The Meaning of Korbanot Today: How Can I Confront Sacrifices? | Aleph Beta

How Can I Confront Sacrifices?

Understanding The Meaning Of Korbanot Today

Immanuel Shalev


How can modern day readers understand and relate to the concept of Korbanot, animal sacrifices? Are we meant to take away a spiritual meaning from the Biblical laws of Korbanot? Or are they just doomed to obscurity, to disuse, until we again have a Temple in which we can practice them? In a modern context, without the Temple, it is hard to know how to relate to these laws, which occupy large swathes of the biblical text that we read regularly in synagogue.

Such is the case with the text of Parshat Tzav. When reading the text of this parsha, the sacrificial rituals feel antiquated and, at times, even barbaric. And yet, Korbanot (sacrifices) were a staple of Israel's service to God. How could it be possible that something in the Torah is rendered meaningless to people today? Or is there a deeper meaning in the concept of Korbanot that can be learned?

Join us as we re-examine the Korbanot, and never read Tzav the same way again. For a deeper discussion, watch Rabbi Fohrman's video on Korbanot: How Can We Relate To Sacrifices Today?


David: Welcome to Parshat Tzav.

Animal sacrifice seems antiquated and utterly foreign to us today. It can clash against our modern moral sensitivities. And yet, Korbanot, sacrifices, were a staple of Israel's service of God – in the Mishkan and later in the Temple.

What Are Korbanot?

Immanuel: One way of understanding sacrifice is to examine it against its historical backdrop. In Biblical times, many theologies had sacrifice as a standard of worship. Maimonides says that Korbanot were Israel's way of taking that already familiar practice of sacrifice, infusing it with holiness, and directing it towards the service of God. In that sense, there is nothing intrinsically spiritual or all that relatable to Korbanot.

David: But if that's true, nowadays, when we don't relate to animal sacrifice, are Korbanot rendered meaningless and obsolete? Or, is there, perhaps, inherent meaning in Korbanot, that would, somehow, make them still relevant even today?

This week, instead of analyzing a particular text, we want to uncover the mysteries behind the general theme of Korbanot that runs throughout the parsha, the book of Leviticus, and really throughout the Torah. This week, on the Parsha Experiment.

Immanuel: Hi, I'm Imu Shalev.

David: And I'm David Block.

Immanuel: And welcome to the Parsha Experiment. What are Korbanot? Why are they brought, what are they mean to achieve? There are various types of Korbanot brought in different circumstances, and Rabbi Fohrman explores some of the larger categories in last year's Vayikra video – links below. But despite those differences, we want to suggest that, at their core, all Korbanot really are meant to accomplish the same thing.

What Does Korban Mean?

So what is that one thing? Look at the word "Korban" itself. It's root is ק-ר-ב, karov, which means "close." Korbanot are, somehow, supposed to create closeness, between the giver and the Receiver – between humanity and God Himself. And in that sense, "sacrifice" is actually a poor translation. "Sacrifice" implies giving something up at a loss, maybe even begrudgingly. But when you give something in order to create net gain, in order to receive something even more valuable, that's not sacrifice. I don't sacrifice $20 to get a new shirt. When I give you a gift in order to enhance our relationship, I don't sacrifice to you. The same is true with Korbanot: yes, I relinquish something in the service, but it's doesn't create a loss – it creates קרבות z, closeness.

David: The question is, how? The process of slaughtering an animal, offering its parts, sprinkling blood seems antithetical to creating love and closeness. When people express love, we send chocolate and flowers… not flayed animals. How are Korbanot meant to create that closeness between God and humanity?

There's something particularly challenging – almost inconceivable – about having a relationship with God. In relationships with people, we can have conversations, spend time in each other's company. The tangible presence of each party allows for closeness.

But we don't have those luxuries when it comes to God. God does not audibly respond when we talk to Him. We can't physically see God. And because of that, it's very easy to forget Him. Not to forget He exists… but it gets difficult to think about Him or feel His presence on a regular basis. Even moments of heightened spiritual clarity are often only fleeting.

Korbanot are a solution. In the Mishkan – God's resting place in this world – God gives us Korbanot as a way to reignite our relationship with Him – to remind ourselves of His constant presence and to revive the connection. But how do Korbanot accomplish that?

The Spiritual Meaning of Korbanot

Immanuel: Korbanot have poignant symbolism meant to inspire and stir something within the ones who bring them. In fact, it has a dual symbolism that creates two different takes on Korbanot – and we think they're both true.

The first is what we'll call "Tribute."

Next to human beings, the highest and most complex form of life is the animal. Back in Genesis, during the formation of the world, creation progressed from most basic to most complex, culminating in the creation of mankind. The creation that directly preceded humanity was the animal world. Indeed, both mankind and animals were created on the final 6th day.

And yet, God gave the higher being – humanity – the ability to subdue and rule over the animal world – וּרְדוּ בִּדְגַת הַיָּם, וּבְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם, וּבְכָל-חַיָּה, הָרֹמֶשֶׂת עַל-הָאָרֶץ – you have dominion over all sea life, birds, and animals that walk upon the earth! But there's a danger that comes along with that. It's through that dominion that a human expresses mastery. I control another complex life form – I'm at the very top of the chain… I'm king, I'm the master.

David: And that sense of mastery also stems from the economic reality of having animals too. In the ancient world, livestock was a sign of great wealth – another thing that deludes us into thinking that we're at the top of the chain.

Such a colossal error is only possible if man forgets his place in the chain of mastery and denies His own creator. We can forget God in our daily lives… mistakenly believe that we're in control. And that creates devastating distance between us and God.

When we take our animals – the very life form over which we exhibit control – and offer them up to God, we recognize that God is the ultimate Creator and we create that platform for closeness. We symbolically declare that all life is really in the dominion of God. We relinquish control.

What About Korban Mincha?

And that illuminates another, less-discussed element of Korbanot. Not all Korbanot are of animals: the Korban Mincha is brought of fine flour, oil, and frankincense. Symbolically, flour represents basic nourishment. But flour and oil together, throughout Tanach, is considered rich man's bread. Together with the valued aromatic frankincense, these materials were a symbol of bounty – just like owning livestock...bounty which can delude mankind into thinking he's master. By offering these materials as tribute, we recognize God not only as Source of all life, but of the material world as well.

The Deeper Symbolism Behind Korbanot

But the symbolism goes even further – and that brings us to our second take on Korbanot – what we'll call "Substitution." What would be the ultimate way to demonstrate that God is the Creator? It would be to recognize that God is not only Master of the world, but of my life, too. Of course, God has absolutely no interest in human sacrifice, but maybe a Korban is a way to symbolically offer ourselves up to God. The animal, in a sense, is meant to represent us – the bringer.

This is precisely the theory of the Ramban, Nachmanides. Before some Korbanot are offered, a ritual known as "semicha" is performed: one leans his hands on the animal's head, and thereby symbolically "transfers" himself into the animal. And, when the bringer sees the blood of the korban – blood that so closely resembles his own – he is reminded of his own mortality and recognizes the vastness of God's mastery.

David: So, the symbolism of Korbanot is really two-fold. On the one hand, a Korban is a tribute: offering animals to God is a demonstration that God is Creator. On the other hand, a korban is meant to be symbolic substitution: mankind is meant to see itself in the offering – we are meant to remember that we are only here because of God's mercy.

Immanuel: And it's through this lens – Korbanot as a symbolic conduit of closeness with the Divine – that we may be able to understand a perplexing and enigmatic phenomenon throughout the books of the Prophets. Over and over again, God says that He doesn't want Israel's sacrifices!

Does God Even Want Korbanot?

David: Samuel says: "Does God desire burnt-offerings and sacrifices over hearkening to the voice of God? To obey is better than sacrifice!"

Immanuel: In Isaiah, God says, "Why do I need your abundance of sacrifices? … do not continue to bring vain tribute offerings!" Instead, "Seek justice, relieve the oppressed, take the case of the orphan, plead for the widow."

David: And it continues in Hosea: "I desire kindness, not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings!"

Immanuel: What's going on here? Why does God say that He doesn't want korbanot, after delineating their laws and copiously describing their details in Leviticus?

David: This gets to the very heart of what Korbanot are. There's a thread that runs throughout these verses: God is not interested in the ritual when it comes at the expense of morality and following God, when it comes at the expense of the intention behind it. Sometimes, it's easy to do the action of mitzvot, when our hearts aren't totally in it. But that won't work with Korbanot. Relationships cannot be created by just going through the motions.

A korban is simply a physical representation of what's inside the person: a desire to get close with God. If one's actions or thoughts aren't commensurate with what's represented by the Korban, then the korban is not a representation at all. God makes it clear that it's just an empty shell, an utterly useless act. If the foundation of your relationship with God is broken, then a tribute to God is an insulting appeasement; an animal substitution is hollow and meaningless.

What God cares about is NOT the sacrifices themselves; far more important is the mindset and actions behind them. In the words of Isaiah, God wants us to "seek justice, relieve the oppressed, protect the orphans, plead for the widow." In Hosea's words, do kindness and follow God's ways. Only when a person chooses to live with God, chooses to act morally – is there even a context for a relationship. In that context, a korban create closeness.

Understanding Korbanot Today

We don't have Korbanot today, but we certainly still have the ability to achieve what Korbanot represented: recognition of and closeness with God. Today, in line with the verse in Hosea, Unishalma Parim Sfateinu, we offer prayer instead of sacrifice. Our prayer services correspond to the daily offerings given in the mishkan. Perhaps we can find ways in our own prayers to demonstrate, as offerings did, that we recognize God as the Source of everything. We can offer praise of God as tribute, as thanks for our subsistence and for all He has given us.

And through pouring out our hearts before God, we can offer Him ourselves, in deep humility before our Creator.

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