Sacrificial Notes

“Sacrifice” has been an important concept in baseball since the 1880s and a Christian concept for far longer. The term came into English from Latin, via Old French, and is generally defined as giving up one thing to obtain another.

“Sacrifice” in Hebrew

The word “sacrifice” is sometimes used by English translators of the Hebrew bible, as when Noah performs a ritual action right after leaving the ark:

וַיִּבֶן נֹחַ מִזְבֵּחַ, לַיהוָה; וַיִּקַּח מִכֹּל הַבְּהֵמָה הַטְּהֹרָה, וּמִכֹּל הָעוֹף הַטָּהוֹר, וַיַּעַל עֹלֹת, בַּמִּזְבֵּחַ.
And Noah built an altar [מִזְבֵּחַ] to the LORD and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird and offered [sometimes: “sacrificed”] burnt offerings [וַיַּעַל עֹלֹת] on the altar.
–Genesis 8:20

The Hebrew word for “altar” “mizbeach מִזְבֵּחַ” is linked with “zevach זְבֵּחַ,” one word for biblical sacrifice. But the Torah also uses other words, depending on the purpose and disposition of the offering:

minchah מִנְחָה” — “gift”
olah עֱלָה” — burnt offering, from “going up,”
sh’lamim שלמים” — “complete (or peace)” offering,
chatat חטאת” — “sin” offering, and
asham אשם” — “guilt” offering.

There are also offerings known by their content: “first fruits (bikkurim)” or “wave/sheaf (omer),” for example. Probably the most general term is “korban קָרְבָּן,” from the root for “becoming near.”

“Sacrifice” in Judaism?

A Jew’s obligations to oneself, to other individuals, and to the community are myriad. Here are a few of the most general:

  • We are warned to be for ourselves as well as for others (Avot 1:14)
  • We are told that “All Israel is responsible, one for the other [Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh]” (Shavuot 39a), and
  • We are reminded that caring for the poor and practicing lovingkindness are among the obligations without limit (Peah 1:1).

Is “sacrificing” for the community or for a greater goal a Jewish notion?

Stay tuned and/or share your thoughts.

Tzav: Great Source(s)

“People of the book”? — “People of the table,” too.

With the repeated destruction of local and central sanctuaries, the power of the sacrificial system necessarily diminished. The decline of sacrifice did not end Jewish concern with food, but channeled it in a different direction. Meat-eating became separated for sacrifice, and non-sacrificial forms of worship flourished.

Rabbinic Judaism, the new form of Judaism established after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, elevated non-priestly and non-sacrificial values and institutions to central importance. The primary avenues to God became Torah study, prayer, deeds of lovingkindness, and fulfillment of the countless ritual observances established by the Rabbis. These activities had not been part of the hereditary priestly system and therefore were not prohibited for women or non-priestly men. This change gave a greater religious role to those who had stood on the periphery of the religious order.

The Rabbis transformed the sacrificial rites of the Temple into domestic table rituals….Passover sacrifices became a family feast of highly symbolic foods….The Rabbis composed dozens of berakhot (blessings) to be said over food and after eating. The holiness that was previously contained within the sacred precinct of the Temple extended into homes and community. Sanctified food, which once referred to the food designated for sacrifice, now meant the food prepared for every Jewish family’s use….

Popular tradition teaches that Jews have been “the people of the book,” prizing Torah study above all. This is only partly true. Rabbinic Judaism made us “the people of the table” as well. The table was at the center of every Jewish dwelling. Laden with food, with books stacked up in the empty spaces, it substituted for the altar.
— Jody Elizabeth Myers, from “The Altared Table: Women’s Piety and Food in Judaism,” IN Lifecycles Volume II*

* Please see Source Materials for full citations and additional information.

The “Opening the Book” series was originally presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group that for many years pursued spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.

Unintentional Soul-Fail: Pursuing Connections

Leviticus/Vayikra chapter 4 opens with a “soul” involved in an “unintentional” “failure.” Vayikra: Language and Translation offers five translations, with their associated notes and commentaries. For anyone seeking a drash [investigation] point, this could be a good spot to begin: What might it mean for a soul to fail unintentionally? And what, if anything, can be done about it now that we have no sacrificial system?

In his “Seven Approaches,” Richard Israel warns beginners:

Unless you are basing yourself on a traditional commentator, stay away from forms like Microscope or Puzzle [language- and detail-oriented dvar Torah models] until you know enough Hebrew to be able to distinguish between a real nuance in the text and a mere idiosyncrasy of translation.

This is useful advise. But I’ll pass along one short-cut that I’ve found in discovering spots where commentators have for centuries discussed alternative meanings.
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Vayikra: Language and Translation

What does it mean that “a soul unintentionally fails [Nefesh ki-techeta bi-sh’gagah]…”? — Leviticus/Vayikra 4:1-2

Is this an ethical or ritual error? Was the “soul,” in contemporary understanding, alone involved? Here are five translations with associated notes, suggesting (no surprise) no agreement:

YHWH spoke to Moshe, saying:
Speak to the Children of Israel, saying:
(Any) person [nefesh]– when one sins [ki-techeta] in error [bi-sh’gagah]
regarding any of YHWH’s commandments that should not be done,
by doing any one of them:

sins: Heb. teheta‘; more properly, it means “fails” (B-R*) or “misses” (as with an arrow). The word connotes giving offense to or wrongdoing God (or another person).
— Fox**

And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to the Israelites, saying, ‘Should a person offend errantly in regard to any of the LORD’s commands that should not be done and he do one of these,…

offend errantly. The Hebrew adverb bishegagah has the sense of “unintentionally,” “by mistake.” The concern throughout this section is to preserve the purity of the place of the cult. The inadvertent “offense” does not at all imply an ethical transgression but rather the unwitting violation of a prohibition…generating physical pollution that must be cleansed.
— Alter**

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people thus: When a person unwittingly incurs guilt in regard to any of the LORD’s commandments about things not to be done, and does one of them —

Person. Hebrew nefesh, often rendered “soul.” Some commentators remark that the soul is involved in every transgression, but Bachya notes that nefesh sometimes means the combination of soul and body, sometimes body alone (e.g., Lev. 21:1).

Incurs guilt. These words render a form of the verb chata, “to sin.”
— JPS/Plaut**

[YHVH] spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people thus: When a person unwittingly incurs guilt in the regard to any of [YHVH’s] commandments about things not to be done, and does one of them —

person. Heb. nefesh, which indicates that the law applies equally to women and men.

unwittingly incurs guilt. The concern is with inadvertent moral or physical violations.
— JPS/TWC**

HASHEM spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel, saying: When a person will sin unintentionally from among all the commandments of HASHEM that may not be done, and he commits one of them.

[nefesh]A person [lit., soul]. Because thoughts originate in the soul, the sins that necessitate this offering — sins born of careless inadvertence — are attributed to the soul, and it is the soul that is cleansed by means of the offering (Rambam [Maimonides])
— Stone**

The Stone chumash elaborates on this verse:

1) “No offering is sufficient to remove the stain of [intentional] sinfulness; that can be done only through repentance and a change of attitudes…”

2) “…if the sin was committed accidentally and without intent, no offering is needed.”

This leaves “deeds that were committed [bi-shegagah], inadvertently, as the result of carelessness.” Ramban [Nachmanides] teaches, the text continues, that “such deeds blemish the soul…for if the sinner had sincerely regarded them with the proper gravity, the violations would not have occurred.” One who cares about honoring the Sabbath, “would not have ‘forgotten’ what day of the week it was,” for example.

Another view:

The person who brings forth a sacrifice in the Torah is called a nefesh — in Rabbinic Hebrew, literally, a “soul.” When we give our sacrifices, we should give from the heart, or even more deeply, from the soul….We reach out from our soul to connect with the souls of others.
— Joseph B. Meszler, “Sacrifice Play”
IN The Modern Men’s Torah Commentary (Jewish Lights; full citation in Source Materials**)

*“B-R” is the Martin Buber-Franz Rosenzweig translation of the Bible into German, on which Fox based his translation. (I just figured out, finally, how to do text jumps in these posts! [return to text])

** Full citations and more details about each translation available at Source Materials. (return to text)

See also, Unintentional Soul-Fail: Pursuing Connections

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The “Opening the Book” series was originally presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group that for many years pursued spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.
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Sacrifice and Womb: Pursuing Connections

One of the reasons I started the “Opening the Book” blog series was my belief that the plethora of dvrei torah (plural of dvar [word] of Torah]) on the internet, as well as in print, doesn’t necessarily help anyone who is trying to prepare a dvar torah of their own, at least at the outset.

The mere quantity can seem daunting: With search engines returning over 19,000 hits on “Vayikra dvar torah,” it might seem there is simply nothing more to say (“Vayikra” alone draws over 100,000 hits). Those 19,000 hits, in turn, point to a raft of sources, which can seem overwhelming instead of encouraging.

There are terrific resources — text, hypertext, audio and video — on the web (see, e.g., On-Line Learning). But a strategy more contained than Googling or Binging the Torah portion can be helpful.
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