Tzav (Leviticus 6, 1 – 8, 36) – the importance of sacrificial offerings in the Bible

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The Torah reading of Tzav delineates different types of sacrificial offerings – however, these sacrificial offerings had already been delineated in the previous Torah reading of Vayikra. Nechama Leibowitz (a great Biblical scholar of the 20th century) points out that the order of the sacrificial offerings in these two Torah readings of Vayikra and Tzav is significantly different. The order in Vayikra is burnt offering, meal offering, peace offering, sin offering and guilt offering, while the order in Tzav is burnt offering, meal offering, sin offering, guilt offering and peace offering. She suggests that the differing order is determined by the audience to whom the delineation is addressed. In the Torah reading of Vayikra, the delineation is directed to the Israelites – “And the Lord called unto Moses, and spoke unto him out of the tent of meeting, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel…” (Leviticus 1, 1-2). In the Torah reading of Tzav, the delineation is directed to the priests (Aaron and his sons) – “And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying, Command Aaron and his sons” (Leviticus 6, 1). Nechama Leibowitz further explains that when the Israelites are addressed in Vayikra, precedence is given to voluntary offerings (burnt offering, meal offering and peace offering) whereas when the priests are addressed the order is according to degree of holiness with the burnt offering, meal offering, sin offering and guilt offering being of greater holiness and the peace offering being of lesser holiness.


Sacrificial offerings, including animal sacrifice, is the central form of ritual practice in the ancient Biblical and Israelite culture. The term for a sacrifice in Hebrew, korban (קורבן), comes from a root that means near or close, and sacrificial offerings were a way to draw close to God. The sacrificial offerings were not only for the sake of atonement in the case of sin and wrongdoing, but for a variety of purposes – such as thanksgiving in the case of the peace offering and devotion to God in the case of the burnt offering. The Hebrew verb to sacrifice (להקריב) comes from the same root as the word korban – and, in the Biblical conception to sacrifice sacrificial offerings is a way to draw close to God.


The laws of sacrificial offerings of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) are no longer applicable in traditional Judaism without the Tabernacle or Temple of Jerusalem (the Tabernacle being the center of ritual and sacrificial worship of the Israelites in their wanderings in the wilderness and in the land of Israel until the building of the Temple of Jerusalem by Solomon). Since the destruction of the second Temple by the Romans in the 1st century CE (the first Temple having been destroyed in the 6th century BCE by the Babylonians) animal sacrifice and sacrificial offerings have disappeared as a form of ritual practice in traditional Judaism replaced by prayer and study.


The notion of animal sacrifice and sacrificial offerings is foreign to a contemporary reader of the Hebrew Bible. Yet, not only were sacrificial offerings the central ritual practice in the ancient Biblical and Israelite culture, and in the early formative period of traditional Judaism, the notion of sacrifice is a central concept of the Hebrew Bible and traditional Judaism based upon the Bible. In order to understand the importance of the concept of sacrifice from a spiritual point of view in the Bible and Jewish tradition, I want to begin by saying some words about happiness.


Personal happiness is simply not presented as an ultimate value (in the sense of an ultimate goal) in the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) and Hebrew Bible. As far as I am aware, the term happiness (אושר) does not appear at all in the Torah. The Torah does command us to be joyful (שמח) on certain festive occasions, but there is no command or general directive to be happy (מאושר). The one book in the Hebrew Bible where the terms happiness (אושר) and joy (שמחה) are central, religious concepts, is the Book of Psalms, which opens with the words – “Happy (אשרי) is the person who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked” (Psalms 1, 1). However, even in the Book of Psalms happiness is not conceived of as an ultimate value (or goal). Happiness, as indicated in the opening verse of the Book of Psalms, is conceived of as the result of a moral life, and not as an end, goal or ultimate value in itself. The ultimate values of the Torah and Hebrew Bible are moral values, such as peace, justice, compassion, love, freedom and equality.


The Hebrew Bible and the Jewish tradition based upon the Hebrew Bible are duty oriented. An important aspect of the Torah is legal material (commandments, statutes and judgments) and moral teachings that consist of duties and obligations both of a positive (requirements) and negative (prohibitions) nature, regulating ethical as well as ritual matters. The Jewish law is a highly sophisticated legal system based upon the commandments of the Torah representing a central aspect of the Jewish tradition together with ethical teachings and obligations, and ritual practices. Duties and obligations necessarily imply corresponding rights. It is an obligation in the Jewish tradition to visit the sick. Correspondingly, the sick have a right to be visited. The emphasis, though, in the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition is upon duties rather than rights. By contrast, the legal system of the United States is a rights oriented system, in which every citizen is guaranteed “the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. Similarly, rights necessarily implies corresponding duties. If a person has a right to freedom of speech, or of religion, then there is a corresponding duty for others not to infringe upon that right. The emphasis, however, is upon rights. When the emphasis is upon individual rights, then the corresponding focus is upon personal happiness of the individual. Conversely, when the emphasis is upon duties and obligations, then the corresponding focus is upon social justice and kindness to others.


The Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition, in being duty oriented, presuppose the notion of sacrifice. In order to fulfill a duty, or obligation, a person must be willing to sacrifice personal happiness. I would rather not go to a hospital to fulfill the obligation of visiting a sick person. The hospital may be a depressing place, and there may be any number of other things that I would prefer to do instead, if I were concerned primarily with my own personal happiness. If we transcend the literal level, and understand what is implied philosophically and spiritually in the concept of sacrifice, then it is clear why sacrificial offerings, including animal sacrifices (as a central form of ritual worship prescribed by the Torah), are so central in the Hebrew Bible. The sacrificial offerings prescribed by the Torah symbolize the willingness to sacrifice personal happiness in order to fulfill the moral imperative of God. The duties and obligations, both legal and moral, which so characterize the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition, presuppose a willingness to sacrifice personal happiness in order to fulfill them. The concept of sacrifice, philosophically and spiritually, is the basis of the religious life of the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition.


I want to clarify two things in regard to the willingness to sacrifice happiness as a precondition to the fulfillment of duties and obligations. First, it does not follow that we must necessarily suffer, or that we are to seek suffering as a religious form of service of God – we must be willing to sacrifice and suffer. Second, the willingness to sacrifice happiness does not mean that happiness is undesirable or unimportant.


Happiness is not an ultimate value in the Torah and Hebrew Bible because it is self-centered rather than God-centered. The focus of the Torah and Hebrew Bible is upon what God demands and requires of us as human beings, as in the words of Micah the prophet – “He has told you, O man, what is good and what the Lord demands of you, but to do justice, to love lovingkindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6, 8). The essence of religion, according to Micah, is moral acts of justice and kindness, and a psychological-moral attitude of humility before God. This attitude of humility expresses itself in the bowing down and obedience to God’s moral demands, and not in a self-centered concern for one’s own happiness.


The essential demand of God in the Biblical conception is a moral demand. Morality is a concern for one’s fellow human being, and thus social in nature. Happiness, by contrast, is a psychological attitude or feeling, and is personal in nature. Happiness is not a matter of obligation, but simply something that we naturally desire and seek as human beings as a part of our animal nature. Moral duties and obligations require for their fulfillment the transcending of our natural, self-centeredness (as a part of our animal nature) and desire for our own happiness – in being concerned for the welfare and happiness of our fellow human being. The Torah and Hebrew Bible, in my opinion, teach that our focus is not to be upon ourselves and our own happiness, but upon the welfare of others. However, it does not follow from this that happiness is unimportant. It simply means that our own personal happiness is not to be our ultimate goal or preoccupation. Indeed, as I pointed out, happiness is a central, religious concept in the Book of Psalms that opens with a Psalm that tells us that happiness is the result of living a moral life, which God demands.


There are modern, humanistic psychologists who suggest that, paradoxically, when our focus is upon ourselves and our own happiness, then we are actually less likely to experience happiness. It seems, the more we pursue happiness, the greater the likelihood that it will elude us. Preoccupation with ourselves, and our own happiness, often leads to anxiety and tension, and can easily degenerate into a concern with obtaining esteem in the eyes of others rather than self-esteem. When our focus is upon helping others, though, paradoxically, we ourselves, as according to the Biblical conception, are likely to experience happiness and fulfillment as a result of our concern for others. A concern for the welfare of others often allows us to forget, or not be preoccupied with, our own personal troubles and worries, or to see that there may be others who suffer even more than we do, as well as perhaps improving our own self-esteem and feeling about ourselves in helping others.

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Jeffrey Radon

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