Purpose of the Sacrifices



Why Specifically Sacrifices?

A significant portion of Torah is devoted to the laws surrounding sacrifices.  Nowhere, though, does the Torah explain why Hashem chose this mode of worship as opposed to any other.  Is asking for forgiveness or thanking Hashem really best accomplished through an animal offering?  What about the process makes it better than praying or serving God in any other manner?  What does offering a gift to God do for the person bringing it?  What effect, if any, does it have on Hashem?

Views of the Prophets

Given the significant number of chapters in the Torah devoted to sacrificial worship, it is natural to assume that sacrifices are viewed in a favorable light.  Verses which speak of offerings as being "רֵיחַ נִיחוֹחַ לַי"י" or "לִרְצֹנוֹ לִפְנֵי י"י" would also appear to support this notion.  However, several statements of the prophets appear to question the value of sacrificial worship. For example, Yeshayahu 1 appears to intimate that Hashem has no desire for the nation's offerings:1


(יא) לָמָּה לִּי רֹב זִבְחֵיכֶם יֹאמַר י"י שָׂבַעְתִּי עֹלוֹת אֵילִים וְחֵלֶב מְרִיאִים וְדַם פָּרִים וּכְבָשִׂים וְעַתּוּדִים לֹא חָפָצְתִּי. (יב) כִּי תָבֹאוּ לֵרָאוֹת פָּנָי מִי בִקֵּשׁ זֹאת מִיֶּדְכֶם רְמֹס חֲצֵרָי. (יג) לֹא תוֹסִיפוּ הָבִיא מִנְחַת שָׁוְא קְטֹרֶת תּוֹעֵבָה הִיא לִי חֹדֶשׁ וְשַׁבָּת קְרֹא מִקְרָא לֹא אוּכַל אָוֶן וַעֲצָרָה.

(11) 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. (12) When ye come to appear before Me, Who hath required this at your hand, To trample My courts? (13) Bring no more vain oblations; It is an offering of abomination unto Me; New moon and sabbath, the holding of convocations— I cannot endure iniquity along with the solemn assembly.

Yirmeyahu 7:22 goes a step further.  This verse even appears to question whether Hashem ever commanded the Children of Israel to bring sacrifices:2


כִּי לֹא דִבַּרְתִּי אֶת אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם וְלֹא צִוִּיתִים בְּיוֹם [הוֹצִיאִי] (הוציא) אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם עַל דִּבְרֵי עוֹלָה וָזָבַח.

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;

How can such statements be reconciled with the commands in Torah?  What do they reveal about Hashem's attitude towards the sacrificial service?

Anti-idolatrous Practice?

Vayikra 17 offers a different perspective on the role played by sacrifices:


(ג) אִישׁ אִישׁ מִבֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁחַט שׁוֹר אוֹ כֶשֶׂב אוֹ עֵז בַּמַּחֲנֶה אוֹ אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁחַט מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה. (ד) וְאֶל פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֹא הֱבִיאוֹ לְהַקְרִיב קׇרְבָּן לַי"י לִפְנֵי מִשְׁכַּן י"י דָּם יֵחָשֵׁב לָאִישׁ הַהוּא דָּם שָׁפָךְ וְנִכְרַת הָאִישׁ הַהוּא מִקֶּרֶב עַמּוֹ. (ה) לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יָבִיאוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת זִבְחֵיהֶם אֲשֶׁר הֵם זֹבְחִים עַל פְּנֵי הַשָּׂדֶה וֶהֱבִיאֻם לַי"י אֶל פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד אֶל הַכֹּהֵן וְזָבְחוּ זִבְחֵי שְׁלָמִים לַי"י אוֹתָם. (ו) וְזָרַק הַכֹּהֵן אֶת הַדָּם עַל מִזְבַּח י"י פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וְהִקְטִיר הַחֵלֶב לְרֵיחַ נִיחֹחַ לַי"י. (ז) וְלֹא יִזְבְּחוּ עוֹד אֶת זִבְחֵיהֶם לַשְּׂעִירִם אֲשֶׁר הֵם זֹנִים אַחֲרֵיהֶם חֻקַּת עוֹלָם תִּהְיֶה זֹּאת לָהֶם לְדֹרֹתָם.

(3) What man soever there be of the house of Israel, that killeth an ox, or lamb, or goat, in the camp, or that killeth it without the camp, (4) and hath not brought it unto the door of the tent of meeting, to present it as an offering unto the Lord before the tabernacle of the Lord, blood shall be imputed unto that man; he hath shed blood; and that man shall be cut off from among his people. (5) To the end that the children of Israel may bring their sacrifices, which they sacrifice in the open field, even that they may bring them unto the Lord, unto the door of the tent of meeting, unto the priest, and sacrifice them for sacrifices of peace-offerings unto the Lord. (6) And the priest shall dash the blood against the altar of the Lord at the door of the tent of meeting, and make the fat smoke for a sweet savour unto the Lord. (7) And they shall no more sacrifice their sacrifices unto the satyrs, after whom they go astray. This shall be a statute for ever unto them throughout their generations.

These verses appear to suggest that at least some acts of sacrifice might be commanded not for their inherent value, but as a means to prevent idolatry.  Should such reasoning be applied across the board, or is this case exceptional? Is it possible that the entire system was commanded only to combat mistaken beliefs and practices?

Procedural Details

The reasons behind the various details of the sacrificial process are not delineated in Torah, but the specifics should shed some light on the purpose of the commandment as a whole:

  • Choice of animals – Is there any significance to the choice of animals that are offered for various sacrifices?  Why do we sacrifice cattle, sheep, goats, turtle-doves, and pigeons, but not other living creatures?
  • Laying of hands (סמיכה) – Why does the person bringing the sacrifice lay his hands on it (Vayikra 1:4) before slaughtering it?
  • Blood rites – Why is the blood of the animal sometimes poured and sometimes sprinkled?  And what accounts for the variation regarding the location upon which it is offered (Vayikra 1:5, Vayikra 4:1-7)?
  • Prohibition of leavening and honey – Why is it prohibited to bring a leavened offering or one sweetened with honey (Vayikra 2:11-12)? 
  • Obligation to add salt – Why must salt accompany every sacrifice (Vayikra 2:13)?

Philosophical Issues

In trying to determine both the purpose of the sacrificial system and whether it is an ideal form of worship, commentators are influenced by their positions on a number of other philosophical issues:

  • Role of prayer – How does prayer compare to sacrifices?  Are these distinct but equal models of worship, or is one of them the ideal which should be preferred over the other?
  • Purpose of Mitzvot – Must the Torah's laws represent an ideal and be inherently valuable, or might they simply be addressing human needs and nature? Is it possible that some Mitzvot might have been commanded only as a concession to human foibles or to correct misguided beliefs?
  • Eternal nature of Torah – Are all of the Torah's laws equally relevant and useful to all generations, or is it possible that some were meant mainly for a particular time period?