Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va-Yikra 5770/ March 20, 2010

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The Laws of Sacrifice in Leviticus

Menahem ben-Yashar

Ashkelon College

Institute for Jewish Biblical Exegesis, Bar Ilan University


The second part of Exodus, chapters 25 through 40 (with the exception of chapters 32-34, that deal with the sin of the golden calf and its ramifications), is all about building the Tabernacle and preparing its implements.  Leviticus from the outset concerns itself throughout with the spiritual content of the Tabernacle:   how do we worship the Lord in the Tabernacle [1] and maintain its purity.  A connection is made between the two books by not beginning Leviticus with a completely independent sentence.  The initial phrase, va-yikra el Moshe (= And [G-d] called to Moses) lacks a subject.  Who called?   Some hold that the subject is to be found at the end of the book of Exodus:  “the Presence of the Lord” (Ex. 40:35) or “cloud of the Lord” (Ex. 40:38), on account of which Moses could not enter the Tent (Ex. 40:35) until the Lord had summoned him. [2]

One might expect the laws of sacrifice in Leviticus to begin with the fixed obligatory sacrifices – the regular and additional offerings, especially the daily offering which was already stated in Ex. 29:42-44:

A regular burnt offering throughout the generations … For there … I will meet with the Israelites, and it shall be sanctified by My Presence.   I will sanctify the Tent of Meeting and the altar, and I will consecrate Aaron and his sons to serve Me as priests.   I will abide among the Israelites and I will be their God.

This paragraph makes the regular daily burnt offering and fixed obligatory service the basis for the Lord dwelling amidst the Israelites in the Tabernacle – on the national level.  However, fearing the Lord and worshipping Him are a personal matter for each individual, and therefore the laws of sacrifice begin with the words, “When any person [Heb. adam] wishes to make an offering from amongst you [Heb. mi-kem] to the Lord, you shall make your offering of an animal, from the herd or from the flock” (Lev. 1:2). [3]   Note that this concerns any person who has an inner urge to voluntarily present an offering to the Lord.

This verse places in apposition the person ( adam) and the animal, perhaps hinting that if a person wishes to literally make an offering " from amongst you", i.e., wishes to present a human offering, as was customary among the gentiles as an expression of the most lofty religious sentiments, then he may only offer an animal – from the herd or the flock (see Hizkuni on this verse).  Thus an animal is offered in place of a human, and the person presenting the offering will have in mind as if he were offering himself or his son. [4]   This motif calls to mind the binding of Isaac (Gen. 22):  the father of our nation and our faith was commanded, as a test, to sacrifice his son, but the Lord prevented him from doing so, providing him a ram which he could sacrifice “as a burnt offering in place of his son” (Gen. 22:13). [5]   For good reason the author of Chronicles (II, 3:1) identifies the location of Solomon’s Temple with Mount Moriah, where the binding of Isaac took place, [6] since in so doing the binding of Isaac becomes a foundation and precedent for the offerings that will be given in the Temple.

When Scripture says, “Speak to the Israelite people,” and immediately thereafter, “When any of you presents an offering” (Lev. 1:2), this ostensibly means that only Israelites may present voluntary offerings in the Tent of Meeting.  The Sages, however, in their mode of derash, read the verse to mean that one could accept voluntary offerings from gentiles. [7]   Perhaps the word adam is an indication that any person is meant.   Indeed, thus we find in Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the Temple (I Kings 8:12-53).  He mentions groups of Israelites praying in "that House" or offering supplication through that House in time of trouble.  The Lord will hear them and will mete out to them what they deserve; but when the foreigner coming from afar (I Kings 8:41-43) “comes to pray toward this House,” then the Lord will grant all that he asks for so that “all the peoples of the earth will know Your name and revere You, as does Your people Israel” (I Kings 8:43).  In other words, the prayers of the gentiles receive preferential treatment over those of Israel.

Instead of using the word adam, "any person," as we just saw with reference to offering animal sacrifices, with sin offerings the word nefesh, "a soul," is used (Lev. 4:2, 27), also for guilt offerings (Lev. 5:1, 14, 17, 20) and meal offerings (Lev. 2:1).  With sin offerings and guilt offerings we can easily understand the choice of word nefesh, for these serve as expiation for the soul.  Regarding the meal offering, which is an offering from the plant world, the explanation used for animal offerings – the soul of the animal in place of the human soul, the blood of the animal in place of human blood – does not seem to work.   Therefore the Torah introduces the law regarding meal offerings with the word nefesh, soul, since such offerings are generally brought by the poor who cannot afford animal offerings.  For the poor person an offering from the plant world will be considered as if he had offered a soul in place of his own soul. The amora, Rabbi Isaac, said:  the Holy One, blessed be He, views the meal offering of the poor person as if he were offering his very own soul. [8]

It has been noted by biblical exegetes [9] that the array of laws concerning individual offerings, set forth in the beginning of the book of Leviticus, is comprised of two units:

  1. Chapters 1-5, the sidra of Va-Yikra, which deal in a general way with the laws of sacrifice and stress the status of the person bringing the offering:   that the sacrifice is accepted by the Lord (Lev. 1:3), is considered a pleasing odor to the Lord, [10] and that sin and guilt offerings achieve pardon for the person bringing the offering. [11]   This unit, significantly, begins with the words, “Speak to the Israelite people” (Lev. 1:2).
  2. Chapters 6-7, the sidra of Tzav, beginning with the words, “Command Aaron and his sons thus” (Lev. 6:2), and laying emphasis on matters concerning the priesthood, especially the parts of the sacrifice that are eaten by the priests.   Towards the end of this unit Scripture emphasizes that this eating is not merely to satisfy the appetite and please the palate, rather that it is a gift for the priest (Lev. 7:32), something which is elevated and consecrated, for they are “the perquisites of Aaron and the perquisites of his sons from the Lord’s offerings by fire” (Lev. 7:35), i.e., a sort of royal honor given them by the Lord. [12]   This unit concludes with the words, “Such are the rituals of the burnt offering, the meal offering, the sin offering, the guilt offering, the offering of ordination, and the sacrifice of well-being, with which the Lord charged Moses on/at [Heb. b-] Mount Sinai” (Lev. 7:37-38).

Even though the description of the location is ambiguous – either on the mountain [13] or at the mountain [14] – since the words "Mount Sinai" appear alongside the place description, Wilderness of Sinai, it seems that a distinction ought to be made between the two, namely:   God commanded Moses on Mount Sinai to instruct the Israelites to present their offerings in the Tent of Meeting in the Wilderness of Sinai. [15]   This interpretation is supported by the fact that the sacrifices which are listed as having been given at Mount Sinai include the ordination sacrifice.   Indeed, Moses was commanded regarding this sacrifice on Mount Sinai, during the first 40 days which he spent on the mountain being shown and learning the blueprint for the Tabernacle (Ex. 25-31) which would be built by the Israelites in the Wilderness of Sinai.

So we can say that the second unit of the laws of sacrifice was given to Moses on Mount Sinai, along with the details of the Tabernacle, but was not recorded in its place in the book of Exodus, since it did not directly concern erecting the Tabernacle.   The commandment of ordination rites was apparently written in Exodus, since it does directly concern dedication of the Tabernacle.  According to the principle that the Torah is not necessarily written in chronological sequence, [16] this section was transferred to Leviticus and incorporated there after the first section (chapters 1-5), which was conveyed to Moses in the Tent of Meeting at some later time.

We note further that the Lord’s command   to Moses at Mount Sinai, regarding erection of the Tabernacle, also included the obligation of regular daily offerings, morning and evening (Ex. 29:38-46).  Moreover, of the regular offering Scripture said forthwith, “a regular burnt offering throughout the generations, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting before the Lord. For there I will meet with you, and there I will speak with you, and there I will meet with the Israelites, and it shall be sanctified by My Presence” (Ex. 19:42-43).  In other words, the regular burnt offering sanctifies the Tent of Meeting as the place where the Lord meets with Moses and with the Israelites.

So we conclude that the law of the regular burnt offering of the community was delivered to Moses on Mount Sinai, i.e., before he received the first unit of commandments regarding sacrifices by individuals, which was told him some time later in the Tent of Meeting and which begins with the laws concerning voluntary offerings by individuals.   Thus in the Torah we have two aspects, two sets of laws as it were, concerning sacrificial worship:   the law of the communal regular burnt offering, given to Moses on Mount Sinai, prior to the laws of individual voluntary offerings and sin offerings, given him later in the Tent of Meeting. [17] This order is due to the importance of the principle of the regular burnt offering, which sanctifies the Tent of Meeting on a daily basis.   However, when the Torah relays the laws of sacrifice to us, it first presents the laws of individual voluntary offerings, beginning with this subject because of the spiritual religious importance of these offerings.  The commandment regarding the regular communal offerings is postponed in the Torah to the end of the book of Numbers (chapters 28-29), i.e., close to the time the Israelites entered the land of Israel, where they would have a fixed place of worship. [18]   Nevertheless, at least the daily regular burnt offering was made also during the period of wandering in the wilderness as a testimony (Lev. 9:17) and as stipulated in the laws of the regular burnt offerings in Numbers (28:6):  “the regular burnt offering instituted at Mount Sinai.”

[1] Bekhor-Shor and Hizkuni.

[2] For interpretations in this general direction, see Ibn Ezra, short commentary on Ex. 40:34; Ibn Ezra, long commentary on Ex. 40:35; Rashbam on Lev. 1:1; and more explicitly, Hizkuni, loc. sit., and Nahmanides’ introduction to Leviticus.  D. Z. Hoffman does not accept this syntactic reading and views the subject of “called” as being the Name of the Lord further on in the verse.   See Perush le-Sefer Va-Yikra (translated from German to Hebrew by Zvi Har-Shefer and A. Lieberman), Jerusalem 1953, p. 69.

[3] The NJPS translation – “When any of you presents an offering of cattle to the Lord” — obscures the author's idea.  Hence we have provided a more literal translation.  (Translator’s note)

[4] See Nahmanides, Lev. 1:9.

[5] See Nahshoni, Hagut be- Farshiyot ha-Torah, Vol. 2, Bnei Brak 1984, pp. 398-399.

[6] The binding of Isaac mentions the “land of Moriah,” and “on one of the heights” (Gen. 22:2), without specifying it by name.

[7] Torah Kohanim, Nedava, ch. 2.3; this also appears in Hizkuni’s commentary on the Torah, loc. sit.

[8] Menahot 104b; Rashi’s commentary on the Torah, loc. sit., cites this.

[9] Such as Rashbam, Nahmanides, and Sforno, on Lev. 6:2.

[10] Lev. 1:9, 13, 17; 2:2, 9; 3:5, 16.

[11] With regard to sin offerings, Lev. 4:20, 24, 31, 35.  With regard to guilt offerings, Lev. 5:9, 13, 18, 26.

[12] See Ibn Ezra and Hizkuni on Lev. 7:35.

[13] Such as Ex. 31:18: “When He finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai.”

[14] Numbers 28:6:  “the regular burnt offering instituted at Mount Sinai.”

[15] According to D. Tz. Hoffman (see note 3), pp. 33-41.

[16] This is not an arbitrary principle, and one must seek the reason for any specific sequence.  Here the reason would be to gather together the general principles regarding the laws of sacrifice.

[17] Of course one must ask in what order the commandments of sacrifice were given to Moses on Mount Sinai.   The listing in Leviticus 7:37 does not mention the regular burnt offering.  If it is subsumed in the “burnt offering” mentioned in this list, perhaps the regular burnt offering preceded the others.  But in Exodus 29 the commandment regarding the regular burnt offering (vv. 38-46) comes immediately after the laws of ordination (Ex. 29:1-37).   Was this the sequence in which these laws were delivered on Mount Sinai?

[18] See Nahmanides on Numbers 28:2.  The tannaim, however, said the opposite; see Torat Kohanim, Emor 10:13, Mishnah, Menahot 4.3.