Shaya Cohen -


The Altar

As a modern reader, you may very well wonder about the purpose of the altar in the Mishkan for making offerings and sacrifices. You might allow your imagination to create all kinds of images of these rituals, because we are limited in knowing the reasons that sacrifices were made, what they actually looked like, who made them, and when they were offered. In this part of the book, we will offer an understanding of the origins of offerings in Judaism, and then bring a modern and reasonable understanding of the altar and the sacrifices and offerings.

Be Holy because I am Holy

When we make an altar, we are not supposed to use tools on it, to not contaminate it with our own action, but to keep it as basic and unimproved as a heap of ground or stones can be. The ground that we use for an altar should represent all ground, to be a thing in itself. A sacrifice has the explicit goal of connecting heaven and earth – both are things, nouns.

But the human addition to the altar is forbidden to be our physical substance: our part is one of action. Hashem tells the Jewish people that the altar should have a ramp, not steps, so that “you should not expose your nakedness,” suggesting that climbing steps requires another kind of separation between the legs.[1]

The altar and the offerings that were made were primarily about our connecting intimately with Hashem. We brought offerings and made sacrifices, because we either had acted in a way that distanced us from Hashem, or to express our gratitude to Him, or we were choosing to become ever closer to Him. But the earliest offerings may suggest the reasons for the commandments about offerings and how they ultimately were intended to support a relationship between people and Hashem.

The Sacrifices of Cain and Abel

The story of the sacrifices offered by Kayen and Abel create an intriguing framework for understanding the sacrifices. By looking at how Hashem responded to their sacrifices, particularly His rejection of Cain’s sacrifice, we can begin to understand not only the role of sacrifices, but their purpose and relevance in our relationship with Hashem.

What Did Cain do Wrong?

After Cain and Abel made their offerings to Hashem, many people have speculated on Hashem’s reasons for accepting Abel’s offerings and rejecting Cain’s: maybe Abel’s was acceptable because it was firstlings and Cain’s was not the first fruits; maybe Hashem rejected Cain’s offering on a whim. But what if the reason can be explained by recognizing the role of Cain’s anger toward Abel, his misguided purpose of his offering, and Hashem’s goal in lecturing him after the fact? In fact, Hashem may have ensured through the mitzvah of offering bikkurim (first fruits) a way that we would understand the purpose of our offerings and how they would generate joy, intimacy, celebration between ourselves, our community and Hashem. Let’s pursue this line of thinking by studying the story of Cain and Abel more carefully.

During the time of Cain and Abel, it was still common among other peoples to make offerings to pagan gods. In spite of the teachings of Hashem, Cain may still have believed that the gods needed to be bribed for them to provide wellbeing and productivity to the land and its people. In fact, Abel was the first of the brothers to make an offering, and Cain followed his example—but Cain may not have had a close relationship with Hashem or failed to understand the purpose of the offering: it was not meant to be a bribe to the pagan gods, but a symbol of gratitude to Hashem for the bounteous fields and trees, as well as a way to acknowledge Hashem for being inextricably involved with the fertile land and its fruits.

So Hashem may have realized that the purpose underlying Cain’s offering was not proper, and He rejected it, and Cain became angry[2]:

Why are you angry, said Hashem to Cain, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you refuse to do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; you are its object of desire, but you must master it.

Hashem was deeply concerned, not just because Cain misunderstood the purpose of a sacrifice and may have only been imitating Abel, but that Cain was enraged at Hashem’s response; He saw that Cain might not choose to control his rage at Abel’s offering being accepted and his own being rejected. Hashem is telling him that if he doesn’t control his rage, “sin is crouching at your door”; Hashem knew that Cain might do something terrible out of his anger. More than this fact, Cain may not have understood Hashem’s instruction, and he acted rashly. As we know, Cain funneled his rage into a pre-meditated murder of his own brother. This incident was not only the first time that an act was called “sin,” but it was the first fratricide in the Torah.

Did Cain misunderstand Hashem’s cautionary words? Or had his rage grown too great to master it? We don’t know. We can surmise, however, that Hashem was distressed at Cain’s murder of his brother, and that He was determined to make certain that in the future, the Jewish people would understand the purpose of sacrifices and offer them according to His commandments. The bikkurim were the epitome of how and why we make sacrifices to Hashem.

As we mentioned earlier, the bikkurim were the offering of the first fruits. The process of collecting first fruits demanded that the farmer examine his crop or fruit trees carefully, even daily, to be able to identify when the flower of the first fruit appeared, and he would tie a bow next to the blossom. Unlike Cain who did not offer first fruits, and may have gathered his offering in haste to keep up with his brother, farmers would take the necessary time to examine their first fruits. We learn that there are reasons for us to take our time in following a process dedicated to Hashem.

Other reasons for the intense attention of the farmer to his crops was that the first fruits were not necessarily the most beautiful, or ripest, or largest; they only needed to be the first. The purpose of the offering was to acknowledge that Hashem, with the land, rains, sun and His blessings, had worked with the farmer to produce the crop, and the farmer wanted Hashem to know how very happy and grateful he was for the results of their shared work. The farmer would place the first fruits in a basket, present them to the priest at the Mishkan and make the following declaration:

So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the first fruits of the soil that you, Lord, have given me.[3]

In addition, if the farmer had to sell his produce before reaching Jerusalem, Hashem instructed him to use the funds (as he would also do once he sold his produce in Jerusalem), to join with the community in celebration with food and drink.

Therefore, Hashem’s providing this mitzvah of the bikkurim ensured that His instructions would be clear, and we would understand a number of important premises of this offering: (1) that the offering was an expression of heartfelt gratitude to Hashem for his help in producing the crops; (2) that the bikkurim were not a payoff to Hashem for their good fortune; and (3) that the declaration they made when they arrived to give the offering to the priest reinforced their ownership of the process. Finally, we are reminded that all offerings were not for Hashem’s benefit, but for our own. We grow closer to Hashem when we acknowledge our love and gratitude to Him, and to those in the community who are also offering bikkurim and celebrating with us.

Prayer v. Sacrifices

Since we can no longer offer sacrifices without the Temple, some say that our prayers are a substitution for them. Although our prayers are significant, we have to wonder if they provide a direct substitution for them?

When we offer prayers, we are making a spiritual connection to Hashem. In a sense, it doesn’t require us to carry out a process; we can often do it “in place,” without having to necessarily travel anywhere. Our prayers are very important and can frame and our lives in a holy manner.

But sacrifices required something extra. We were reminded that our lives were connected to the seasons, and our food was not only connected to the earth, but to our work with Hashem. We were responsible for planting, raising and harvesting our crop and not to just rely on Hashem’s blessings, but in fact to work with him for our own survival. We must watch the crops and for the appearance of first fruits, which reminded us that the work we do to raise the crops is done in partnership with Hashem. And we must carry our first fruits (or the money from them) to Jerusalem.

So although prayer engages us as we stand facing Hashem, sacrifice called us to actively pursue through our actions a relationship with Hashem. Every step we took, every seed we planted, every fruit we picked, every trip we made to the Mishkan to offer sacrifices reminded us of our relationship with, and gratitude to Hashem. They engaged us in the physical, not just the intellectual. In fact, sacrifice, including the burning of the sacrifice, engaged all our senses, every part of us, in a way that prayer may not.

These observations in no way discount the significance of prayer. It’s difficult, however, to assume that prayer is a direct substitute for sacrifice. Still, until the Temple is rebuilt, we can pray as a way to ensure our closeness to Hashem, to become ever more holy, and the best opportunity to express our gratitude.

[ Your thought about fear and our marriage to Hashem doesn’t seem to fit here. I think a separate section on fear and how it limits our relationships and connection to Hashem would be a good place to put it.]

Since the idea of sacrifices or korbanot (which means “coming close”) seem foreign to us today, we’ll identify some of the sacrifices and offerings that were made and their purposes; provide a short vignette to provide an example that people might relate to in this day and age, and then summarize the reasons sacrifices were done but are no longer done.

Due to the number of korbanot that could be offered, we’re going to focus on six types: the bikkurim, or first fruits; the olah, or burnt offering; the zevach sh’lamin, or peace offering; the chatat, sin offering; the asham, or guilt offering; and tithing. Let’s begin with an example of offering the bikkurim.

* * *

Benjamin wiped the sweat from his brow, as he looked out over his field. He and his wife had toiled through blood, sweat and tears to come to this day; fortunately, Hashem had provided everything they needed to have a successful crop. Through hailstorms, flooding and cold they had worked the soil, and now the wheat was beginning to ripen. It felt like a miracle, just like bitter water being made pure by Moshe on the journey from Egypt. He was going to take the first ripe wheat to the Mishkan, to celebrate joyously all the blessings he and his family had experienced as they arrived at this day of reaping. He closed his eyes and said a prayer of thanks to Hashem for all His help, for the seeds, the rain and the ripening of the crops, and then set out to collect the bikkurim. He waved at his wife who was approaching with a knowing smile on her face. It was a good day.

* * *

The olah comes from the word, aliyah, the word that means “ascension”; it is a sacrifice that suggests that we are not only submitting to Hashem, but we are rising to meet and to become more intimate with Him, and in so doing, achieving holiness. This offering could be made for many different reasons. Depending on what the offeror could afford, the olah could be selected from cattle, sheep, goats, or birds. The offering would be burnt completely by the priest, as it was completely dedicated to Hashem.

* * *

I feel so blessed to have a hardworking husband and good children. But I feel alone and distant. I believe it is a good time to seek out Hashem wholeheartedly and completely. I want Him to know that even when life is hard, I am devoted to Him and want to experience him more deeply in my life. I will take an unblemished sheep to the Mishkan and ask the priest to make an olah, burning the offering as a full devotional act to Hashem. I will immerse myself in prayer and commitment through this holy act.

* * *

The zevach sh’lamim was a peace offering or one of expressing thanks or gratitude. The word sh’lamim has the same root as shalom: peace or wholeness. A part of the offering is burnt on the altar; a portion is given to the priests and the rest is eaten by the offeror and his or her family. Everyone has the opportunity to participate in this act of holiness and gratitude to Hashem.

* * *

He was still shaking his head in wonderment and appreciation, as he sat on the ground. His four-year old son had fallen from his cart and suffered what appeared to be a severe gash on his head. When he saw the boy fall, he rushed to his side, held him in his arms and put pressure on the wound. Although it had seemed serious at first, he realized that it was not as dangerous as it seemed. Once the boy opened his eyes, his father continued holding him in his arms, resolving that he would go to the Mishkan tomorrow with his family to make an offering, to express his gratitude that his son was saved from a catastrophic outcome.

* * *

The chatat is a sin offering, to ask for forgiveness for a sin a person has committed. The offering must be given in wholehearted sincerity to be acceptable; the sin must be one that is committed unintentionally, not maliciously. The sacrificial animal is to be commensurate with the sin committed, as well as the means of the one who has sinned.

* * *

Joseph paced the floor, angry at himself. He had just finished telling a neighbor that he had spent Shabbos afternoon taking a long walk; he had been pre-occupied with money problems and just needed to clear his head. As he was about to re-enter his house, he told his neighbor, Calev, where he had been. Calev looked surprised since, he explained in a kind voice, there is a mitzvah that states we are not supposed to walk long distances on Shabbat, and he had walked much more than the distance permitted; Calev assured him that as a new convert, it was understandable that he didn’t know. He suggested that Joseph take a chatat offering to the Mishkan, since he sincerely regretted breaking the mitzvah and was committed to not violating it again.

Joseph slowed his pacing, and suddenly realized that he had not only made a mistake that day, but might make many more as he strove to understand and embrace his new faith; he had also learned something new, and learning is a special blessing on Shabbat. He would choose an offering the next day and make his way to the Mishkan. He wanted Hashem to know that he was sincere in his devotion to Judaism, and would work even harder to keep the mitzvot.

* * *

The guilt offering, called asham, is offered when a person isn’t sure whether he or she has committed a sin, or for a breach of trust. The offering is eaten by the priests.

* * *

Rebecca’s friend Miriam confided in her that she was having troubles in her marriage. Miriam wasn’t sure what to do about it, and thought Rebecca might have a suggestion. The situation, as marriages often are, was complicated. Rebecca spent most of their time together just listening, but struggled about whether she could be helpful to Miriam or not. Since her friend asked her again what she thought she should do, she asked if she could think about the situation and talk to her tomorrow.

When Rebecca arrived home, her husband asked her about her visit, and Rebecca told him what she’d learned, and how she hoped she could be helpful to her friend; perhaps he could offer some suggestions. Later that night, however, she wondered if Miriam’s sharing was supposed to be confidential, at least meant to be limited in details shared, and whether she had betrayed her friend. At that point, she asked her husband not to share the information with anyone else; she also resolved to take an asham to the Mishkan, since she believed she may not only have disappointed Miriam by confiding the details of her situation, but disappointed and created a rift between herself and Hashem. Meanwhile, she would also be as good a friend as possible to Miriam, and pray for Hashem to forgive her for her own possible error.

* * *

You might be surprised to see “tithing” included in a section on sacrifices and offerings. But tithings were precisely those actions commanded by Hashem to the Jews.

Since the Levites were committed directly to Hashem, they were not included in the census to identify the people who could be in the military, nor were they assigned land; the Levites were tasked with caring for everything connected to the Mishkan and with moving the Mishkan and everything associated with it when it was time to travel. To compensate the Levites for their work and devotion, the Israelites were told to tithe one-tenth of their crops or income for the Levites’ service.

So these tithes were donated to Hashem and allocated to the Levites as the compensation for the service. Tithes were a portion of those efforts that connected the people to the Mishkan, to those who were dedicated to Hashem, and to Hashem himself. This interconnectedness allowed the people through their donations of oil, corn and wine to experience the holiness of giving and donating.

Hashem presents many different ways for us to recognize our sins and to atone for them, too. Each sacrifice is intended to be commensurate with the sin; each sin we commit can burden us in regret and guilt, and when we are pre-occupied with our own feelings, we have difficulty reaching out to Hashem. In every case, Hashem wants us to take responsibility for our actions, recognize the impact not only on ourselves but on those in our lives, and in our relationship with Him.

Transcending our Physical Selves

Mankind’s role in holiness is not to contribute our own bodies, nor to add our own physicality: we are not the sacrificial animal. Our role is to be the catalyst, the kinetic force that brings the nouns together. And when we do this, we have to make our entire bodies into verbs – climbing a ramp requires us to bow, engaging our entire bodies; when we climb steps, our upper bodies can remain erect and distinct from our legs. To create holiness, we have to be the motive force, while the earth and heaven are the static bodies that are connected through us.

The lesson is clear enough: when we define ourselves by our physical attributes, then we are limiting who we are. The Torah almost never tells us of a person’s physical appearances unless the person himself thinks it makes him limited in some way (such as Moshe’s speech impediment). Our lives are supposed to be lived and defined by what we choose to do, not by how we are born or raised, or even how others define us. While we live, we are supposed to be verbs, not nouns. Through our actions, we close the gap between heaven and earth, bringing them together. There will be plenty of time to be a mere hunk of matter when we are six feet under. We are not to be a part of the altar, but we use it to unify heaven and earth with holiness.

Sweet Aroma and Moving in the Right Direction

What is the substance of a smell? The scent of a delicious food does not provide any material comfort. Instead of satisfying our hunger, the smell of roasted coffee or baking bread has the opposite effect: it whets our appetite, adding to our cravings. Indeed, a sweet savor is not filling: it is something that makes us excited and anticipatory for the meal to come.

The very first time that Hashem refers to a “sweet savor” is when Noach offers an elevation-offering from the animals on the Ark. The aroma must have been sweet, indeed, because Hashem follows the offering with no less than 19 verses of promises and blessings for mankind.

Those blessings do not come because mankind inherently deserved them. (If we had, there would have been no need for the Flood in the first place.) The blessings come as a direct result of Noach’s sacrifices: of connecting the earth to the heavens by sacrificing kosher animals. It is that act of sacrifice (which seems to be Noach’s own invention) which shows that at least one member of the human race understood that the purpose of mankind is to seek a connection between man and Hashem, to elevate the natural world into the spiritual plane.

The sacrifices are not the purpose of mankind’s existence, which is why Hashem is not satisfied by Noach’s offerings, just as our hunger is not sated by the scent of tantalizing food. A sacrifice—any Torah sacrifice—does not complete our lives. The fact that Hashem finds our sacrifices to be “a pleasing aroma” tells us that Hashem views our offerings not as the meal, but as the anticipatory scent that promises wonderful things to come. It means that we are on the right track, not that we have reached the destination.

So when we make an offering because we have sinned, the offering does not make the sin “go away” – but it shows Hashem that we are contrite, and that we aim to do better in the future. The only part of the offering that goes “up” to the heavens is the smell, after all, and that is all that Hashem desires from it. Hashem benefits from knowing that we are seeking the relationship, that we are craving the connection, and that we understand that a fundamental purpose of our existences in this world is to dedicate ourselves toward spiritual ends. When Noach built the ark, he was saving life. But when he made elevation-offerings afterwards, Noach showed that the value of life is not inherent: life exists so that we can choose to connect with Hashem, to complete the creation of the world by connecting heaven and earth.

This point is hardly a side-note in the Torah: the phrase reiach nichoach, or “pleasing aroma” to Hashem appears 39 times in the Torah. And it is there to remind us that Hashem wants us, above all, to be moving in the right direction. An offering, like a pleasing aroma, is not a product in itself; it is a step in the process, a promise of even better things to come.

Thus, the altar gives us the opportunity to make offerings to unite heaven and earth, and to express our love and connection to Hashem.

Altar and Elevation to Holiness

The mission of the Jewish people is to be a light unto the nations, to elevate the physical world into the spiritual plane. And to do that, it was essential that the physical home of the Jewish people had to be capable of that elevation.

One might ask, however: is it not problematic that the Land that is promised is named Canaan? After all, Canaan was the name of Ham’s son, and he was cursed by Noach for Ham’s sexual crime[4]. The Torah tells us that the Canaanites, guilty of sexual perversion, could not achieve holiness.

Ham’s sin explains why Avraham forbids his servant from finding a wife who is a Canaanite, why Esav earns the displeasure of his parents for marrying a local Canaanite. It is why the Torah tells us explicitly, “after the doings of the land of Canaan, whither I bring you, shall ye not do; neither shall ye walk in their statutes.”[5]

But even though the word “Canaan” (in one form or another) occurs ninety-three times in the Torah, the Torah does not use the name “Canaan” when referring to acts of holiness. The land itself, while named for its inhabitants, is not called “Canaan” by the Torah whenever we are charged with holiness, with doing Hashem’s will. Instead, the Torah goes to great lengths to avoid using the name “Canaan” when referring to the purpose of the land as the place where man is meant to connect with Hashem, to create holiness. Avraham is not told “Go to Canaan,” but instead, “Go to the land that I will show you.” When commanded to bring offerings, the Torah does not tell us to go to the Land of Canaan. Instead, the Torah phrases it otherwise: “. . . in the place which he shall choose to cause His name to dwell there.”[6] or “the Lord thy Hashem shall choose to set his name there.”[7].

There is no real suspense – Avraham knows where to go, and he proceeds directly to Canaan. The Jews know that they will be offering sacrifices to Hashem in the land of Canaan. But the Torah avoids naming the place “Canaan.”

Names are important. Some names (such as Adam’s names for animals or the “Land of Canaan” are merely descriptive). They tell us the nature of the thing, or the names of its inhabitants. But when Avraham calls out in Hashem’s name, he is doing something very different: he is prescribing. The land may have been called Canaan in the past and present – but the future land will be the place where Hashem sets His name, the place which Hashem showed Avraham. The place of holiness.

Offering sacrifices is also a way of elevating the world and closing the separation between Hashem and man and making things holy. And even within the “most holy” category, the Torah plays favorites: the guilt offering, the sin offering, and the meal offering are called “most holy” more than anything else in the entire Torah. What makes these specific items worthy of such attention?

I would argue that the difference is that these are all voluntary offerings, in the sense that for someone to bring such an offering, they must be taking the initiative. A person who brings a sin offering is looking for an opportunity to bring an offering, above and beyond supporting the routine “housekeeping” offerings in the Temple. When one of those offerings is brought, it is as a result of the exercise of free will: we choose to do an action, and that choice gives the act more potency.

But there is more than this. While Shabbos and the burning bush were combinations of heaven and earth, physical and spiritual, they were really admixed in this way, directly by Hashem. Hashem creates mankind to reunify the split parts—it is our job—so that when Hashem reunifies heaven and earth, He does not do it “for keeps”; He only does it as a teacher would show a student how to solve a math problem: the burning bush is an example of holiness, teaching Moshe the definition. Hashem wants us to learn from Him, to choose to follow His lead and create holiness ourselves.

But a sacrifice, by contrast, is not a static thing, but a dynamic event. It is not merely the combination of two disparate elements. A sacrifice is an active event, elevating the physical toward the spiritual.

Consider the sacrifices: the guilt and sin offerings involve an animal. When the animal is sacrificed, the soul, nefesh, of the animal is released upward in fire. An animal is given an elevation, Aliyah, toward the divine. This is precisely what we want our own souls to do – to elevate toward Hashem. And the flesh of the sacrifices becomes most holy – to be eaten by the priests, elevating them in turn. Like kosher food, whose purpose is to allow us to elevate our bodies through consuming the kosher animal, so too the sacrifices to Hashem create a foodstuff that is most holy, elevating the priests as they consume the meat.

Animals, of course, have spirits, and the contribution of their spirits to the offering makes it most holy. But the meal offering is of flour and oil, not of an animal! Why is an offering that does not include an animal also repeatedly identified as being “most holy”?

The answer is that the meal offering was brought by those who could not afford to purchase an animal. For such a person, even financing the meal offering was a substantial investment (and sacrifice) of his or her own meager possessions. The reason the Torah says, “And when any will offer a meal offering to the Lord,”[8] the Hebrew word used for “any” is nefesh or spirit. The Talmud tells us that a meal offering was not the spirit of the animal but represented the spirit of the person making the offering itself! Which might explain why the meal offering is given pride of place when the Torah lists the offerings:

This shall be yours of the most holy things, reserved from the fire; every offering of theirs, every meal offering of theirs and every sin offering of theirs, and every guilt offering of theirs, which they shall render to me, shall be most holy for you and for your sons.[9]

It is the meal offering that comes first, because the people bringing the offerings put more of their spirit into their sacrifice—and the offering is meant to elevate people most of all: the offering is a human proxy.

The Torah’s words are telling us that Hashem values mankind’s contributions to this world above His own.

And among all of these contributions, it is when we actively choose to find ways to elevate the physical into the spiritual plane, that we are fulfilling the purpose of our existence in this world: Hashem wants us to be holy, and the greatest holiness is achieved when we serve Hashem by connecting the disparate worlds that He formed in the beginning of creation.

One beautiful and creative explanation of the sacrifices was made by Joseph Cox in a video he produced.[10]

Our acts through offerings, then, are of key importance.

Seven, Two and the Animals

Many parts of Judaism and the Torah are connected to the number seven, and the altar and sacrifices are no exception. The seven-day week is a Jewish creation, and we Jews trace this number (which does not work well with either the moon or the sun) to the Torah itself, and the description of creation over a period of seven days. The number is thus quite meaningful to Jews – seven is the number of Hashem’s creative acts, the number that culminates in the day we make holy, Shabbos.

It is not enough that we bring the physical and spiritual together in a cause. While there is an inherent potency in the combination, if we, Hashem forbid, are doing it for our own glory instead of Hashem’s, then we have misunderstood the entire purpose of the creation of the world.

In addition, Noach is commanded to bring seven pairs of the spiritually ready (King James translates as “clean”) animals into the ark. Why? I think it is because these animals, like Shabbos, are capable of spiritual growth: people can use them as kosher food or sacrifices, spiritually elevating both the animals and the people, and the world around us.

So why is Noach told to only bring two of each of the spiritually unfit animals into the ark? I think the number in this case refers to the second day of creation – the only day that Hashem does not call “good.” It is not a day of elevation (one form of holiness), but a day of separation and division of the waters above and below. The second day of creation was, essentially a stutter-step in the creative process. Thus, the animals that are brought on, in the words of the song, “by twosies, twosies,” are the animals that, like the second day itself, do not contribute to the spiritual growth and completion of the world.

One example of a distinction between the holy and the unholy animals comes from the story of the snake in the Garden of Eden:

And if a man come presumptuously upon his neighbor, to slay him with guile; thou shalt take him from Mine altar, that he may die.[11]

What a strange formulation! If you want to kill a murderer that is one thing: but what does Hashem’s altar have to do with it?

The answer lies in the word “arum,” which is translated here as “guile” – but also equally means being potentially self-aware. The kind of forbidden killing is not accidental manslaughter; it is premeditated and evil. Killing with “arum” is not a crime of passion, but one of design.

And the amazing thing is that this word, which is not very common in the Torah, is first found to describe the snake in the Garden of Eden –

Now the serpent was more arum than any beast of the field which the Lord Hashem had made.[12]

The snake sought to kill Chavah (and Adam) by persuading Chavah to eat the fruit, since Hashem had pledged that if they ate the fruit, then they would die. The snake, with premeditation, succeeds in his mission – once they ate the fruit, their consciousnesses were transformed, meaning that the “old” Adam and Chavah were no longer. So the snake in Genesis, with arum, kills.

In Exodus, Hashem tells us that if anyone kills with arum, then they should also be killed. But not simply killed. They must be “taken from the altar.” Why?

The answer is simple: it was the snake’s punishment. Because it killed with arum, the snake lost its legs, and was forced to eat only dust – to wallow in physical depths with no potential for spiritual growth. The example of the snake teaches us (among other things) that the purpose of the altar is to achieve growth and spiritual connection.

Oil and Man’s Relationship with Hashem

Hebrew is a language with relatively few words, and so different words often share a common root. In the case of “eight” the word is composed of three letters: shin, mem, and nun, which spell shemen, or oil. And what is very cool (at least for a Torah geek like me) is that the very first time oil is mentioned in the Torah is when Yaakov, after awakening from the dream in which he sees angels ascending and descending from heaven, announces his realization that the place is the “gate of heaven.”[13] Yaakov takes the stone that he had used as a pillow, the resting place for his soul the night before, and sets it up as a pillar, a kind of altar. Then, to seal the deal, Yaakov poured oil on top of it.

This is not the first time that oil is mentioned in the Torah; it was also the first time anything is poured on any head. But it was not the last! Yaakov actually seems to set the trend. Hashem commands Moshe to pour oil on Aharon’s head[14], which he does.[15] (The language is the same in all three cases.)

There is reciprocity here. Yaakov connected heaven and earth in the place where he experienced his dream, and he used the pouring of oil on the head of his pillar to seal the connection. So when it was time for the priests to be consecrated as the intermediaries between the Children of Israel and Hashem, then they were anointed with oil. Why oil? Perhaps we can say that oil was the embodiment of the relationship between man and Hashem, the meaning of the number eight, with which it shares the letters.

The natural world can be represented by a vegetable, but the creation of oil requires both nature and man’s effort to extract the essence of that vegetable. Oil is thus an amalgam of both divine creation and mankind’s investment of time and energy. The end product is highly nutritious and energy rich, usable as a food and fuel. In the Mishkan and Beis Hamikdosh it was used for both: an ingredient in edible offerings, as well as to light the menorah (the Chanukah version of which has eight lights). Food offerings could also be made from oil and flour; flour, also, is made from a combination of Hashem’s and man’s work.

So for Yaakov to pour oil on the altar was to both acknowledge the natural bounty that made oil possible, as well as to expressly connect mankind’s refinement of that bounty and its investment into the relationship between man and Hashem.

Man’s job in completing the creation of the world, is in fact to unify that which has been divided! We are meant to unify the dualisms in the world, and to do so in a holy manner: heaven and earth, man and woman, the waters above and the waters below (and countless others). But why, if Hashem merges that which is divided, is it destructive of life; whereas, if we succeed in our mission of doing the same thing, it is the ultimate act of holiness? Perhaps we could suggest an answer: If Hashem merges heaven and earth, we cease to exist (as seen with the giving of the first two commandments, as well, in a different form, is demonstrated by the Flood). But if we succeed in merging heaven and earth, then, it would appear, we are fulfilling our destiny!

The Mysteries of the Sacrifices

In all our explorations of the sacrifices and the altar, there are aspects that we haven’t yet discussed, in part because they challenge modern sensibilities, and in part, because we simply do not know the specific reasons for Hashem’s requiring them. For those who prefer to have a reason for everything, this situation can be very frustrating.

In particular, the priests are asked to drain the blood from the sacrificial animal after it is ritually killed. We know that blood is the fuel of life; that is why we are commanded to drain the blood from animals before we eat them. There is also the point that we are called to identify closely with this animal that represents us and who, like us, has blood flowing through its veins and whose blood represents its soul. The priests also sprinkled the blood on and around the altar, reminding us of the life-giving force of the blood, which represents our soul and the soul of the animal, which connects with Hashem. In a sense, however, this is all speculation.

There is another way to look at sacrifices and the altar. The other day I heard a story that I think demonstrates that when we are sometimes called to do something we don’t understand, it is a worthy and holy act:

A woman told her husband that she wanted flowers for her birthday. He was perplexed at her request, but he assumed it was important to her. So on her birthday, he brought her a beautiful bouquet of flowers. As he handed the bouquet to her, she looked into his eyes, tears welling up in her own eyes, and said simply, “Thank you.” Now he understood.

Hashem asked us to perform sacrifices in particular ways that we cannot explain. Can we offer up our lives to serve Hashem, in the absence of detailed explanation, because Hashem wants us to do so? Can we offer up sacrifices because it is a way for us to be intimate with Him?

The Absence of Sacrifices Today

Once the Second Temple was destroyed, there was nowhere that sacrifices and offerings could be made. Jews believe that when the Messiah comes, a third Temple will be built. Whether sacrifices will be offered once again, we can only speculate.

Some of our sages say that our prayers are a replacement for the sacrifices; that is one reason that prayer is still central to Jewish life. Again, not everyone agrees that prayer is a substitute for sacrifices.

The key to understanding the altar and sacrifices is that Hashem has always wanted us to aspire to be intimate with Him, to serve Him, and to actively continue his creation. When we understand that we are called to be active, to be verbs, we fulfill our desire to be holy.

  1. Exodus, 20:23

  2. Genesis, 4:6-7

  3. Deut. 26:5

  4. Genesis, 9:25-27

  5. Leviticus, 18:3

  6. Deuteronomy, 14:23

  7. Deuteronomy, 14:24

  8. Vayikra 2:1.

  9. Bamidbar 18:9.

  10. He offers a comprehensive and concise explanation of all the of the symbolism involved in a sacrifice.

  11. Exodus, 21:14

  12. Genesis, 3:1

  13. Genesis, 28:18

  14. Exodus, 29:7

  15. Leviticus, 8:12

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