Understanding Sacrificial Offerings
The chapters in the Torah which detail the practice of animal sacrifice in the Temple are some of the most difficult for a 21st century individual to understand. As such practices have completely disappeared from civilized society we tend to view them as cruel, primitive and superstitious. They seem incompatible with other humane and progressive commandments of the Torah, which were revolutionary when the Torah was first given and today form the basis for not only a vibrant Judaism but for the moral and ethical standards of most of the rest of the world as well.
Writing in the early 16th century and incorporating the words of Maimonides, who preceded him by several hundred years, Abarbanel provides a perspective on sacrifices that we can appreciate today. The primary reason for the necessity of these rituals was to assist the nascent Jewish nation in believing in the existence and oneness of G-d and to draw closer to Him by following His directives. Human perfection can be more effectively realized by attaining knowledge and faith through prayer, enlightenment and adherence to the Torah’s other precepts than by burning animals on an altar. However, the Jewish People were commanded to devote themselves to the worship of G-d, and the prevailing form of worship at that time was through animal sacrifice in special, designated temples. G-d determined that the Jewish People would not be able to easily abandon such a well-established universal custom. By shifting the mode of worship from polytheistic paganism to the worship of one G-d, idolatry could be eliminated without radically interfering with practices already familiar to the people. In fact, the enormous amount of detail and the many differences between the various offerings symbolize many of the fundamental precepts of man’s responsibilities to himself and his Creator.
The first type of animal offering is the Olah, or Elevation Offering, which is completely consumed on the Altar. This represents the uniting of the soul with G-d. Just as the animal’s body is united with the flames, so too is man’s eternal soul united with G-d after death. This offering demonstrates that our sole purpose is to devote ourselves completely to the service of G-d. Since it symbolizes man’s Divinely-created non-physical soul, material man has no share in it and cannot partake of it
The second type of offering is the Sin Offering. This offering functions as one aspect of the atonement process that is required of one who transgresses Torah commandments unintentionally. It encourages the transgressor to be more vigilant and to consider the consequences of his actions. It functions as a monetary fine as well, since the transgressor must provide the animal. Even if one is unsure whether he transgressed at all he still must bring an offering. The procedures of the offering differ for unintentional transgressions committed by the High Court or the High Priest, as their positions involve greater responsibility.
The third type of offering is the Peace Offering, which is brought by people who are thanking G-d for His numerous favors — for granting us the Land of Israel and for other acts of miraculous Divine intervention. It can represent gratitude for a past favor or act as a way of beseeching G-d to help us in the future. A festive meal is part of the offering. The one who brings the animal and the priests who conduct the rituals are allowed to consume part of the offering as they all join in thanking G-d for His blessings. The internal organs are burned on the Altar, as they are symbols of man’s internal thoughts. It is as if the owner is saying that he is pouring out his inner soul before G-d.
All of these offerings always consist of the most expensive animals: cattle, sheep and goats. They are also accompanied by the finest wheat flour, oils and wines. Here the Torah is emphasizing that the finest products of Israel depend on G-d’s blessing.
In summary, the Elevation Offering is ideological in nature. It symbolizes the immortality of the soul and its intimate connection with G-d. The Sin Offerings teach the importance of personal vigilance and accountability, the just reward for those who fear and worship G-d and the punishment for those who defy Him. At the same time, it is essential for that person to understand that his sins can be pardoned. Otherwise, there is the possibility that he will lapse even more. Finally, the Peace Offerings illustrate our faith in Divine providence, in our recognition that G-d is the ultimate source of our material blessings.