“One who learns the Torah of the burnt-offering is like one who brought the burnt-offering.” [1] 

     This week’s parshah is “Tzav.” Much of the material in it has to do with different types of animal-offerings and how they were to be done.

    “Korban” [קרבן; pl. korbanot/קרבנות] is a Hebrew word for an offering: first brought to the Mishkan; later to the Temples. It comes from the root [קרב], which means to “come near” or “approach.” It’s an important word to know.

      The korbanot, or offerings — of which there were numerous categories — usually involved the sacrifice of a bull, a sheep, or a goat. When one could not afford these, a dove or even a handful of grain fulfilled the requirement. Animal sacrifice could only be done in the Temple, and was discontinued with the de-struction of the Second Temple almost 2000 years ago. [2] If and/or when a Third Temple would be built, they’d presumably be reinstated (a topic of much understandable debate).
     I must digress for a moment, to respectfully acknowledge the intense aversion that the topic of animal-sacrifice provokes in many – possibly most – people today. It did for me, at one time, too. For some, it’s almost too uncomfortable to discuss at all. Also, the scrupulous attention Torah gives to its details can make it more difficult to read than more narrative sections.

     Yet, “sacrifice” is a major element in Jewish tradition, even in the absence of the Temple; even up until today. Three of our major holidays — Pesach, Sh’vuot and Sukkot — were originally “pilgrimage” festivals, which required Israelites to come to the Mishkan, later to the Temple in Jerusalem, from wherever they were. Many of our prayers and blessings derive their purpose and function from the sacrificial services. Most synagogues still divide the aliyot of the Torah-reading by giving the first two to “kohen” and “levi” — meaningless without reference to the Temple and what they did there. Even the word “service” itself — which today refers to the prayers said in the synagogue — was originally “avodah,” referring to the sacrificial “service” in the Temple.

     This piece advocates neither for nor against the practice itself. Rather, it advocates that we develop greater knowledge of the sacrifices, to have  greater appreciation of their influence on our religious practices today. Our current forms of worship are based on Temple-sacrifice, maintain its essence and continue in its spirit.  Whether or not we personally desire that the Temple be rebuilt and/or that the korbanot be reinstated, familiarity with them adds a whole new – and necessary – level of meaning to our contemporary religious practices.

     Also, as the Ba’al ha-Turim, and the Talmud before him, said: Reciting and learning about the sacrifices can, for now, stand in place of doing them. This shows how important they were: Doing them was critical to the rabbis, and they went (almost) to extremes to impress that importance on us. I believe, then, that this knowledge can be valuable for us. Having taught classes and workshops on this, I can also say that many students were surprised by how relevant it is, and how much more meaningful many familiar obervances became after their study was finished.

     So, as we enter this and other parshahs that are concerned with sacrifices, I suggest that we use it as a chance to become familiar with the details and, at the same time, relate them to our current practices.

     Future posts will review some of the details, and some of the meaning that the rabbis derived from them.

[1] Ba’al ha-Turim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher; 1270-ca 1340)  on Lev. 6:2
[2] Useful charts comparing the various sacrifices can be found in the back of the Stone Chumash; Art Scroll Publications.