The main topic of the book of Vayikra (Leviticus) is the korbanos, sacrificial service. This is a topic that is generally poorly understood and one that is often surrounded by misconceptions. There are several reasons that misconceptions are so common in this area. Perhaps the most basic difficulty is that the Jewish people have not been able to perform the sacrificial service for close to two thousand years. As such, we have no real way of relating to what that service was actually like.

This problem, which is a big enough problem in its own right, is exacerbated by another problem, which is all too common even in areas of Jewish life that are still part of daily practice. This is the tendency to interpret Jewish practices and concepts in non-Jewish terms. Living as we do, and in varying degrees have been since the destruction of the First Temple, in an environment dominated by non-Jewish cultures, it is difficult, even when aware of the problem, to avoid this tendency. And if it is difficult for us to avoid interpreting basic, commonplace Jewish concepts (such as prayer, spirituality, faith, or even the basic concept of religion) in purely Jewish terms, then it certainly is not surprising that we have difficulty with concepts that have not seen concrete expression for thousands of years. Often, even the very terminology is a problem, in that there are no English (more specifically, non-Hebrew) words that properly convey the intent of these concepts in Judaism.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) addresses this issue in connection to the korbanos early on in his commentary on Vayikra (1:2):

It is most regrettable that we have no word that really expresses the idea that lies in the word “korban.” The unfortunate use of the term “sacrifice” implies the idea of giving up something that is of value to oneself for the benefit of another, or of having to do without something of value, ideas which are not only entirely absent from the nature and idea of a korban but are diametrically opposed to it.

Also the underlying idea of “offering” makes it by no means an adequate expression for korban. The idea of an offering presupposes a wish, a desire, a requirement for what is brought, on the part of the one to whom it is brought, which is satisfied by the “offering.” Once can not get away from the idea of a gift, a present.

But the idea of a korban is far away from all this. It is never used for a present or gift; it is used exclusively with reference to Man’s relation to G-d, and can only be understood from the meaning that lies in its root קרב .קרב means to approach, to come near, and so to get into close relationship with somebody. … The object and purpose of hakrava (making a korban) [is] the attainment of a higher sphere of life. … The makriv (person making a korban) desires that something of himself should come into closer relationship to G-d, that is what korban is. … It is kirvas Elokim, nearness to G-d, which is striven for by a korban.

The function of the korbanos, then, was to bring us closer to G-d. This itself may seem odd to many of us. The korbanos, after all, mainly involved the highly ritualized slaughter and cooking of animals. It was, if you will, a “holy barbecue,” the very phrasing of which expresses the incongruity that the korbanos present to the modern mind, for, while most of us enjoy barbecues, we tend not to associate them with holiness. This perceived incongruity really epitomizes the disconnect that we often have from a genuinely Jewish perspective. One of the most basic lessons of Judaism is that there is no fundamental divide between the physical and the spiritual. On the contrary, our task in this world is to sanctify every aspect of our “mundane,” material lives; to find holiness, closeness with G-d, in everything we do, even the most ordinary.

In Judaism, ordinary activities like waking up in the morning and getting dressed, eating a meal or snack, and even going to the bathroom are transformed into religious activities, each with its own associated rituals and prayers. The Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 34:3) tells us that Hillel the Elder saw bathing as a form of Divine service. Maimonides (Shemoneh Perakim 5) describes, at some length, how everything we do, including the acquisition of secular knowledge and the enjoyment of aesthetic pleasure (such as listening to music or taking a walk in the park), can and should be directed toward the goal of coming to know and love G-d.

While there are certainly many deep and profound lessons in the korbanos, a topic that is discussed at great length in many of the commentaries, I believe that it is this very point that may well be the most basic lesson that the korbanos are intended to teach us. As the Talmud (Brachos 63a) states, “What is a small verse upon which all the basics of the Torah depend? ‘Know Him in all your ways.'” (Proverbs 3:6). The Sages teach us that a true understanding of the entire Torah, i.e., of the purpose of our existence and of the creation of the universe, is based on the recognition that every aspect of human life can and should be used to bring us closer to G-d. The korbanos teach us that even the most mundane of activities- and there are few more superficially “unspiritual” places than a slaughterhouse- can be transformed into the highest form of Divine service. This apparently simple idea has the ability to entirely transform our lives, changing even the most “boring” and “ordinary” daily activities into the equivalent of the priestly service in the Holy Temple.

Rabbi Eliezer C. Abrahamson

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1 Comment
  • Abba Hoover

    Korbanos were designed by Hashem. They became corrupted (after the destruction on the temples) by the Kohen, who often purchased their positions & regulated the sale of ritual animals as well as consumed much of the flesh.

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