Nathan Lopes Cardozo
Nathan Lopes Cardozo

Parashat Vayikra – The Challenge of Tisha B’av and the Temple Sacrifices

In our times, and specifically since the establishment of the State of Israel, there is a lot of talk about the construction of the Third Temple and the re-introduction of the sacrificial service, including animal sacrifices, sprinkling of their blood on the mizbe’ach, the altar, and so on.

For some people, this would be the fulfillment of an ultimate dream and the manifestation of the messianic age. Nothing more elevating could ever occur. They are anxiously waiting for the moment the Third Temple will be built so that these rituals can be reinstated.

For others, this very idea is repulsive and totally unacceptable in modern times. What is the point in slaughtering animals and offering them to God? It all looks very cruel and childish. It does not seem appropriate to the very structure of Judaism and its mission.[1]

Secularism and a Compromise to Human Weakness

Some, however, claim that this repulsion is the result of secularism and its devastating effect on our souls, such that we can no longer relate to the level of religiosity required to appreciate the deepest meaning behind the sacrificial services.

The claim is that there is nothing wrong with such service—rather the reverse is true. There is something wrong with us for we have lost the highly religious sensitivity to understand and undergo the transformative experience of this service.

Others, like Maimonides (Guide for the Perplexed, 3.32), maintain that animal sacrifices are a compromise to human weakness rooted in earlier non-monotheistic religions, and that the ultimate goal of sacrificial services within Judaism is to have us “outgrow” them. In the earliest days of Judaism, sacrifice was a necessity, because that was generally how people worshipped their gods, and the early Israelites could not release themselves overnight from this kind of worship. So, God permitted it to continue under the condition they would at least bring these sacrifices to Him; till they would see the futility of all this. After all, Judaism is an evolutionary religion that continually needs to refine itself. Following the destruction of the Temple, we no longer have been offering sacrifices, and thus we have become accustomed to a Judaism without sacrifices, and we do not feel any religious need for them. As such, in this respect the abolition  of the Temple sacrifices  may perhaps be seen as a blessing  for it ended a more “primitive” form of Judaism.

Therefore, Tisha B’Av, the day of the destruction of our Temples, is not about losing the opportunity to bring sacrifices, but about all the other advantages of the Temples—first and foremost, the intense experience of God’s presence while in the Temple.

However, we have outgrown the sacrifices—which was precisely the ultimate goal; thus, it would be a major mistake to reinstate the sacrificial service. It would pull Judaism backwards and make it more primitive, which, in this view, is the last thing we should be doing. Perhaps this also means that we are no longer in need of a Temple altogether since the whole universe is God’s “Temple”.[2]

Others strongly disagree with this approach.[3] They maintain that the animal sacrifices will be replaced by agricultural sacrifices,[4] since animal sacrifices have indeed become outlandish. Why terminate the life of an animal in the service of God, when such sacrificial service runs against our deepest intuitive feelings that this is an ethically-tainted act. (Although, it must be noted that many of us continue to eat meat without any compunction!)

Why Sacrifices?

However, looking at the Temple and its rituals of the past, we cannot deny that it used to play an enormous role in Judaism, and offering sacrifices was at the very center of its holy service. This is specifically demonstrated by the rituals which took place in the Temple on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the year (See Yayikra 16).

So, what was it that made sacrifices such an essential part of Judaism in bygone times?

Only primitivism? Or something we are indeed no longer connected to today and are missing out on?

What holiness could there have been in the offering of sacrifices? And were we to discover this holiness, would that mean we should indeed start building the Temple and reintroduce the sacrificial rites in our own contemporary times?

What is Wrong with Human Sacrifices?

Some commentators believe that the animal offered serves as a replacement for the individual, who really should be sacrificed on the altar of God as the ultimate service of Him. But this is obviously forbidden.

It may sound an absurd, outrageous and repulsive question to ask, however, why is this obvious? Why are we not allowed, however bizarre this may sound, to sacrifice human beings? Why is killing animals as a sacrifice permitted while doing so with human beings is prohibited?” Especially when no pain is involved in both instances?

What is the difference between human and animal life so that human life is more precious? For the same reason we can ask why the killing of a fly or plucking a flower, both meaning certain “death,” not forbidden?

Is it that humans are conscious beings and highly creative? Yet, is that the reason human beings are more valuable and therefore cannot be sacrificed? These questions are not so easy to answer and many thinkers have struggled with these problems. And it may have more to do with intuition than pure reason.

There in only one (subjective?) matter which may answer this question.

We are used to the fact that people sacrifice their lives for their country or Jews sacrifice themselves for Kiddush Hashem, in sanctification of God’s name, as in the case of the Crusades when Jews gave up their lives and those of their families rather than be baptized.

In Judaism, sacrificing everything for the sake of God is the greatest merit a person can achieve. If so, why is human sacrifice absolutely forbidden? (See the age-old discussion about the Binding of Yitzchak in Bereshit.)

A Higher Sacrifice

I believe that human sacrifice is forbidden because human beings are able to sacrifice their lives in a spiritual manner, which by far surpasses the physical act of self-sacrifice.

When a human is actually sacrificed, so many other moral religious faculties go up in flames as well. The spiritual wealth of human beings is nearly infinite, their intellectual and scientific capacities—but above all their religious, moral and ethical contributions—are invaluable. So, the loss of a human being through sacrifice is beyond description.

By living, human beings are able to add ethical and religious values to the world, which all come to an end in premature death. Since each human being is an individual of which there is no other, premature death obliterates certain spiritual and ethical contributions forever, never to be rediscovered. The loss is infinite, and something that could have eventuated will forever be deficient. The completeness of this world will therefore never be attained. It can only be God Himself who may bring an end to this potential. (Does God really have the right to do this?)

Animals are only flesh, they lack spirituality, hence, nothing spiritual is lost when they die.

But human beings are flesh and spirit, and it is through their spirit that they can “sacrifice” their lives on an even higher level by living. It is a higher kind of sacrifice that an animal cannot reach. In other words: there are different levels of “being” that are incomparable. This is what Avraham learned in the story of the Binding of Yitzchak.

And so, the animal is sacrificed to represent, symbolically, only one facet of the human being, his material facet, while his spirituality demands that he live. If not for his spiritual uniqueness, he could/should indeed be sacrificed.

The prohibition to sacrifice a human being is a protest against all those who maintain that a human is nothing more than a beast.

Human beings are not more sophisticated apes, but a species apart. Human beings can do what animals cannot—consciously redirect their animal instincts. By offering animal flesh, the human being declares that he will never permit his purely animalistic instincts to get the better of him. He will outlive these and stay alive, while his purely animal facets die.

The Existential Meaning of Life

I wonder whether the difference between those who maintain that sacrifices are of ultimate meaning and those who believe that they essentially represent the practices of a primitive cult , touches on the deepest of all questions: The existential meaning of our lives.

This question may hang on the view of Albert Camus and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s critique of this view. French author and philosopher Albert Camus stated that there is only one serious philosophical problem—suicide—i.e. whether it is really worthwhile to live, knowing the enormous pain and anguish life offers us. Abraham Joshua Heschel’s critique of Camus’s observation asserted that life comprises moral and religious values so colossal and significant that they are even worth dying for, such as giving up one’s life for one’s country, or giving up one’s life when forced to kill another innocent person or have an adulterous relationship (Heschel, Who is man? p. 92).

These are two opposite sides of the same coin called: Life! Does life have any meaning and purpose or is it meaningless and accidental? If it is meaningful, then it is worth giving one’s life for the values this life represents. Or is it meaningless, and therefore committing suicide is the only reasonable option.

There is no objective answer to these questions: both are built on premises that cannot be proven or disproven. They occupy a space which is beyond us; a space called “God,” whether His existence is real or only imaginary. It is the space of His existence or the space of His absence.

But we cannot penetrate that space because we never will know for sure whether there is meaning to life or whether God exists or not. There are strong arguments on both sides. On the simplest level, these arguments represent the questions as to how anything could exist without a God as a Creator; and reversely, if God does exist, how, then, is it possible so much evil exists that is not caused by human beings, such as earthquakes or a devastating infant illness?

The same is true concerning the question whether there is existential meaning to our lives, which is only possible if God exists. If God does not exist, then all we can do is create meaning in the limited sense of the word: through our concern for our families and humankind, but not as a response to a higher call that surpasses all this: ultimate meaning. From that point of view, life is meaningless.

For the same reason, there is no way of knowing whether there is really any meaning to sacrificial service, something that only makes sense when we are prepared to give our lives up for Him—but are not permitted to do so. If we are not convinced of God’s existence, the sacrificial service is meaningless. Why slaughter an animal whereby we symbolically demonstrate that we are prepared to surrender our animal instincts to God by staying alive whatever the circumstances?

Logic fails us here, since our thinking cannot reach that plateau. It is a space which has no measurements, it is not rooted in time, and it is where absence or presence have no meaning. We may see it in our imagination due to the fact that we are unable to think without these images, but objectively they do not exist.

This was very well expressed by the Ark in the Holy of Holies which the Talmud (Bava Batra 98b-99a; Yoma 21a; Megillah 10b) tells us did not occupy any space. We could see it and touch it, but when we started to measure it, it was absent.

Negative Space, Belief and Atheism

And the Ark was the center of the Temple. In fact, it was the real Temple. Everything around it was swallowed up by this non-existing, otherworldly entity. It was from there that God spoke. From a place which did not really exist in the physical sense of the word. It symbolized God who exists, yet simultaneously does not exist. Here, belief and “nonbelief” come together, because both are two sides of the same coin. To believe in God means that one does not believe in His existence. To not believe in God is the affirmation of His being.

God’s presence in our lives is only by the force of His absence.

This is called “negative space”. It is a space which is created not by its presence, but by its surroundings; like an artist creates a painting and sculptor who creates an image—not by painting or chiseling, but by deliberately causing an absence and leaving an open space that takes form by creating images which surround it. This artist and sculptor create a background out of which the image is born, while it has no substance of its own.

This is the existence of God that is carved out by His absence, His negative space.

This idea, we believe, is the idea behind the concept of the Temple. It is the place where God’s existence is emphasized by His absence as shown by the immeasurable dimensions of the Ark.

It is for this reason that we cannot grasp the sacrificial services. These may very well represent a world which is of the greatest value, or a repulsive entity. The truth is that it is both, just as it is God’s absence which may indicate His presence, as represented by the Ark, which is negative space.

But it is only possible to build a Temple when we fully understand that it is in God’s absence that we can find His presence. As long as we cannot grasp this, the building of a Temple in our days would be Avoda Zara, idol worship, and we should stay far away from it. As long as we cannot make sure that the Ark has no measurements, i.e. that it does not “exist,” we are forbidden to build a Temple.

So, even when we believe that sacrifices have a deep meaning, we cannot offer them since we cannot penetrate the space in which God’s existence is clear, since we do not know how to carve Him out of the surroundings that shape His image, without Him being an image Himself. He is the negative space created by these surroundings that shows His untouchable-ness.

So, the sacrifices may be of ultimate meaning and yet are also pointless. It is from this awareness that the different and opposing opinions about the sacrifices emerge.

May we get clarity about all this and may Tisha B’Av become “meaningless.” May it be soon in our days.


[1] See Guide for the Perplexed, 3.32. See however Mishne Torah, Hilchot Melachim 11:1, where he seemingly contradicts this idea. For an explanation, see Nathan Lopes Cardozo in Between Silence and Speech, Essays on Jewish Thought, (Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson, 1995), chapter 1. For other views, see Russell Jay Hendel, “Maimonides’ Attitude Toward Sacrifices,” Tradition 13/14, Vol. 13, no. 4/Vol. 14, no. 1 (1973): 163-179; Louis I. Rabinowitz, “Maimonides on Sacrifices,” Tradition 14, no. 2 (1973): 155-159; Rabbi Moshe Shammah, Maimonides on Sacrifices, Parts 1 and 2, accessible online at: https://www.mhcny.org/pdf/MN/Maimonides%20on%20Sacrifices.pdf, https://www.yumpu.com/en/document/read/28806542/maimonides-on-sacrifice-part-ii-judaic-seminar; David Silverberg, “Maimonides’ Approach to Sacrifices,” accessible online at: https://www.mhcny.org/parasha/1024.pdf https://www.mhcny.org/parasha/1024.pdf; Rabbi Eliyahu Safran, “Maimonides: on Sacrifices; Integration and Harmony,” accessible online at: https://outorah.org/p/17446/.

[2] See the commentary of Rabbi Ovadia Seforno on Shemot 24:18; Ibid., 25:9. For a discussion of the view of the Seforno, see Yehudah Copperman, “R. Ovadyah Seforno on Korbanoth,” Jewish Thought: A Journal of Torah Scholarship 2, no. 2 (1996): 33-48.

[3] See Ramban on Vayikra 1:9; Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah 95; Rabeinu Bachya on Vayikra 1:9. See also Dov Schwartz, “From Theurgy to Magic: The Evolution of the Magical-Talismanic Justification of Sacrifice in the Circle of Nahmanides and His Interpreters,” Aleph: Historical Studies in Science and Judaism 1, no. 1 (2001):165-213.

[4] This is the novel approach of HaRav Avraham Yitzchak Hacohen Kook. See his commentary on the Siddur, Olat Re’iyah (Jerusalem, 1962), Vol. 1, p.  292 and his essay “Afikim Ba-negev,” in Otserot hare’iyah, ed. Moshe Tsuriel, ed. Otserot hare’iyah, vol. 2, (Rishon Letzion, 2002), p. 103. See also David Sperber “Future Sacrifices in the Teachings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook,” (Heb.), in Samuel Sperber, Ra’ayot hare’iyah (Jerusalem: Beit Harav, 1992): 97–112; Marc B. Shapiro, The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles Reappraised (Oxford: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2004): 127-130; Idem, “R. Kook on Sacrifices & Other Assorted Comments,” accessible online at: https://seforimblog.com/2010/04/marc-shapiro-r-kook-on-sacrifices-other/.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo is the Founder and Dean of the David Cardozo Academy and the Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu in Jerusalem. A sought-after lecturer on the international stage for both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences, Rabbi Cardozo is the author of 13 books and numerous articles in both English and Hebrew. Rabbi Cardozo heads a Think Tank focused on finding new Halachic and philosophical approaches to dealing with the crisis of religion and identity amongst Jews and the Jewish State of Israel. Hailing from the Netherlands, Rabbi Cardozo is known for his original and often fearlessly controversial insights into Judaism. His ideas are widely debated on an international level on social media, blogs, books and other forums.
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