love and mercy--and not Elohim, the appellation of strict justice. When an individual sins and brings a korban, the death and burning of the animal on the altar gives him a strong visual of what he himself deserves, were God to judge him with the exacting scrutiny of strict justice. But God is not portrayed as vengeful, bloodthirsty demander of animal sacrifices as “payment” for sin, but the loving Hashem who provides the experience of korbanot to inspire us to change for the better.
It is difficult for modern man to understand how deeply moved ancient generations were by the sacrificial ritual. Unlike these people who lived and worked in an agrarian society, we are far removed from the sights, sounds and smells of the slaughterhouse and have little or nothing to do with domestic livestock. The idea that his animal was a substitute for a punishment he deserved; the pomp and circumstance of the priests in their elegant garb; the beautiful sounds of Psalms being read and sung and accompanied by music all together created an atmosphere in which people could be inspired. For them, the performances of solemn rituals in a sacred place were dignified and meaningful.
The prophet Hosea observes that despite the cessation of these rituals after the destruction of the Holy Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E.“ so will we render for bullocks the offering of our lips”. Prayer and discussion and study substituted for the offerings. Franz Rosenzweig thinks that the prophet does not mean “prayer instead of sacrifice” but that training through prayer lays the groundwork for renewal of the sacrificial service. Or perhaps the verse means that by using our lips to study and discuss the past, we may reach a point where we can imagine and almost experience our forefathers’ emotion and inspiration when they brought their offerings.
Over time the korbanot degenerated from being the means for improving behavior and reconnecting with God to insincere lip service. Not only did they become an empty ceremony, but offerings were used to grant atonement for the abominations that were being committed. When this happened, the Prophets furiously condemned these and all other insincere and hypocritical rituals:
Jeremiah : “your burnt offerings are not acceptable, nor your sacrifices pleasing unto me”
Samuel: “Does God delight in burnt offerings and sacrifice? To obey [God] is better than sacrifice, to hearken [to God] than the fat of rams”.
Hosea: “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice and the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings”
Amos: “Though you offer me burnt offerings and your meal-offerings, I will not accept them…but let justice well up as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream”.
Isaiah: “to what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me…?”
In the Talmud Rabbi Akiva is quoted as having explained, that God is not rejecting sacrifices per se, only the hypocritical and meaningless way they are being brought. Professor Yechezkel Kaufmann elaborates that it was only because they did not heed God’s words and they behaved wickedly that the sacrifices were not pleasing to Him.
Writes historian Max Dimont, "What they [the prophets] said was remarkable for their time: that ritual and cult in themselves were of no value to God. Humanity, justice, and morality were superior to any cult. They said God did not want rituals; He wanted higher moral standards from mankind. They said that God abhorred sacrifice [without heartfelt repentance], that it was no sin not to offer sacrifice, that the sin was corruption and the perversion of justice. These were fantastic and daring notions in those days when sacrifice and ritual were religion itself."
The Torah opposes any form of magic or superstition yet some phrases seem to suggest otherwise. For example, when describing the Oleh offering the Torah uses the phrase “V’nirtza lo L’chapair alav” (“it shall be accepted for Him to forgive”).The Hebrew root chapair means “atonement” or “purging away sin” or “reconciliation to restore the sense of close relationship”.
Nechama Leibowitz surveys how commentators understood this phrasing:
o Ramban offers a number of approaches. The Torah may mean that the worshipper shall return and be reconciled to Him (God) through the medium of the korban. Or it could mean that the sin will be “paid off” or “atoned for” by him (Man). Alternately, it may mean that it (the sin) shall become acceptable to Him (i.e., pardoned by God).
o Rabbi Y.Z. Mecklenburg, in his Ha-ketav Ve-hakabalah thinks the phrasing means that the act of bringing a korban will inspire Man to purify himself, to make amends, to confess and show remorse. A korban does not automatically bring forgiveness from God. The offering is a symbolic representation of a person’s desire to repent and reconnect with God.
The phrase “Olah eeshay rayach nechoach lashem” (“a burnt offering by fire of a sweet smell unto God”) seems to mean that, like humans, God can be pleased with and influenced by the appetizing smell of roast meat! How is that possible?
Ibn Ezra understands the phrase to mean that the worshipper is acceptable to God, in the same way a man is pleased by a sweet smell.
Professor Umberto Cassuto sees the phrasing as a metaphor alluding to God’s acceptance and approval of the inner intentions (gratitude/repenting) of the one bringing the korban.
Rav E. Ashkenazi in Maasei Ha-shem notes that smell is among (if not the) most sensitive of our five senses. When one “smells something is in the air” it means he senses that something is about to happen. God’s “Smelling the Korban” is a poetic way of stating that He already senses the positive changes the worshipper will make in advance of its happening.
Korbanot Differences in Parshat Vayikrah and Parshat Tzav
Rabbi Menachem Leibtag offers us an insightful explanation and helpful outline for understand the variations in order and detail.
Both parshiot deal with the individual (as opposed to communal) offerings. Parshat Vayikrah speaks to the Jewish people “If an individual among you wishes to offer a Korban…” then provides a listing of which korban is to be offered and for what reason. Those that are voluntary (n’dava) are presented first, followed by those that are obligatory (i.e., chova, in the event a person sins).
… Are arranged by category and type of animal. The individual brings an offering of his own choosing either an animal that is burnt entirely on the altar or flour or an animal that he can share the eating of with the kohanim.
• Entirely burnt on the Altar(except for the hide)
• From male cattle, sheep or fowl
• Representing total submission to God
Mincha unleavened flour offering with frankincense and oil. The donor selects from one of the five different options for how to bake the bread.
• Shallow fried
• Three-finger fistful burnt on the Altar
• Remainder eaten by the kohanim
Shlamim (meaning peace or complete)
• Select fatty portions burned on the altar
• Shared and eaten by the kohanim and the owner
• From cattle, sheep(male or female) or goats
• Represents thanks or gratitude to God
… Are arranged by type of transgression committed.
Chatat (sin offering)…
o For unintentional sins committed through carelessness in violating any Torah prohibition that is punishable with karet had it been done intentionally
o Eaten by the kohanim
o Chatat of High Priest (bull)
o Chatat of Communal (Sanhedrin)
o Chatat of Leader (male goat)
o Chatat of citizen (she goat or lamb)
Asham (guilt offering; always a ram) for…
Unintentionally misappropriating Temple property for personal use
Possibly violating a commandment
Acting deceitfully against God by lying about an item deposited for safekeeping
Acting deceitfully against God by dealing falsely with fellow man regarding a business deal
Acting deceitfully against God by lying about robbery
Acting deceitfully against God by withholding wages
Acting deceitfully against God by finding a lost object and denying it
Parshat Tzav speaks to the kohanim: “Command Aaron and his sons saying this is the ritual for bringing the olah…” and then lists each type of korban from the highest level of sanctity to the lowest. Each section describing a different category of korban begins with the phrase zot torat, which means “this is the procedure”.
Parshat Tzav teaches the mechanics of, and procedures for, each offering. It makes no distinction between the voluntary and the obligatory. The kohayn serves as an emissary of the individual bringing the offering, and the procedures that only he can do are also included in Parshat Vayikra. The person bringing the animal offering places his hands on the animal’s head and presses down all his weight in a symbolic action of transferring his identity to the animal. It communicates that it is he that deserves be brought as an offering, not the animal. After the owner places his hands on the animal head the animal is slaughtered (which can be done by an individual) and then the rest of the service (Avodah)--collecting the blood, sprinkling it on the walls at the Altar, preparing and then bringing the animal onto the altar for burning-- is performed by the kohayn as representative of the individual. Certain details are included in both parshiot because they must be known by both the kohanim and by the individual.
The internal order of the list of voluntary offerings in this week’s parsha is based on how much of the offering is consumed on the Altar. Olah, totally burnt, is followed by Mincha which is either totally or partly burnt and the remainder eaten by the Kohanim. The blood and fat of Chatat and Asham are offered on the Altar and the meat is eaten by kohanim (as a gift from God, not the owner).
Shlamim meat is eaten by the owners after the blood and fat are offered on the Altar and after the thigh and breast are given to the kohanim. This kodshim kalim (lower level of holiness) offerings like Shlamim can be eaten anywhere in the camp --in contrast to the previous offerings that are considered to be of a higher level of holiness and can only be eaten in the courtyard of the Mishkan (and only by kohanim).
Korbanot in the Future
We pray daily for the speedy restoration of the Temple’s sacrificial service and note the service’s connection to Jewish nationalism and independence. Even Rambam the rationalist predicts that in the days of the Messiah, “all korbanot will again be offered.”
The reason for this may be that the most profound aspect of korbanot is Man’s ongoing effort to build and maintain a relationship with God and to ultimately bond and feel united with fellow Man. That is what we yearn and pray for. Also, I think that during prayer what we are expressing is our desire to emote and to experience the powerful emotions that inspired the people bringing korbanot.
Stu Dubner notes that it was desirable to restrict animal killing to a controlled environment (Mishkan or Temple) where relationship-building is the primary goal. This limitation will be as necessary in the future as it was then.
Some critics of korbanot think that these “barbaric” ceremonies conflict with “humaneness.” However, it is worth noting that it is in Judaism alone that there exists an unequivocal prohibition of bloodshed, blood consumption and violent orgiastic ritual. As noted, korbanot are about rechanneling aggressive pagan and idolatrous behavior and about building and strengthening relationships. Is it possible that societies that lack understanding of the rationale for and practice of animal offerings are the ones experiencing a return to primitive (and perhaps not so unconscious) murderous behavior???
The Torah on Relationships
The first two Books of the Torah are devoted to the maturation of the nation of Israel from early roots of Mankind through the family sagas which culminated in the formation of a nation. In Sefer Shemos we learn how the “adult” nation struggled in defining its relationship with God. But relationships require a conscious effort and hard work if they are to continue. Sefer Vayikrah presents us with the behavioral rules for living that are critical in nurturing and expanding this connection.
These rules also are applicable to human relationships. When adults mature, marry and build a home (like the Mishkan for the nation) some of the repeated notions are pertinent. In the home there must exist…
Korban-- drawing close to each other and sometimes sacrificing for each other
Tamid--constancy and consistency
Shlamim --peace and a sense of wholeness
rayach nechoach --a sweetness that permeates the home
“Vayikrah el Moshe”
The first verse in the Parsha reads “He [God] called to Moshe [“Vayikrah el Moshe”] .God spoke to him from within the Tent of Meeting, saying. Speak to the children of Israel and say to them…”
Whenever God spoke to Moshe He first called out to him by name [Vayikrah] because of His deep affection for Moshe. [The word Vayikrah is an expression of caring, according to Rashi.]
Rabbi Sacks sees in the wording a message that we each have a calling in life that gives our life meaning, which is something that we often get by helping others. Vayikrah is about sacrifices we often make in the course of experiencing that which we feel we were meant to do. Concludes Rabbi Sacks, “Where what we want to do meets what needs to be done, that is where God wants us to be.”
“God spoke to him from within the Tent of Meeting”, but the Israelites could not hear because, according to Rashi, the sound of the voice was restricted to “within the Tent of Meeting”. Professor Yehoshua Leibowitz( brother of Nechama Leibowitz) thinks that God’s booming voice extended beyond the Tent of Meeting but because the people had not prepared themselves to embrace God as Moshe had, they were incapable of hearing the divine communication.
The Hebrew word Vayikra is written, in an unusual manner with a small letter aleph at the end of the word. The Ba’al Haturim explains that without the letter aleph the word is vayikar, which denotes happenstance, a chance meeting. The humble Moshe preferred to view his relationship with God this. God told Moshe to write Vayikra with an aleph, communicating a warm feeling and closeness. Moshe suggested a compromise to write Vayikra with a small aleph. The small letter draws our attention to both the role of compromise and to Moshe’s character. It reminds us of the need to diminish our own ego and act with humility. Aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew word for “me” (ani; anochi).We need to minimize our egos if we are to make room for the divine to become part of us. Having an inflated ego is as if one is usurping He who is One.
Shadal speculates that the small aleph reflects scribal technique. Early on when the last letter of a word was the same as the first letter of the following word, the scribe would write one character to serve for both. At a later time when the words started to be written separately, one of them was written in a smaller size to draw our attention to the fact that it did not originally appear in the Text that way. This, according to Rabbi J.H. Hertz, demonstrates again “the profound reverence with which the Sacred Text was guarded by the Scribes”.