Harry Freedman
Writing on Jewish history, Jewish books, Jewish ideas

Ideas That Lie beneath the Surface

The Book of Leviticus discussing sacrifices far more widely than any other section of the Bible. Most of us do not find the idea of sacrifices stimulating, indeed many people are repelled by the thought of them. But if you believe that it is possible to find ideas and insights below the surface text of the Bible, then it is instructive to try to investigate what we may be able to learn from the lengthy and complex descriptions of sacrifices. Particularly since sacrifice does not necessarily mean slaughtering animals. A sacrifice is the giving of something one values, or of oneself, for a higher purpose, for reconciliation or propitiation.

One of the most intriguing concepts in the whole sacrificial system is the concept of piggul. It is introduced in Leviticus 7,18 where we read that if someone delays eating eats their sacrificial meal until its allotted time has passed, the sacrifice will not be accepted, it has become piggul.

The Talmud (Zevachim 29a) expands on this idea, explaining that it makes no sense for a sacrifice to be acceptable when first offered but to become unacceptable because it wasn’t eaten in time. An act of worship can either be effective or ineffective, it cannot change from one to another.  Therefore, if the sacrifice is to become piggul it must necessarily have been so from the outset. The worshipper must have had the intention of eating it at the wrong time from the very beginning. Piggul, in other words, is a consequence of a state of mind. A sacrifice, or by extension any religious action, becomes piggul if it is offered with the wrong intention.

According to this analysis (with which, we should note, Rabbi Akiva disagrees) the validity of a ritual, depends on the intention of the person carrying it out. The Talmud has shifted the focus of the discussion from the gruesome practicalities of a physical sacrifice to the mental processes involved in performing a prescribed religious ritual.

The word piggul is hard to define. It only occurs four times in the Bible, twice in relation to sacrifices and twice in the sense of forbidden or unpalatable food. The Septuagint translates it as miasma, meaning defilement and this is the sense followed by in most English translations. Onkelos, the Jewish Aramaic translator gives it the sense of something so foul as to be shunned. S.R. Hirsch suggests that it may have the sense of separation. But whatever the word means, when applied to sacrifices it is, according to Talmudic reasoning, a consequence of improper intention.

Intention is a determining factor in all legal systems. An injury caused accidentally is treated differently from one caused intentionally. In respect of sacrifices, intention is even more important. Even for those who find value in sacrifices, a meaningless sacrifice is of no value at all. This is a refrain that repeats over and again in the books of the Prophets.  What matters is not meaningless sacrifice, but justice, mercy, love and an open heart.

Harry Freedman’s latest book , Kabbalah, Secrecy, Scandal and the Soul is available in bookshops, on Amazon or through

About the Author
My latest book, Reason to Believe is the authorised biography of Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs. Louis Jacobs was Britain’s most gifted Jewish scholar. A Talmudic genius, outstanding teacher and accomplished author, cultured and easy-going, he was widely expected to become Britain’s next Chief Rabbi. Then controversy struck. The Chief Rabbi refused to appoint him as Principal of Jews’ College, the country’s premier rabbinic college. He further forbade him from returning as rabbi to his former synagogue. All because of a book Jacobs had written some years earlier, challenging from a rational perspective the traditional belief in the origins of the Torah. The British Jewish community was torn apart. It was a scandal unlike anything they had ever previously endured. The national media loved it. Jacobs became a cause celebre, a beacon of reason, a humble man who wouldn’t be compromised. His congregation resigned en masse and created a new synagogue for him in Abbey Road, the heart of fashionable 1970s London. It became the go-to venue for Jews seeking reasonable answers to questions of faith. A prolific author of over 50 books and hundreds of articles on every aspect of Judaism, from the basics of religious belief to the complexities of mysticism and law, Louis Jacobs won the heart and affection of the mainstream British Jewish community. When the Jewish Chronicle ran a poll to discover the Greatest British Jew, Jacobs won hands down. He said it made him feel daft. Reason To Believe tells the dramatic and touching story of Louis Jacobs’s life, and of the human drama lived out by his family, deeply wounded by his rejection. Reason to Believe was published by Bloomsbury Continuum in November 2020 in the UK and will be published on 12 January 2021 in the USA. You can find out more about my books and why I write them at
Related Topics
Related Posts