The Origins of Sacrifice

Emor By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On May 13, 2000 / 5760 | Torah Commentary

When our three children were still quite young, we did not hesitate to let them masquerade for Halloween and go out to “trick or treat.” For security reasons, we would often go with them. Part of the evening’s fun was handing out the candy at our own door to those who came seeking a treat. The Orthodox day school which our children attended at the time frowned on the practice by insisting that Halloween was once a Christian religious holiday. The sudden display of pedanticism always amused me because what was left of Halloween in our day is utterly bereft of any sacred content. Like Valentine’s Day, it had been completely desacralized, and most American Jews participated in the joy of both days in some fashion. Time had severed the modern secular meaning of each from its medieval religious moorings. The Orthodox assault was not driven by a sudden appreciation for critical scholarship but by an overriding concern for keeping Jews socially apart as much as possible.

Ours is not the first generation to detect vestigial traces of foreign influence in our midst. A fleeting but striking phrase in this week’s parashah opens up the intriguing question of the non-Jewish origins of the sacrificial system which makes up such a large part of the Torah. In admonishing the priests who presided over the sacred precincts of the Tabernacle and its cult to abide by doubly stringent standards of ritual purity, the Torah declares: “They [i.e., the priests] shall be holy to their God and not profane the name of their God; for they offer the Lord’s offerings by fire, the food of their God, and so must be holy (Leviticus 21:6).” What precisely does the phrase “the food of their God” denote? Taken literally, it conjures up a world of mythology in which humans were created to feed the gods. No less than any self-respecting sovereign, the gods must have a retinue. The purpose of the temple cult was to minister to the gods, to free them of domestic cares. To the degree to which the gods enjoyed their daily sacrifices, they would favor the individual, tribe or nation who offered them.

There is no doubt that the Torah largely divested itself of such crude views when it appropriated a sacrificial system to bridge the distance between God and Israel. But that it knew of the belief that pagan gods fed on their cultic offerings is clear from one vivid description of Israel’s waywardness: “He [i.e., God] will say where are their gods [i.e., the false gods of Israel], the rock in whom they sought refuge, who ate the fat of their offerings and drank their libation wine (Deuteronomy 32:37-38)?”

More disconcerting is the frequency with which images that refer back to notions widespread in the ancient Near East reappear within the legal and narrative sections of the Torah. The use of the term “lehem” (literally “bread,” more generally “food”) as descriptive of the sacrifice on the altar shows up early in Leviticus (3:11, 16), as does the phrase “reah nihoah” which means “of pleasing odor” to the Lord (Leviticus 1:9, 3:5). In the story of No·ah the language is still more graphic. Upon emerging from the ark, No·ah builds an altar and sacrifices a single specimen of every clean animal and bird in the ark. The Torah relates that, “the Lord smelled the pleasing odor” and decided never again to destroy the earth because of human errancy (Genesis 8:21).

The ancient Aramaic translation of the Torah by Onkelos was sufficiently troubled by all of these phrases to fudge them. Thus he toned down the passage in Genesis to read that, “The Lord accepted with favor his sacrifice…” Though Onkelos consistently recast instances of biblical anthropomorphism, the allusion to pagan concepts added an extra bit of urgency.

An early midrashic work after the destruction of the Second Temple reconceptualized the nature of its cultic worship. Brilliantly, the midrash realized that “nihoah” (pleasant aroma) is related etymologically to the word “nahat” or in the rabbinic phrase “nahat ruah” (pleasant feeling). That connection enabled the midrash to read “reah nihoah” as “nahat ruah.” The satisfaction God experienced at the sight of the sacrifice was internal and spiritual: “I commanded and My will was done,” says the midrash. In other words, the cult had nothing to do with divine need. Israel had submitted to God’s will, whatever its intent, and that alone was the source of God’s pleasure.

In addition, the midrash made the remarkable observation that throughout the Torah the sacrificial commandments were always issued in God’s personal name, the Tetragrammaton. The exclusion of any other of God’s names was meant to underline the fact that all sacrifices were directed to one and the same God.

And the grandeur of this God mocked the very idea of consumption. Invoking Psalm 50, the midrash contended that as creator, God is the source and owner of all that exists: “For Mine is every animal of the forest… I know every bird of the mountain…Were I hungry, I would not tell you, for Mine is the world and all it holds (10-12).”

Finally, the midrash noted that the phrase signifying God’s pleasure (reah nihoah) at the sacrifice being tendered did not depend on its costliness. In listing the range of acceptable burnt offerings (olah), whether bull, sheep or bird, the Torah concluded each passage with the identical sign of divine approval: “An offering by fire of pleasing odor to the Lord (Leviticus 1:9, 13, 17).” From this striking insight, the midrash drew the inclusive principle that in relating to God, it is not quantity but quality that counts. The intent of our sacrifice or prayer far outweighs its amplitude (Sifre deve Rav143).

The legacy of Israel’s early sacrificial system would continue to occupy the best minds of the Middle Ages. Maimonides and Nachmanides, one a rationalist and the other a mystic, could not have disagreed more viscerally on its meaning (see the latter in his commentary on Leviticus 1:9). From the midrash just studied, we see that the key to retaining old forms and texts is the ability to infuse them with new meanings. As the Torah was able to adopt for its own purposes a pagan institution through redesigning it to fit into a totally different world view, the Rabbis reinterpreted it once again in accordance with their own sensibilities to keep it from being buried in the dustbin of history. As Abraham Joshua Heschel never tired of declaiming: literalism is the most serious threat to religion or to life. The literal mindset that wants to repudiate Halloween because of its long-forgotten origins would never have been at ease with the independent thinking that mark the imagination of both Bible and Talmud.

Shabbat shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Emor are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.