Israel Drazin

Some Rational Thoughts about Vayikra and Sacrifices

The first weekly portion in the third Book of Moses is called Vayikra. The third book as a whole was initially called in Hebrew Torat Kohanim, “The law of the Priest,” since much of the book deals with the priestly functions of the family of Moses’ brother Aaron and the Israelite duty to be a priestly nation. Later, like the first portion, it was called Vayikra, the opening word of the book. The book was named Leviticus when translated into Greek around 200 BCE. It has ten weekly portions. One of the ten is not read during one week because Shabbat occurs during Passover, and reading about Passover replaces it. During three weeks, two portions are read together on Shabbat because of the failure to read one during Passover and because 2023 is not a Jewish leap year, and we want to read all 54 portions annually. The first portion of Leviticus details many kinds of sacrifices, such as burnt offerings from the herd and flock, meal offerings, peace offerings, sin offerings, guilt offerings, and offerings of first fruits. These allow us to see if Maimonides was correct in telling us that God neither needs nor wants sacrifices but let them in the past because people felt they needed to show God love by doing so. We also read about the prohibition of placing leavened bread and honey on the altar, and the use of salt.   

  • The Torah’s attitude to sacrifices, as understood by Maimonides, becomes clear when we view (1) the restrictions on what can be sacrificed, (2) the thinking of ancient pagans regarding sacrifices, (3) the biblical rules about what may and what may not be eaten, (4) whether it is logical to think that God needs food to give Him pleasure or sustain Him, and (5) how animals are killed.
  • (1) Many kinds of sacrifices are allowed, but more are disallowed. Strong beasts such as lions and elephants cannot be sacrificed even though many people think they acquire some of the power of what they eat, and they may have thought they were giving power to the gods by gifting them such beasts. The Torah removes this notion.
  • Why were fish not sacrificed? Is it simply because fish was not considered one of the best foods, unlike the preference for salmon today?
  • Is there any connection between not sacrificing fish and fish not getting killed during Noah’s flood?
  • (2) It is generally understood that the ancients wanted to give their gods the best they had. Therefore, they sacrificed their most beloved objects, such as their firstborn son, or the son they liked the best, and lovely ladies. In Genesis 22, as I understand it, Abraham wonders whether he should follow the pagan practice of offering his favorite son Isaac to God. (I understand that chapter 22 is an internal Abraham struggle, not a test imposed upon him by God. God does not need to test people.) He reasons that it is unseemly that God would not want him to hurt what He created and not want to hurt him in this way. The tale is placed in the Torah to teach that God neither needs nor wants sacrifices.
  • Why didn’t Abraham select Ishmael, his firstborn, to be sacrificed? He thought that perhaps God wanted what he loved best. He loved Ishmael but loved Isaac more. This is implied in how Abraham thinks of Isaac in verse 2. “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac.”
  • It is likely that before Moses’ brother Aaron and Aaron’s family were chosen as priests, first-born sons were assigned priestly duties because they were considered the dearest to families and an appropriate gift to God. By choosing Aaron’s family, the Torah indicates again that it wants to move the Israelite mindset about gifts to God away from the pagan notion.
  • (3) Maimonides discusses the laws concerning forbidden foods in his Guide 3:48. Among much else, he states that certain foods are prohibited because they are unwholesome and injurious. Some, like pigs, are forbidden because their habits and food are dirty and loathsome. It is not permitted to cut off a limb of a living animal and eat it because such an act produces cruelty and develops it. Heathen kings used to do it to show their power. If these foods are inappropriate for humans, they are undoubtedly inappropriate gifts to give to God. Thus, although ancient pagans ignored these health, moral, and behavioral considerations, ate these foods, and fed them to their gods, the Torah took the sensible approach. No people would give their spouse what they consider despicable or harmful, nor would they gift it to God.
  • (4) Maimonides repeatedly stresses that God has no body as humans do and lacks the needs humans must have, so it is irrational to think that God needs food to live. It is similarly ludicrous to think that God derives pleasure by seeing animals He created murdered to feed Him.
  • The Torah shows God wants people (5) to be sympathetic to animals. We see it frequently, including how animals are killed before being sacrificed. Verse 1:5 indicates, as Rashi and Midrash Sifra state, that the animal’s owner is the person who is required to kill the animal. This is most likely done in the hope that animal owners will hesitate before killing an animal they raised, and this will diminish the number of sacrifices that God does not want.
  • Similarly, 1:15 states that when birds are sacrificed, the priest is the one who kills them by the unusual method of cutting its neck with his fingernails. This disgusting act is only done for bird sacrifices. A bird killed for food using this method to kill it may not be eaten. It seems clear that the Torah wanted to impact the priest with this repulsive practice to wean him away from offering sacrifices.
  • These are not the only indicators that Maimonides was right.
  • The noun nefesh, translated today as “soul,” frequently appears in this first Leviticus portion and a total of 753 times in the Bible where it does not mean “soul” but “person.” The concept of people having a “soul” did not enter Judaism until around 300 BCE when the Greeks came to Israel with their ideas.
  • Some rabbis mistranslate nefesh sometimes when it appears in the Bible to teach a moral lesson. The lessons are usually good. But readers need to realize that what they are reading is a sermon, not what the Torah is saying.
  • The same situation occurs regarding the various forms of amen, which appear close to 150 times in the Torah. Today, the Hebrew word emunah is translated as “believe.” While the Tanakh does not require Jews to believe anything, many Jews today think that it does. Recognizing that many Jews need to believe in certain things, Maimonides listed some “beliefs” to satisfy their need. Plato called these teachings “noble lies.” Maimonides titled them “essential truths.” One example of his “essential truths” is that the Torah in our hands today is precisely what God gave Moses, without any changes. Maimonides knew this was untrue. Sages introduced some changes. Mistakes occurred when copying the Torah words. Maimonides knew of different versions and said the Aleppo version was best.
  • The notion that Jews should “believe” was stressed by Paul in the first century CE to persuade pagans to become Jews who would later call themselves Christians. He said that if you believe in certain things, you do not have to be circumcised and eat only kosher foods.
  • In the March 2023 edition of the magazine “Philosophy Now; A Magazine of Ideas,” a professor argued that Aristotle was wrong in saying humans are “rational animals,” and their thinking distinguishes them from plants and animals. He insisted that the human capacity to believe elevates people above plants and animals who cannot do so. He does not mention Maimonides, who agreed with Aristotle.
  • Why was only leavened bread, matzot, allowed to be offered to God on the altar? Wasn’t unleavened bread considered lechem oni, “poor bread”? Isn’t it improper to offer God an inferior product?
  • Arnold Ehrlich, in his Mikra Ki-pheshuto, suggests that the ancients considered leavened bread inferior to matzot, unleavened. He points out that Abraham, in 18:6, served his three guests a sumptuous meal that included ugot, and ugot is unleavened bread, as indicated in 12:39, where Scripture states ugot matzot. Abraham had ordered an animal be taken from the herd, slaughtered, cooked, and prepared for his guests. This takes time, time enough for the leaven to rise. Similarly, Lot gave his guests matzot in 19:3. Abraham and Lot certainly had leavened bread at home, yet they offered matzot with the elaborate meals they gave their guests. King Saul was also served a sumptuous meal in I Samuel 28:24 with unleavened bread. This explains why leavened bread was prohibited with sacrifices burnt on the altar for God (23:18 and Deuteronomy 16:3); only matzot were offered to God because it was the better bread.
  • Thus, the bread used at the pre-exodus celebration was However, the matzot of the post-exodus Passover marked another event unrelated to the 12:1-11 festivity. Ehrlich does not discuss the issue, but the current association of matzot with leaving Egypt in haste is based on 12:34 and 39. The Israelites had matzot for the festive meal before the exodus but failed to prepare food for their journey from Egypt. So they “took their dough before it was leavened” (12:34) and left in haste with unleavened bread “because they were thrust out of Egypt, and could not tarry, neither had they prepared for themselves any victual” (12:39). Thus, matzot are the preferred and the poor bread.
  • Why were the Israelites instructed to gift God salt?
  • Leviticus 2:13 requires adding salt to meal offerings. It calls the salt God’s covenant. How is it a covenant?
  • A popular sermonic explanation, recorded in Rashi, is that when God created heavenly water distinct from earthly water in Genesis 1:7, a Midrash supposes that the earthly water protested. It also wanted to be close to God. The earthly water was satisfied when told its salt would be gifted to God in the meal offering. The rabbis probably invented this tale to show Jews that just as God loves all parts of His creation, so the parts adore Him, as should Jews.
  • Nachmanides suggested that salt can corrode many items and, conversely, preserve food. Its usage teaches that if Jews observe divine laws correctly, they will maintain them as salt keeps food. But if they neglect or misuse the rules, their actions will destroy them.
  • Others, such as Samson Raphael Hirsch, wrote that salt symbolizes God’s covenant that preserves humanity.
  • Although heavy salt is called “Kosher Salt,” there is no religious requirement for salt to be kosher. Unlike other salts, kosher salt is just sodium chloride. It generally has no minerals, iodine, or anti-clumping or anti-caking ingredients. Ordinary table salt has iodine, which is crucial in thyroid health and hormone production. Kosher salt got its name because Jews use it for koshering meat, the Jewish process of removing blood from meat and preparing it for consumption. The larger grains of salt draws out moisture from meat faster.
  • Is there a connection between the usage of salt in sacrifices and the story of Lot’s wife turning into salt in Genesis 19:15-23?
  • The verses state that God destroyed Sodom, Gomorrah, its people, and area but saved part of Abraham’s nephew’s, Lot’s, family. The family was warned, “Flee for your life! Don’t look behind you nor stop anywhere in the plain.” Despite the warning, Lot’s wife turned, looked, and became covered in salt.
  • There is no connection between this tale and the sacrifice other than the warning to obey God’s/nature’s laws.
  • I understand that the Torah is telling us a natural phenomenon. Lot’s family was warned of an impending volcanic eruption and told to flee. They were told to hurry, not pause for any reason lest the volcanic flow harms them. Lot’s wife neglected the warning. She paused to see what was happening and was engulfed by the lava flow.
  • Lot’s wife’s tale is the Torah’s version of “curiosity killed the cat.”
  • Honey is a prohibited sacrifice. The rabbis suggested that this teaches people should not indulge over much in pleasurable pursuits.
  • The first Hebrew word of Leviticus, the name of the book Vayikra, ends with the Hebrew letter aleph being small. Why? Four crucial lessons should be drawn from this phenomenon.
  • First, this is not a unique occurrence. There are, for example, small letters in Genesis 2:4, 27:40, Leviticus 6:2, and Deuteronomy32:18. There is also the insertion of larger than usual letters, as in Leviticus 11:42. There were many other changes that were made in the Torah since ancient times, including tikunei sofrim, more than a dozen changes in the text by the ancient sages.
  • An example is why did the Torah write “my wretchedness” in Numbers 11:15 when Moses did not want to see the wretchedness of the complaining Israelites? This is one of the times that the sages changed the original Torah reading – which read “their wretchedness” – to avoid referring to the people harshly. This concept is called in Hebrew tikunei sofrim, “emendations of the sages,” and is discussed in Mekhilta Beshalach 10 and Tanhuma Beshalach
  • Another example of a change in the biblical text is Judges 18:30. It states, “Jonathan, son of Gershom, son of Manasseh,” served as a priest for an idol. The name Manasseh is spelled with a suspended Hebrew letter nun. The Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 109b-110a states that when the nun is not read, the name is Moses, who brought the Israelites out of Egypt. Although suspended above the name, the nun was added to the Bible to try to hide the embarrassing fact that this man who violated the Torah and led some Israelites to worship idols was Moses’s grandson.
  • Second, it is an example of Maimonides saying something untrue. It is what the Greek philosopher Plato called a “noble truth” and Maimonides an “Essential Truth.” Most Jews need to believe that the Torah in our hands today is what God gave Moses. Maimonides placed this idea in his thirteen principles of Judaism because the average Jew needed to believe it.
  • Third, it is an example of obscurity in the Bible for which there is no clear, irrefutable explanation. Scholars have offered ideas for the changes. But while their views may explain some changes, they do not clear them all. We no longer know why the ancients placed small and large letters in some words.
  • Fourth, we must recognize that many rabbinical explanations are not given to explain the truth but to teach a lesson. They are sermonic. In this first verse in Leviticus, the rabbis noted that when God spoke to the non-Israelite prophet Balaam, the final aleph did not appear. They suppose that it indicates that God’s appearance to Balaam was not such a joyous occasion as when He spoke to Moses. When Moses wrote about God calling him, he humbly removed the aleph not to appear superior. God, according to this interpretation, told him to replace the He did so but made it small. This is a lovely story. But readers need to realize that the sages invented the tale to teach about humility. It is a sermon. It is not an actual event.
About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.
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