Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va-Yikra 5762/March 16, 2002

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
Prepared for Internet Publication by the Center for IT & IS Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il


Parashat Va-Yikra 5762/March 16, 2002

Study and Sacrifices

Rabbi Dr. Jeffrey Woolf
Naftal-Yaffe Department of Talmud

Why, Rabbi Jose asked, are young children taught Leviticus first, in the curriculum of the Rabbis, and not Genesis? Because, as the Holy One blessed be He said, just as the sacrifices are pure, so young children are pure; let pure youngsters study subjects that are pure.[1]
This midrash reflects the importance ascribed by the Sages to studying sacrificial rites in the era after the destruction of the Temple. By continuing to delve into this topic, they hoped to allay the sorrow caused by destruction of the Temple and alleviate the sense of spiritual helplessness that ensued from the disappearance of the rituals that had bound Jews to their Father in Heaven.[2] Making the subject of sacrifice the first topic in the curriculum of young children was intended to impress upon them the importance of sacrificial worship and to channel hopes for rebuilding the Temple into constructive activity.[3]

Nevertheless, study of laws of the Temple and sacrificial worship did not fare well over the years.[4] Quite the contrary, by the beginning of the Middle Ages the world of Jewish learning showed a clear trend towards what one might call "pragmatism." The subjects of study shrunk to those commandments in current practice. Entire orders of Mishnah-- Zeraim, Kodashim, and Toharot --were neglected. This is reflected in the Halakhot of Rabbi Isaac Alfasi (1013-1103), whose summary of Talmudic law skips over all subjects that were thought to be "halakhot for the times of the Messiah." Alfasi's book (known as Talmud Katan) to a large extent determined the direction that study would take in subsequent generations (at least in the Jewish communities of Spain and Provence).[5] Things reached such an extreme that Rabbi Menahem Ha-Meiri (southern France, early 14th century) complained bitterly that "the three latter [orders of Mishnah] have become totally neglected."[6]

Not everyone viewed this development as negative. Many Jewish rabbis in the Middle Ages (again, primarily in Spain) feared that if too much attention were given to theoretical subjects, including the three above-mentioned sedarim, it would adversely affect a person's spiritual strength.[7] For example, Rabbenu Bahya ibn Pakuda had the following to say on this matter:[8]

One of the hakhamim was asked an esoteric question in the realm of divorce law, to which he responded: You, Sir, are asking about something that would in no way harm us if we did not know the answer; but do you know all that you should regarding the commandments that you are not entitled to ignore, and concerning which it is unbefitting for you to sin, that you turn to other questions that will bring you no improvement in your knowledge of Torah and faith, and will in no way amend that which is crooked in your soul?

The response by Rabbi Bahya, a dayan from Saragossa, is extremely significant. Note especially that he was critical not only of studying commandments that were not in current practice, but also of being overly speculative in the study of subjects that were indeed relevant to the times (such as Jewish divorce law). In other words, this dayan from Saragossa came out against the very sort of Jewish "study for its own sake" that in the 19th and 20th centuries would take over the entire world of the Yeshivot. His main argument was that study of the Halakhah that does not go hand in hand with spiritual development is not of enduring value. Therefore, even though it is obligatory to study those sections of the Talmud that pertain to commandments in current practice, one is not to exert intellectual and spiritual energy delving into the above-mentioned kind of questions. Rather one should put time and energy into commandments of faith, which are the "duties of the heart" (and the name of Bahya's book).[9] This appeal by Rabbenu Bahya fell on willing and supportive ears especially among philosophers and kabbalists, who sought a balance between halakhic and Talmudic studies on the one hand and spiritual matters on the other.[10]

There were, however, those who thought otherwise and not only advocated theoretical Talmudic studies, but actually emphasized study of those parts of the Halakhah that are not current. The leading spokesman on this subject, as on almost all other subjects, was Maimonides, who strenuously objected to making an artificial distinction between commandments that were practiced when the Temple stood and those current in his day. Therefore, in his magnum opus, Mishneh Torah, he included all the commandments found in the Torah.[11] His particular attitude to the commandments in Seder Kodashim is voiced in his commentary on the Mishnah:[12]

The Sages who deal with the halakhot of sacrificial worship are considered as if the Temple were built in their day; therefore it behooves a person to delve into the details of sacrifice, and let it not be said that these are unnecessary matters in our time, as most people say.

A similar attitude prevailed among the rabbis of the early yeshivot of Ashkenaz and their heirs, the Tosafists. An important representative of this group, Rabbi Moses ben Jacob of Coucy (author of Sefer Mitzvot Gadol, active in the 13th century), wrote as follows:

There are many people who say, "What have the commandments of Seder Kodashim to do with us?" and all the more so, the commandments of Zeraim and of Seder Tohorot, which pertain to things that are not practiced today. One should not speak thus, for the fundamentals of the commandments that the Lord of the Universe gave should be known even if they are not needed at present. For we were commanded to teach all the commandments (Deut. 11:19), and it is said, "Observe (sh-m-r) all the Instruction that I enjoin upon you this day" (Deut. 27:1), and it is said, "You shall faithfully observe (sh-m-r) My commandments" (Lev. 22:31). From this we learn that observing the commandments and performing them are two different things, for observing is done in none other than the heart, as it is said: "It is good that you store them (sh-m-r) inside you, and that all of them be constantly on your lips" (Prov. 22:18). Indeed, thus said our Sages: You shall observe this Instruction and perform these things to be done.[13]

At first glance, it appears that Rabbi Moses of Coucy agreed with Maimonides,[14] but on closer examination we see that they disagreed on one crucial point. As a philosopher, Maimonides believed that only through studying the Torah in its entirety and subjecting it to philosophical analysis could one attain ultimate human perfection and be worthy of the World to Come.[15] Thus it follows that studying Seder Kodashim is but a necessary step on the way to achieving the final objective, namely intellectual understanding of the commandments contained therein.[16] This is apparently what Maimonides had in mind when he spoke of the need to study the subject thoroughly, i.e., to enter a philosophic discussion of the subject (in addition to purely halakhic investigation).

Rabbi Moses of Coucy, on the other hand, aspired to something quite different. In his opinion, we are commanded to know all the Instructions irrespective of their relationship to our ability to implement them. This knowledge itself represents the highest level of worship of the Lord.[17] In other words, according to him studying the halakhah answers the need for guidance in performing the commandments and also constitutes the spiritual experience that underlies Jewish faith. Almost six centuries later, Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin would dub this approach "Torah for its own sake," arguing that the most intimate connection with the Lord could be forged precisely by study of subjects divested of current relevance.[18] Little wonder that study of Seder Kodashim has been resurrected in those yeshivot that were established on the inspiration of the work of Rabbi Hayyim.


[1] Pesikta de Rav Kahana (Mandelbaum ed.) Ch. 6, s.v. (c) "ata tzuveta" and many parallel variants.
[2] This endeavor was related to the Sages' attempt to make study of the halakhah on sacrifice a substitute for sacrificial worship itself, as is proven by this midrash. The most prominent figure in this undertaking was Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai, as set forth by Gedaliah Alon in "Rabban Johanan B. Zakkai's Removal to Jabneh," Jews, Judaism and the Classical World, trans. I. Abrahams, Jerusalem 1977, pp. 269-313, and also in "The Patriarchate of Rabban Johanan Ben Zakkai," ibid., pp. 314-343. Cf. also Shmuel Safrai, "Behinot Hadashot le-Ba'ayat Ma'amado u-Ma'asav shel Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai le-Ahar ha-Hurban," Sefer ha-Zikaron le-Gedalyahu Alon: Mehkarim be-Toldot Yisrael uva-lashon ha-'ivrit, ed. M. Dorman et al., Tel Aviv, 1970, pp. 203-226.
[3] Cf. Babylonian Talmud, Kritot 9a on Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai's ruling regarding offerings of proselytes.
[4] This is notwithstanding the fact that we have a Seder Kodashim in the Babylonian Talmud, unlike the case of the mishnayot of Seder Zeraim and Toharot, which do not even have that (save for the tractates of Berakhot and Niddah).
[5] This was not the case in Ashkenaz, at least until the mid-13th century, where a different attitude was taken toward the Talmud and the rise of the school of the Tosafists. Nevertheless, a similar trend emerged there, as well, albeit somewhat later.
[6] Beit ha-Behirah on Tractate Berakhot, ed. Dickman, Jerusalem 1968, p. 32.
[7] Cf. the discussion by I. Twersky, "Halakic Pragmatism and Spirituality" in his Introduction to the Code of Maimonides (Mishneh Torah), 1980, pp. 195-204.
[8] Sefer Hovot ha-Levavot, Preface.
[9] In this regard, recall the famous remark by Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra that if everyone were to act properly we could do without large portions of Seder Nezikin. Cf. Sefer Yesod Mora, ch. 1.
[10] Among them one should note R. Eleazar ben Judah of Worms (author of Sefer Ha-Rokeah), R. Elijah ben Moses de Vidas, R. Joseph ibn Caspi, R. Isaiah ben Abraham ha-Levi Horowitz (Ha-Shelah), Ramahal, and others. The subject is discussed in greater detail in I. Twersky, "Religion and Law", Religion in a Religious Age, ed. S. D. Goitein, Cambridge, MA 1974, pp. 69-82.
[11] Maimonides remarks on the all-inclusive nature of his work on several occasions. For a more detailed discussion, cf. Twersky, Introduction, pp. 204-208.
[12] Maimonides' Commentary on the Mishnah, Menahot 13.11.
[13] Cf. Sifra, Kedoshim .
[14] On the basis of his Mishneh Torah he constructed his Sefer ha-Mitzvot ha-Gadol. See my article, "Maimonides Revised: The Case of the Miswot Gadol," Harvard Theological Review 90 (1997), 175-205.
[15] Cf. Hilkhot Me'ilah, Ch. 8, halakhah 8, and Guide to the Perplexed, III.26-32
[16] Cf. Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah, Ch. 8, halakhah 4.
[17] See my article above, and the recent research work of Judah Galinsky, "Perek be-Haguto ha-Datit shel Rabbi Moshe mi-Coucy," Da'at 42 (1999), 23-25.
[18] Cf. Sefer Nefesh ha-Hayyim, 4.1-10.