Temple Offerings: The View of Maimonides

"It is fitting for a human being to meditate on the laws of the Holy Torah, to know their ultimate meaning and purpose, to the extent of his ability. Yet if there is something for which he finds no reason, and knows no purpose, let it not be a light, trifling matter in his eyes, and let him not break through to rise up against the Compassionate One…Let his thinking about this not be like his thought about ordinary, non-holy matters." (Mishneh Torah of Maimonides – Hilchos M''ilah 8:8)

Dear Friends,

Maimonides - also known as "the Rambam" - wrote a special book called "Guide to the Perplexed" in order to guide certain young Jewish intellectuals of the 12th century who were influenced by Greek philosophy, and who were questioning the value of the mitzvos - Divine mandates. In this book, he suggests that a reason for the offerings was to wean the People of Israel away from the pagan worship of animals. Maimonides explains that the ancient Egyptians and others viewed the animals of the herd as deities; thus, the People of Israel were commanded to take the very animals that these people worshiped and to offer them to the Revered Name. (Guide to the Perplexed 3:46, cited in the commentary of the Ramban – Nachmanides – on Leviticus 1:9)

There were other sages who disagreed with the reason suggested by Maimonides; moreover, other writings of Maimonides indicate that he did not consider this reason to be the only reason. For example, in his classical work on Torah law, the Mishneh Torah, he writes that the Temple offerings are in the category of those mitzvos of the Infinite One which are known as "chukim" - mitzvos which have deep reasons which our finite minds do not yet understand (Hilchos Me'ilah 8:8). And Maimonides adds: "The Sages said that for the sake of the Temple service of the offerings, the world endures."

In the Mishneh Torah (Hilchos Beis HaBechinrah 2:2), Maimonides cites the ancient tradition that Adam, as well as Cain and Abel, brought offerings on the site of the future Holy Temple. Although they had a vegetarian diet, Adam and Abel brought animal offerings, and according to the Talmud, the animal that Adam offered on the Altar was an ox (Avodah Zarah 8:a). The Torah states that Abel "brought from the firstlings of his flock and from the choicest" (Genesis 4:4). These individuals lived in the age before the pagan worship of animals emerged; thus, one cannot say that the reason for their offerings was to wean themselves from the pagan worship of animals!

Maimonides also writes in the Mishneh Torah that in the messianic age, the Temple will be rebuilt and we will once again bring the offerings "according to all the particulars mentioned in the Torah" (Hilchos Melachim 11:1). During the messianic age, all forms of idolatry will be abolished, for all peoples will unite to serve the One Creator; thus, the reason for the Temple offerings in this age cannot be because of a need to wean people from pagan practices, "for the earth will be filled with knowledge of the Compassionate One" (Isaiah 11:9).

We therefore need to seek a deeper meaning for the Temple offerings, and in this letter, we shall mention two "clues" which can guide us on our quest: The first clue can be found in the Hebrew word for offerings, "korban" – a word which is derived from "karov" (closeness). As the classical biblical commentator, the Ramban (Nachmanides), writes:

"All terms of korban are expressions of closeness and unity." (Commentary to Leviticus 1:9).

In this spirit, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes:

"We have no word in Western languages that adequately conveys the concept in the Hebrew term korban. The common German translation opher, deriving from the Latin offero, is related to "offering" in meaning; but unfortunately, in the sense of 'sacrifice,' it has taken on the connotation of destruction, annihilation, and loss - a connotation that is foreign and antithetical to the Hebrew concept of korban…The purpose of a korban is to seek the Divine nearness." (Commentary to Leviticus 1:2)

The second clue can be found in the Hebrew term for God which is used when the Torah introduces the laws of the korban. The term used is "Hashem" - the most sacred Divine Name which expresses the attribute of compassion. As Rabbi Yossi states in Midrash Toras Kohanim (Leviticus 1:2): "Wherever the offerings are mentioned, the Divine Name of Hashem is used, so as not to give heretics the opportunity to degrade the truths of the Torah to the level of pagan delusion." In his explanation of Rabbi Yossi's teaching, Rabbi Hirsch points out that within the Torah, the Divine Name "Elokim" – the Name expressing the attribute of strict justice – is not used in association with the korban. Rabbi Hirsch writes:

"In such a context, God does not refer to Himself by the attribute of strict, unrelenting justice…God does not demand to be appeased through an offering, in accord with the blasphemous pagan delusion. He does not seek vengeance and thirst for blood and accept the dying animal as a substitute for the human being who deserves to die. Rather, the Name Hashem is associated with offerings; God refers to himself by the attribute of compassion. He appears in the full force of His liberating love, which brings into being all life, sustains its existence anew, and grants it a renewed future. The essence of an offering is not killing, but rebirth and renewal of existence. Spiritual and moral awakening and revival; entering into a life more noble and pure; renewing strength for such a life from the never-failing source of God's love – that is the Jewish concept of an offering." (Ibid)

With the help of Hashem, in our upcoming letters, we will begin to explore deep and mystical Torah teachings which can help us to understand how the korban leads to a greater closeness with Hashem, and how it leads to our rebirth and renewal.

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)

Related Teachings:

1. The classical biblical commentators give different reasons for the Temple offerings, based on sources within the Written and the Oral Torah. These various explanations can be understood as different facets of the same truth. As our sages teach: "The Torah has seventy faces" (Zohar, Vol. 1, 47b).

2. The classical biblical commentator, Radak, suggests that Adam and Abel did not actually slaughter the animals that they offered on the Altar, for at this early stage of human history, human beings did not have permission to kill animals, since their diet was vegetarian. They therefore placed the animals on the Altar, and a Heavenly fire consumed them. (Commentary to Genesis 4:4)

3. As we shall discuss, the Prophets of Israel state that all the offerings – including the animal offerings – will be renewed when the Temple is rebuilt in the messianic age. In this spirit, Maimonides wrote that in the messianic age we will once again bring the offerings "according to all the particulars mentioned in the Torah" (Hilchos Melachim 11:1). Will we ever reach a stage in human history when all the offerings will be vegetarian? Following our future discussion on the deeper meaning of the korban, we will explore various answers to this question.

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