Parshat Vayikra

Torah Reading for the Week of March 2-8, 2014

Marvin A. Sweeney, PhD
AJRCA Professor of Tanach

Why an Offering to G-d?

Parshat Vayikra, Leviticus 1-7, provides instruction concerning the presentation of the main sacrifices or offerings at the altar of the Holy Temple.  They include the Olah, the Whole Burnt Offering, in Leviticus 1; the Minḥah, the Grain Offering, in Leviticus 2; the Zevaḥ Shelamim, the Peace Offering, in Leviticus 3; the Ḥaṭṭa’t, the Sin Offering, and the Asham, the Guilt Offering, in Leviticus 4-5; and divine Torah, Instruction, concerning the process for presenting each of these offerings.

Each offering has a different function.  The Olah or Whole Burnt Offering is the primary offering of the Temple.  It is a meat offering in which the animal is burned entirely on the altar.  It is offered daily and its role is to honor G-d and thereby to maintain the sanctity of the Temple for the Divine Presence.  The Minḥah, or Grain Offering, which may include oil, frankincense, and salt, accompanies the various meat offerings, although it may be presented on its own.  A fistful of grain is burned on the altar and the rest may be eaten by the priests and sometimes by the people.  The Zevaḥ Shelamim or Peace Offering is a meat offering that is partially burned upon the altar while the priests eat the rest.  Both the Minḥah and the Zevaḥ Shelamim are meant to honor G-d and to support the priests.  The Ḥaṭṭa’t, Sin Offering, and the Asham, Guilt Offering, are expiatory offerings meant to aid in restoring the sacred integrity of one who has committed wrongdoing before G-d in the case of the Ḥaṭṭa’t and to restore integrity of one who has erred before G-d in the case of the Asham.  Both are partially burned on the altar to honor G-d and the rest is eaten by the priests.  Again, the expiatory offerings help to support the priests.

In every case, it is clear that G-d does not need the offering in question; G-d hardly needs to eat!  For the priests, however, the Minḥah, Zevaḥ Shelamim, Ḥaṭṭa’t, and the Asham provide income for the priests who do not own their own land and therefore require support so that they will be free to serve in the Temple.  In these cases, it is clear that the offering fills a need to provide the priesthood with food.  But we must ask, why, then do we present an offering for G-d, if G-d does not need to eat?

Indeed since the destruction of the Temple, we do not even present the offerings, but we present our prayers and study of Torah instead.  That prompted the Rambam to conclude that the offerings were just a temporary measure to accustom us to thinking about G-d and matters of holiness and, therefore, to concentrate on prayer and study as the proper means to relate to G-d.

Nevertheless, we may not discount the offerings insofar as they presume the seriousness of the notion of the restoration of the Temple and its offerings, whether it takes place in Jerusalem or within ourselves.  We may observe that the offerings burned on the altar constitute a pleasing odor to G-d.  Although the offerings smell wonderful, it is doubtful that such odor constitutes a divine need.  Instead we must recognize that the necessity for such offerings lies in what they do for us.  The Ḥaṭṭa’t and the Asham may result in forgiveness for our wrongdoings, although we must recognize that such forgiveness does not take place until we actually go to the parties that we have wronged to ask forgiveness and to make restitution for what we have done.  In the case of the Minḥah and the Zevaḥ Shelamim, do we please G-d by supporting the priesthood?  Perhaps, but the portion of these offerings burned on the altar points to a different conclusion that perhaps consideration of the Olah might offer.

In the case of the Olah, we simply please G-d without accompanying action.  This points to key issue of the offerings: we acknowledge G-d and we acknowledge our need for relationship with G-d, with our people, with our world, and with ourselves.  In short, by presenting the Olah and the other offerings, we sanctify the world in which we live as well as ourselves, and that is what serves G-d’s needs as well as our own.

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