The Meaning of Animal Sacrifices in the Bible: How Do We Relate Today? | Aleph Beta

How Can We Relate To Sacrifices Today?

The Spiritual Meaning Of Biblical Animal Sacrifices And Offerings

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

Using sacrifices and offerings as a way to connect with God seems alien. How are we, in a modern-day context, supposed to connect with the myriad of details associated with animal sacrifice in the Bible? Why did God require animal sacrifice anyway? And what was the meaning behind the different types of offerings? If we understand that, perhaps we can find the relevant spiritual meaning of animal sacrifices today.

Join Rabbi Fohrman as he explores these fundamental questions by reexamining the different types of sacrifice in the Bible, and discover how this ancient tradition creates a modern framework for how to connect with God today.


Hi folks, this is Rabbi David Fohrman, you are watching Aleph Beta, and welcome to Parshat Vayikra.

Parshat Vayikra deals with offerings of animals that were made in the Tabernacle; and nothing seems more alien to us today than this.

Understanding Jewish Animal Sacrifices and Offerings Today

We don't have this as part of our practical religion now - what does it even mean to us today? And the problem is compounded by the complexity of the laws surrounding all of these things. You read through Parshat Vayikra, it makes your head spin, there's so many laws, you just get lost in all the detail. Is there a way of actually understanding it all?

What I want to suggest to you is that there are actually three basic offerings and these three basic offerings are not like Cadillac, apples and school buildings – just things that have nothing to do with each other – they have to do with each other in a very fascinating way. If we can define the relationship between these three types of offerings we'll be well on our way to understanding something fundamental about the human relationship with God. What are these types of offerings?

Different Types of Sacrifices in the Bible

They are:

  • the Olah;
  • the Shlamim;
  • and the Chatat.

Sometimes translated as an Olah – a burnt offering – but not a great translation, it really means an offering that's offered “up”. It's described that way because all of its meat is consumed upon the altar, it's entirely offered up to God.

The Shlamim which really means a “peace” offering or maybe a “wholeness” offering, because Shalem sometimes means wholeness. A Shalem is shared, the meat is eaten, some of it is eaten by the Kohanim, the priests in the Temple, and some of it is eaten by the people who bring the offering, the owners of the offering itself. And some of it is offered up on the altar.

Then there's the Chatat – the “sin” offering. When you transgress something in the Torah inadvertently, and it's a sin that's a significant enough thing, then the sin offering is brought. Some of it is offered on the altar, but the rest of it is eaten exclusively by the Kohanim - not by the owners.

Now let's try and think how do these three basic kinds of offerings – how do they relate to each other?

Why Did God Require Animal Sacrifices and Offerings?

The Olah that's spoken about in Vayikra, actually is a voluntary kind of offering, so is a Shlamim. But the sin offering, the Chatat, is not voluntary – it's mandatory in cases. So how do we understand how these things relate to each other? What do they mean? What were they about?

So what I'd like to do with you is examine these offerings in terms of a few different criteria:

  • First of all, what are the laws of the offerings? Who partakes of the offering?
  • Two, what are the names of the offering? What do we make of the names themselves?
  • And C, where are the precedents for the offering? When is the earliest times that we have an example of this kind of offering?

Understanding the Sin Offering: Chatat

So let's start with Chatat. Think back to the very first sin, that was the eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. So it's kind of interesting, if you think about that sin, that sin actually involved sort of the illegal consumption on the part of people, we ate something we weren't supposed to eat. And then, in this Chatat we actually give back something to be eaten by Kohanim, who are sort of representing the Divine here. As a matter of fact if you go back to some of our Parsha videos, they even talk about the Mishkan as a kind of human recreation of the Garden, the comparison becomes even more striking. When we were in God's Garden the first time we transgressed and we ate the stuff, and now here we are and we're giving food to be eaten essentially back to representatives of God in this new garden, in this Mishkan.

There seems to be a kind of tit for tat here. Think about what a transgression is. Even think about that word to “transgress.” The English word “trans” means to cross over a line. It kind of suggests that involved in any transgression there's a kind of line crossing, a kind of boundary crossing.

When we think of the world, almost a map of the world, boundaries are part of the way we think about it. Sometimes those are natural boundaries, but often they're political boundaries. If we would only imagine that you and me were in the world, we would imagine that part of the world is going to be my domain and part of the world is going to be your domain. We draw a line separating our domains. But now let me ask you a kind of funny question, thinking about us and thinking about God, would you say there's anything in the world that's sort of God's domain? And would you say there's anything that's our domain?

So going back to the Garden there's sort of a very simple answer to that. God created us and He put us in this garden and He said, here's your domain. Mikol eitz hagan achol tochel – here's all these trees and from all the trees in the Garden you shall surely eat. Um'eitz hada'as tov ve'rah – but there's one tree, the tree of good and evil, that I don't want you to eat from, that's My domain, that's My tree.

Of course the very first transgression was the transgression, the crossing over of that boundary. When we cross over a boundary improperly, so we've sort of violated that boundary. A violation of a boundary we'd say is a lack of respect – respect of the territorial integrity of someone else. I ask for a certain kind of basic respect which is that you leave my things alone. We ask for that in our human relations, and in relationships between us and God it's no different. The least God can ask from us really is respect. Here's My tree, please don't eat My tree.

To go eat from God's tree is a lack of respect, it's a transgression. And the way we atone for it is, when we inadvertently transgress in that kind of way, so we say, ‘look the least I think I can do is to give You something from my domain and offer that to the Kohanim.’ So the Kohanim consume the Chatat – the sin offering.

Now going back to the very first transgression, there was only one thing that's off limits. The Torah later on, as the Torah develops, puts other things off limits – but in all of those other things there's a little piece of the Garden, there's a little piece of the forbidden fruit, there's a little piece of God saying, ‘hey, this is My domain, I need you to stay away from this’. If we transgress those commands, so we failed – if you would have to categorize it – in the area of respect.

So respect is one of the great things that make the relationship between human beings and God work. But it's not the only thing. Life isn't just about respecting God, there's another thing we can strive for too, and that's where the Shlamim comes in.

The Purpose of Shlamim Animal Sacrifices

The Torah in Vayikra calls a Shlamim a “Zevach Shlamim”. So if we take those two words Zevach and Shlamim, where's the first times that we see them? So we see a Shlamim actually first in the Brit, in the covenant that takes place between God and Israel at Sinai. The people offered Shlamim as part of that covenant. If you go back to the very first Zevach, there was also a covenant, it was the covenant made by Yaakov and Lavan, it was a sort of treaty between them, as was Sinai.

Now think about the word Shlamim - it comes from the word Shalem which either means “peace” or it means “wholeness”. There is a kind of wholeness that comes about through a covenant. When I reach out to you and you reach back to me, there is a kind of wholeness that is created there. Any transaction creates that kind of wholeness.

At the lowest level these are business transactions, but the highest level these are really transactions of love. There's a marriage covenant and in that covenant I try to give to you freely and I hope that you'll give back to me freely. When we make covenants we sit down and we feast, we celebrate the kind of wholeness that comes with the covenant, that's what we celebrate in a marriage feast. So we're celebrating a treaty. Maybe that's a Shlamim. And a Shlamim is about different energy than respect. It's ultimately about the energy of love. The energy of building a covenant with God.

So if we go back to that idea of boundaries when we say there's part of the world that God has given to people and then there's part of the world that, so to speak, God reserves for Himself – that tree of knowledge paradigm - you might say that a Shlamim is basically well, let's share. Maybe I could give something from my boundaries to You God, and I would hope that You would give something back to me. And indeed, that sharing is actually manifest within the Shlamim itself in terms of how it's consumed.

How is it consumed? It's shared. Part of it is consumed by the owners of the Korban, and part of it is consumed by the Kohanim and part of it is burnt on the altar - it's shared among all parties. That's what a treaty is about, that's what a covenant is about, it's about sharing.

The Meaning of Burnt Offerings: Olah

But then there's one last kind of Korban, and it represents the complete opposite end of the spectrum. It doesn't come because we've failed in some sort of respect to God, sort of our baseline obligation to God. It's not even about building a bridge of love with God – that's the Shlamim. It's about something else. It's about awe, really a step higher in a way even than love, at least when it comes to our relationship with God.

Olah is about giving everything back. The Olah is entirely consumed on the altar. The very first Olah of the Torah is when God said to Abraham, give me your son, your only son, the one that you love. The one special thing that you have. You see how it's the inverse of the tree of knowledge? If the tree of knowledge is us sort of illegally and inappropriately taking God's one special thing from His domain, the Olah is when we voluntarily offer our one special thing, the thing that really by rights ought to be most mine, and I offer that back to God. The Akeidah, the binding of Isaac becomes the paradigm for Olah.

What is that energy, the energy of Olah? It is the energy of awe. Awe is very different than love. Love is a relationship between equals; it takes two equals to be in love, each one giving to the other. Awe is not about a relationship between equals. It's where I feel myself to be virtually nothing in the presence of something so much larger than me. It's the sense of lying on the grassy knoll and looking up at the stars and feeling a sense of utter nothingness, that how could I reserve anything for myself, and the nothing in the face of God. You know, one of the words that appear over and over again in the binding of Isaac story is Yud, Reish, Aleph. Yud, Reish, Aleph in the binding of Isaac story can mean one of two things: it can either mean to see – over and over again Abraham sees things. Or it can mean awe.

Now let me ask you a question those things that you're in awe of, that you feel yourself so small in the face of, when you see them really closely do you get to be more in awe of them or less in awe of them? So the answer is it depends what.

If it's like a magic trick, if it's something which is fake awe, well then you don't want to see it too closely, because if you look at it too closely you won't be in awe of it any more. But what if it's something you really should be awe of? Look at a human cell from far away, no big deal. Look at it under an electron microscope and it's the size of Manhattan and then it's really quite a big deal, it's huge and it's so complex. Look at the universe, look at stars, look at galaxies, look at them with a naked eye, no big deal. Look at them through the Hubble Telescope, quite a big deal indeed, then they're really awesome.

You know, you can affect a kind of love of God and pretend that God is like an equal, and there is a kind of love that we can give to God, because in a certain way we are sort of, kind of, equal. We are human beings, we do have free will, and God is a being with free will. So there is a kind of equality between us and God. But not when you look up close. When you have that encounter of seeing, then really, the only experience is awe and that's the energy of, I give everything up for You. I can't say anything is my domain. And that's the energy of Olah, the offering that's completely consumed.

The Meaning of Jewish Animal Sacrifice in a Modern-Day Context

So if you look back on these three offerings - the Chatat, the Shlamim and the Olah- you really see three different frames, three different kinds of relationships that we can carve out with God. And they sort of build on each other: The most basic level is respect; building on that is love; and building even on that, is awe.

At the most basic level I need to respect God's domain, not take the one precious thing from His domain. Once I master that, then there's Shlamim. The idea of forging a covenant with God, where I can give to Him and, hopefully, He can give back to me. Then there's the Olah, where I go into my domain and I take my thing, that really by rights ought to belong to me, the one special thing, and I surrender even that.

Symbolically that's what we're doing with an Olah. Symbolically this is what we're doing with a Shlamim, we're building that covenant, and symbolically we're giving back to God with a Chatat. But taken together these three offerings form a foundation for the human relationship with God.

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