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.

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Click on the “WeeklyTorah” tag for more resources on the weekly portion throughout the year, or on a portion name for parashah-specific notes. (The series began with Numbers; posts for Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus are being drafted, week-by-week.) You can also zero-in on particular types of “Opening the Book” posts by clicking Language and Translation, Something to Notice, a Path to Follow, or Great Source in the tag cloud.
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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). Continue Reading

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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