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Richard H. Schwartz
Vegan, climate change,and social justice activist

A Vegan View of the Biblical Animal Sacrifices

 “Now we come to the great embarrassment.” Those were the opening words of a sermon delivered years ago by an assistant rabbi at the Young Israel of Staten Island, referring to the biblical animal sacrifices discussed in Parshat Vayikra (Leviticus).

In his book, Jewish Law as Rebellion: A Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage, Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo, Dean of the David Cardozo Academy, states: “Does Judaism really need animal sacrifices? Would it not be better off without them? After all, the sacrificial cult compromises Judaism. What does a highly ethical religion have to do with the collection of blood in vessels and the burning of animal limbs on an altar? No doubt Judaism should be sacrifice-free. Yet it is not. . . How much more beautiful the Torah would be without sacrifices!”

The great Jewish philosopher Maimonides believed that the sacrifices were a concession to the common practices in biblical times, when all nations worshiped by means of animal sacrifices. He stated that God did not command the Israelites to discontinue these manners of service because “to obey such a commandment would have been contrary to the nature of man, who generally cleaves to that to which he is accustomed.” For this reason, God allowed Jews to make sacrifices, but, “He transferred to His service that which had previously served as a worship of created beings and of things imaginary and unreal.” 

All elements of idolatry were removed. Instead, limitations were placed on sacrifices. They were confined to one central location (instead of each family having a home altar), and the human sacrifices and other idolatrous practices of the neighboring pagan peoples were forbidden. 

Maimonides concluded, ”By this divine plan it was effected that the traces of idolatry were blotted out, and the truly great principle of our faith, the existence and unity of God, was firmly established; this result was thus obtained without deterring or confusing the minds of the people by the abolition of the service to which they were accustomed and which alone was familiar to them.”

The Jewish philosopher Abarbanel reinforced Maimonides’ argument. He cited a midrash (rabbinic teaching) that indicated that the Jews had become accustomed to animal sacrifices in Egypt. God tolerated the sacrifices but commanded that they be offered in one central sanctuary: “Thereupon the Holy One, blessed be He, said, ‘Let them at all times offer their sacrifices before Me in the Tabernacle, and they will be weaned from idolatry, and thus be saved.’”

Rabbi J. H. Hertz, the late Chief Rabbi of England, stated that if Moses had not instituted sacrifices, which were believed by all to have been the universal expression of religious homage, his mission would have failed and Judaism would have disappeared.

Biblical commentator David Kimhi (1160–1235) argued that the sacrifices were voluntary. He ascertained this from the words of Jeremiah (7:22–23): “For neither did I speak with your forefathers nor did I command them on the day I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning a burnt offering or a sacrifice. But this thing did I command them, saying: Obey Me so that I am your God and you are My people, and you walk in all the ways that I command you, so that it may be well with you.”

Kimhi noted that nowhere in the Ten Commandments is there any reference to sacrifice, and even when sacrifices are first mentioned (Leviticus 1:2), the expression used is “when any man of you brings an offering,” the first Hebrew word ki being literally “if,” implying that it was a voluntary act.

Many Jewish scholars, such as Rav Kook, think that animal sacrifices will not be reinstated in Messianic times, even with the establishment of the third Temple. They believe that at that time human conduct will have advanced to such high standards there will no longer be a need for animal sacrifices to atone for sins. Only non-animal sacrifices (grains, for example) to express gratitude to God would remain.

There is a midrash that states: “In the Messianic era, all offerings will cease except the thanksgiving offering, which will continue forever. ”This seems consistent with the belief of Rav Kook and others, based on the prophecy of Isaiah (11:6–9), that people and animals will be vegan in that time, when “‘they shall neither harm nor destroy on all My holy mount.’”

Sacrifices, especially animal sacrifices, are not the primary concern of God. Indeed, they could be an abomination to God if not carried out together with deeds of loving kindness and justice. Consider the following words of the prophets, the spokesmen of God:

* “For I desire loving-kindness, and not sacrifices.” (Hosea 6:6)

* “Of what use are your many sacrifices to Me?” says the Lord. “I am sated with the burnt-offerings of rams and the fat of fattened cattle; and the blood of bulls and sheep and he-goats I do not want. . . .You shall no longer bring vain meal offerings. . . Your New Moons and your appointed seasons My soul hates; . . . and when you spread out your hands, I will hide My eyes from you, even when you pray at length, I do not hear; your hands are full of blood.” (Isaiah 1:11–16)

  • “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offeringsI will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:21–24)

Deeds of compassion and kindness toward all creation are of greater significance to God than sacrifices: “Performing charity and justice is preferred by God to a sacrifice” (Proverbs 21:3).

Perhaps a different type of sacrifice is required of us today. When Rabbi Shesheth kept a fast for Yom Kippur, he used to conclude with these words: “Sovereign of the Universe, You know full well that in the time of the Temple when a man sinned he used to bring a sacrifice, and though all that was offered of it was fat and blood, atonement was made for him. Now I have kept a fast and my fat and blood have diminished. May it be Your will to account my fat and blood which have been diminished as if I have offered them before You on the altar, and favor me. (Berachot 17a)

After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, the rabbis declared that prayer and good deeds would take the place of animal sacrifices.

Compassion is one of Judaism’s highest values. God is referred to in synagogue services as Harachaman (the compassionate one) and as Av harachamim (Father of compassion). Since Judaism teaches that human beings, uniquely created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), are to emulate God’s positive attributes, we should also be compassionate. 

The Talmud states that Jews are to be rachmanim b’nei rachmanim (compassionate children of compassionate ancestors) (Kedushin 4a), and that one who is not compassionate cannot truly be of the seed of Abraham, our father (Bezah 32b). It also states that Heaven grants compassion to those who are compassionate to others, and withholds it from those who are not (Shabbat 151b).

The Baruch Sheh’amar prayer, recited daily in the morning (Shacharit) services, states that, “Blessed is the One (God) Who has compassion on the earth; blessed is the One Who has compassion on the creatures [animals and people].” Hence, in emulating God, we should also exhibit concern and compassion toward the earth’s environment and all of God’s creatures.

The important ashrei psalm, recited three times daily, states that “God is good to all, and His compassion is over all His works.” According to Rabbi Dovid Sears, author of A Vision of Eden: Animal Welfare and Vegetarianism in Jewish Law and Mysticism, this verse is “the touchstone of the rabbinic attitude toward animal welfare.”

These beautiful teachings are not stressed sufficiently today, partly because there is so much emphasis in the Torah and in the Siddur prayers on animal sacrifices, especially during the main Jewish festivals of Pesach, Sukkot, and Shavuot. 

To increase awareness of Judaism’s compassionate teachings, I am working with other Jewish activists to restore the ancient Jewish New Year for Animals, originally a day for tithing animals for sacrifices, into a day devoted to increasing awareness of Judaism’s teachings on compassion for animals and how far current realities are from these teachings. We are using Tu Bishvat (the Jewish New Year for trees) as a model, since that ancient holiday, which initially concerned tithing for fruits to be offered to the temple priests and poor people, was restored by the Kabbalists of Sefat in the 16th century and transformed into a day devoted to celebrating the beauties of God’s creation.

If more Jews became aware of the many beautiful Jewish teachings on compassion and strived to put them into practice, it would have great potential to help revitalize Judaism and move our imperiled planet onto a more just, humane, and environmentally sustainable path and toward that time when “no one shall hurt nor destroy in all of God’s holy mountain.” (Isaiah 11:9)

About the Author
Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D., is the author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, Judaism and Global Survival, Who Stole My Religion? Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal our Imperiled Planet, and Mathematics and Global Survival, and over 200 articles and 25 podcasts at JewishVeg.com/schwartz. He is President Emeritus of Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA) and President of the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians (SERV). He is associate producer of the 2007 documentary “A Sacred Duty: Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal the World.” He is also a Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Staten Island, which is part of the City University of New York.
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