Re-evaluating Animal Sacrifices

It’s that time of year again…

For those who keep up with the weekly Torah portions, you would know that we are already a few weeks deep into the book of Leviticus  (Vayikra).  When I was a senior in high school I remember that I tried to read every Parsha in the Torah, week by week.  Although I had been in a Jewish day school, summer camp, and community for my entire life I had never actually read the Torah cover to cover (I was too busy spending month after month on the same 3 lines of Talmud).

In the first book and a half you get all the classic stories that we can talk about for hours at a time.  Who doesn’t want to discuss interesting topics such as the morality of the Akeda or the historicity of the Exodus.  I remember being upset that some of the Parshiot were too long for me to properly research every topic, story, and detail that arises throughout these juicy stories.

Then something horrible happens.

After leaving Egypt the Jews are lead through the desert to Mount Sinai, and eventually commanded to build the Mishkan – or tabernacle – which would dominate Jewish practice for over 1,000 years.  The Torah goes into immense detail regarding the building and worship that would take place in the Mishkan.  Archaic laws of sacrifice and ritual purity coming to dominate the verses.

Besides for the obvious downside that the current Parshiot, with there many laws, are much less interesting than their Biblical stories counterparts, I feel that they present a major problem for many thinking Jews.

Lets start with a short thought experiment…

Imagine the second that you finish reading this blog post (and share it with all your friends) Moshiach comes.  Yup.  Moshiach arrives and immediately you and your family begin making plans to move to Israel.  The Temple is speedily rebuilt (we do pray for this multiple times a day) and sacrifices continue.  On the temple mount animals are being brought on a consistent basis throughout the day, priests are spending a few weeks out of the year slaughtering and sprinkling blood, and I, as a Levi, am singing Psalms while this is happening (well maybe I would be a gate guard).  Judaism quickly changes back to a religion obsessed with temple ritual.  Instead of spending Pesach at your nice Miami apartment, you would be filtered into the temple with your lamb waiting your turn to have a priest help you sacrifice.  Need help imagining?  Here is a video of the Summarians who actually to this day have continued sacrificing animals on Mount Grezim in Israel.

Do we want this?

Besides for the ironic fact that half the Shemona Esrei is literally begging God to reinstate these things, I would answer NO, we do not want this.  The entire idea of ritual sacrifices makes us feel uneasy, and it should.  Do we really believe that our most ideal way to connect to God is through slaughtering animals?

Looking through classical Jewish literature, we immediately see the negative reaction to sacrifices from prophets, Rabbis, and philosophers. I wish to argue that sacrifice was always seen, at least by some percentage of the population, as a less than ideal way to serve God.

When Isaiah begins rebuking the Jews for their lack of social compassion he starts off by talking about the worthlessness of sacrifices.

To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me? saith the LORD; I am full of the burnt-offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats…Bring no more vain oblations; it is an offering of abomination unto Me (Isaiah 1, 11-13)

Isaiah is saying that all these animal sacrifices are intrinsically worthless to God if they are not helping inspire the Jews to act in a more compassionate manner.  In this famous passage Isaiah seems to contradict, or at the very least undermine, the Torah with its emphasis on sacrifice. From a pure reading of the Torah one would probably conclude that animal sacrifices are an objectively good thing to do.  Isaiah strongly counters this idea and tells the Jews that the goal is to serve God via compassion not sacrifice.

As we move on chronologically this same idea becomes increasingly prevalent.

In a verse that has baffled Bible scholars for thousands of years, Jeremiah actually posits that God never commanded the Jews to sacrifice animals.

For I spoke not unto your fathers, nor commanded them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt-offerings or sacrifices;(Jeremiah 7:22)

This is a much more radical opinion than Isaiah.  Jeremiah is saying that God had never spoken to the Jews regarding sacrifices.  While there is much interesting Biblical criticism on this verse, that is beyond the scope of what I wish to discuss, we see that Jeremiah found the idea of sacrifices to be so negative that he could not conceive that God would command them.  Try mentioning at the Shabbat table this week that God never commanded animal sacrifice and see how many weird responses you receive.

Jeremiah and Isaiah are not even the most radical prophets against slavery.  In my opinion Ezekiel, the Exillic prophet, suggests that certain types of sacrifices were commanded to Israel as a punishment for their wrongdoings.

Because they had not executed Mine ordinances, but had rejected My statutes, and had profaned My sabbaths, and their eyes were after their fathers’ idols.  Wherefore I gave them also statutes that were not good, and ordinances whereby they should not live; (Ezekiel 20:24-25)

Ezekiel states that certain statues and ordinances given to the Israelites by God were purposely designed as bad.   Now to be honest, most scholars take the last line in the above quote as some positive proof that the Jews were practicing child sacrifice in the days of Ezekiel (there seems to have been a big debate amongst the ancient Israelites regarding whether or not God wants child sacrifice ).  However I think that the “statutes that were not good” probably refers to other types of sacrifices, i.e. animals.  In this reading Ezekiel is writing that the entire system of sacrifice is not only not an objective good (like Isaiah) and not neutral (like Jeremiah),  but it is actually “bad” in the eyes of God.

So far we have reviewed over the critiques of sacrifice by Biblical prophets and writer, concluding that most of the prophets actually abhorred the idea of animal sacrifice.   Next week I want to go over many of the post-Biblical opinions adversity to sacrifice, ultimately discussing how we as modern Jews can think about the entire system of sacrifice.

To conclude this article however, I do not think that it makes sense for us to continue longing for sacrifices.  This makes things quite difficult because, as stated above, the ideas of reinstating animal sacrifice dominants our prayers.  I personally read these prayers as more metaphorical, meaning that when I pray Mussaf on Shabbat I am not wishing that one day we can offer up additional offerings on this day, but rather since it is Shabbat I must offer up more of myself than I would on a normal day.


6 thoughts on “Re-evaluating Animal Sacrifices

  1. 22 For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices. 23 But this is what I commanded them, saying, ‘Obey My voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be My people. And walk in all the ways that I have commanded you, that it may be well with you.’

    So troubling is the above to Christian theology, that the New International Version (NIV) of Jer 7:22, 23, adds an extra word to the translation which the Hebrew does not support:

    22 For when I brought your ancestors out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not just give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices, 23 but I gave them this command: Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in obedience to all I command you, that it may go well with you.

    The extra word ‘just’, parachuted into the NIV translation of verse 22 gives the reverse idea that G-d did command the Israelites to offer sacrifices and burnt offerings for sins in stark contrast to the man initiated sacrifices found in the Torah (prior to Sinai) without reference to sin! Moreover, the ‘but’of verse 23 renders verse 22 in the NIV illogical!


  2. Awesome. Well informed and thoughtful. I especially like the conclusion you’ve drawn as to the personal meaning of the additional Musaf prayer on Shabbat and Holidays, I’ll be keeping that “chap” in mind this Shabbat 😀


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