Adventures in Sacrifices, with Jacob Milgrom - Torah portion Vayikra

I recently discovered the Anchor Yale Bible series, and from the tiny fraction of it I've read thus far (some Exodus, some Leviticus), it's already become my new favorite commentary on the Torah.

The Leviticus section is written by Jacob Milgrom, the late (d. 2010) Bible scholar and long-time head of the Near Eastern Studies department at U.C. Berkeley. He devoted much of his academic career to studying Biblical purity laws and the sacrificial system, and many of his findings and conclusions are distilled within this masterpiece on Leviticus, a monster 2,700-page work in three volumes (the bibliography alone is 60 pages, just to give you an idea), which combines Biblical scholarship with traditional rabbinic/Talmudic material and classical Medieval Torah commentaries.

To say the work is dense is an understatement. It goes through every word of the Masoretic Text, followed by longer commentaries on selected topics. So what I'd like to do, as we foray into the third book of the Torah, is pick out selected ideas from Milgrom's work that stand out for me, and present them here, along with a few reflections of my own. Let's start, shall we?

Ohel mo'ed (1:1) - Milgrom cites the work of R. J. Clifford (1977) that the term ohel mo'ed, "tent of meeting," likely originates with the Canaanites, where it meant "tent of meeting (under the divine assembly under the presidency of the god El)." In Ugaritic texts, El lives in a tent. The divine assembly is called the puhru mo'idi (similar to mo'ed, "meeting"). Both the Tent of Meeting and the Tent of El are built with kerashim, wooden planks, and "are designed and constructed by divinely appointed craftsmen, and are staffed by a chief priest whose robes are trimmed with pomegranate decorations."

Now, I'd like to take a moment and say that I can understand if some folks find this kind of information vexing. What is the point of emphasizing that Canaanite high priests were walking around with pomegranate-trimmed robes? To say that the Torah isn't unique? That it borrowed from other cultures? Aren't facts like this meant to put the Torah in diminished esteem? Well, what it's "meant" to do of course depends on who's saying it. For me, I find these kinds of facts enthralling. Why? First, because it sheds light on the world the Torah was coming from, which puts the Torah's norms in context. Second, it allows us to better discern and understand the Torah's innovations. For instance, if pomegranates were common on the hems of priestly robes, but the Torah's bells were unique, that's an interesting piece of data! I want to know that. And last, I really don't want to harbor any illusions about the Torah. I care enough about it, spend enough time with it, to want to know what it is, and what it isn't. Nothing whatsoever to do with denigrating anything. And I trust the same is true of a scholar like Milgrom, who so loved this material that he dedicated his life to probing, understanding and elucidating it.

Tripartite structure of the Mishkan - The Mishkan contained three delineations of sanctity - the inner chamber (Holy of Holies, housing the Ark, and the divine cloud, where only the high priest could go once a year), the outer chamber (containing the Menorah, etc., where the high priest served regularly, and where Moses would stand "before YHVH" - in front of the curtain - to receive instruction), and the courtyard (with the altar, where priests served and laypeople could enter in purity). Milgrom says that the immediate corollary for these distinctions is Mount Sinai, which likewise a tripartite structure: a summit (with the divine cloud, akin to the Holy of Holies, "off limits to the priest and layman alike," Ex 19:24b, "whose very sight is punishable by death" Ex 19:21b), the upper half of the mountain (like the outer chamber, where Moses ascends with the priests and elders, Ex 24:1, and separately with Joshua, Ex 24:13), and the foot of the mountain (akin to the courtyard, where priests and laypeople in purity can come to).

I thought this was a nice observation, though I'm perplexed when Milgrom says that Mount Sinai is "the immediate archetype for P's Tent of Meeting," and "not some mythic Canaanite model." As I mentioned in my post on Torah portion Teruma, the tripartite design of the Israelite sanctuary mirrored Canaanite sanctuaries, of which Milgrom was no doubt also aware. If anything, I'd think that the description of Sinai may have borrowed from this known sanctuary layout, with its three divisions. But maybe Milgrom is speaking here more in terms of Sinai functioning as a literary setup for the Mishkan.

Yakriv (1:2) - The words yakriv and korban imply "presenting" and "that which is presented" respectively,  as opposed to "approaching," which is the meaning of the verb karav in other contexts. These were diplomatic terms used to refer to tributes to kings, and as such were borrowed by priests to apply to the king of kings.

This seems fairly logical, since God as "monarch" seems to have been the prevailing metaphor. Or at least for Maimonideans it's a metaphor - for others, and likely for Iron Age worshipers, God as king is literal.

Olah (1:3) - The word olah means "that which ascends," i.e. up in smoke, burnt. Milgrom mentions the Ugaritic srp w slmm as probably being the equivalent of saraf u'shelamim, i.e. the (burnt) olah and the shelamim. He also suggests that olah in the early days was called kalil, the "completely burnt" sacrifice  (see Lev 6:15, used as an adjective; Deut 33:10, used as a noun), but that at some later point the skin of the sacrifice was apportioned to the priest (Lev 7:8), which meant it would have been misleading to call it a kalil, so the word olah was adopted.

Though according to Milgrom, the P source predates D (see below), and P already used the term "olah." What then is kalil, an early word for olah (see Rashi on Deut 33:10), doing in D? I suppose one could answer that it's the same reason kalil is occasionally found in P - the word never entirely fell out of the language.

Male animals (1:3) - Why is the olah (cow or sheep) a male? Philo (Laws 1 200) says that the male is "more complete, more dominant than the female." Milgrom disagrees, and reasons that male animals were likely chosen as regular sacrifices because they're more expendable, since females are needed for milk and offspring.

I like a good pragmatic rationale like that.

Lirtzono (1:3) - The word lirtzono means "for acceptance on his behalf." Acceptance is the older meaning of the verb ratza, compared to ratza meaning "desire," which Milgrom points out is found only in post-exilic works (Esther, Daniel, Ezra, etc.) and suggests is probably borrowed by the Aramaic rei'a.

Biblical scholarship often distinguishes between early Hebrew and late Hebrew terms in the texts. It's sometimes used as evidence for dating a particular text. Here we have what is (or looks like) the same root, which meant one thing ("acceptance" or "favorability") in its earlier use, and another ("desire") after the Babylonian exile. The latter means to want something. The former means wanting someone to want you, find you acceptable. I'm not sure what to make of that, but it's an interesting distinction. It might be worthwhile to look at our prayer liturgy, at phrases like "yehi ratzon" or "retzei," and give some thought to which meaning, pre-exilic or post-exilic, is implied.

Vesamach yado (1:4) - According to Milgrom, there are four possible reasons for the offerer to "lean his hand" on the sacrifice: 1) transference of sin to the animal, 2) identification with the animal by transferring one's nefesh (life/soul) to it, 3) declaration of the purpose for which the animal was brought, and 4) to show ownership of the sacrifice.

Milgrom says that because the text states "his hand" in the singular, that eliminates transference of sin. I'm not sure why that should be, but he offers citations. He also mentions that the scapegoat ritual speaks of "two hands," and there the Torah explicitly says that the sins are carried by the goat and dispatched into the wilderness (Lev 16:21-22). So by inference I suppose one could argue that a one-handed leaning means something other than transference of sin. But it could also be that there's something special about the once-a-year scapegoat ritual with its formal confession of all Israel's sins which merited two hands. And this is a speculation, but maybe the reason the Torah speaks of one-handed leaning for most sacrifices is that the other hand is presumed to be holding the knife for the slaughter. With the scapegoat, there is no slaughter, leaving two hands available for leaning. Though it should be said that the rabbinic tradition speaks about leaning on the sacrifice with two hands between the animal's horns (BT Yoma 36a). And from what I've seen, Milgrom deems the rabbinic sacrificial material to be fairly reliable, so I'm not sure why he doesn't mention it here.

Identification, says Milgrom, "is alien to Biblical thought both because it is magical and because it presupposes that death brings one closer to God." In terms of magic, that's a whole inquiry in itself - i.e. is the Torah really opposed to magic, and if so, what qualifies as magic? There's a distinction between performing magic as a pagan, quasi-religious rite, which the Torah ostensibly opposes, and magical/mystical thinking, which may well apply to rituals in the Torah. On that count, is transferring sins to an animal any less "magical" than transferring one's nefesh to an animal? Or how about Moses putting some of his "splendor/spirit/wisdom" onto Joshua by laying his hands on him (Num 27:18, Deut 34:9)? One could say that this is simply symbolic and ceremonial, but does the Biblical mindset really preclude mystical/magical thinking? I'm not at all convinced of that. In terms of death bringing one closer to God, I agree that's not part of the Torah's thinking. But I don't see that linking one's nefesh with the animal implies any "death idealization" whatsoever. In fact, I speculated on this in my book Ohr HaShachar:
The person bringing the korban leans their hands on the animal, so that their nefesh and the nefesh of the animal become connected. (As in, והוא ענין הסמיכה בכל כחו ליחד נפשו לחבר בחינת נפשו עם נפש הבהמה, R. Pinchas Horowitz, Panim Yafot, Parshat Vayikra 1:4.) Nefesh, as we discussed, is understood as being linked to the blood. So when the animal is slaughtered and its blood is drained out, this is seen as drawing out not only the nefesh of the animal, but also the "excess nefesh" (cheit/sin) of the person to whom that animal is now connected. (As in, וע"י הקרבת נפש בהמה תתעלה נפשו; ibid.) In effect, it is a technique for drawing out the person’s excess nefesh without having to spill any of their own blood.
This approach, needless to say, has nothing whatsoever to do with closeness to God through death.

About the third possibility, declaration, Milgrom asserts that if hand-leaning is related to declaring the purpose of the animal, i.e. as a sacrifice, this would have been a separate act, not related to hand-leaning. He doesn't really explain why this is, and to be honest I don't find this reason very compelling. If a person is bringing an animal to the Temple courtyard, where a priest is waiting, knife in hand, it's pretty clear without pressing one's hand on the animal's head what the intent is.

Migrom opts for demonstrating ownership as the reason for hand-leaning. He cites Hittite ritual as one data point, wherein the offerer places their hand over the offering to ensure that they get credit for it. He also mentions the Akkadian idiom emedu qatu, "place the hand," which apparently is used in legal texts to designate ownership. Another point Milgrom makes is the fact that hand-leaning is absent in the text of the asham sacrifice. He says that the asham has the option of being commuted to money, and so hand-leaning is not required - "Because the offerer holds the silver in his hands there is no further need for hand-leaning: clearly it is his." The same goes, he says, for the cereal offering (mincha) - "it too is brought in the sacrificer's hands, and no further proof of ownership is required." Okay, one question is whether the asham is really "commutable" to money (meaning that uniquely in this case you can give money directly to the priests rather than bring an animal of your own), or whether the Torah is simply saying how much money the asham must be valued at. (Maybe a reader who knows more about the asham can shed some light here.) But even if you can commute the asham to silver shekels, the fact that there's no hand-leaning might just be because you may have no contact with the animal. And in terms of the transference idea, there is the concept of "kofer nafsho" (Ex 30:12) which could arguably be seen as "excess nefesh" being transferred to a coin. Though again, the rabbinic tradition does seem to require hand-leaning for the asham. Milgrom mentions Rashi suggesting otherwise (Nedarim 70b), but I wasn't able to locate it.

I know I went on at length on this point, but it's an excellent example of the worlds you can open up by looking at any one of the details of the sacrificial procedure, which Milgrom does a fantastic job helping to facilitate.

Isheh (1:13) - The word isheh, Milgrom suggests, is not related to esh and does not mean "fire offering." Among his evidence: Examples of things called "isheh" that are not put into fire (the priestly portion of the shelamim, the showbread, and wine libations), and numerous examples of things not called "isheh" which are put into the fire, including the chatat sacrifice, which is never called isheh. He posits that isheh is related to the Ugaritic itt, meaning "gift," making isheh a shortened form of lechem isheh, a "food gift."

Milgrom lists wine libations as an example of an isheh that's not put into the fire. But wasn't it? It turns out that this was a point of debate among the rabbis, since the concern was that wine might extinguish the fire, either entirely or in part (Zevachim 91b). This then gets into halachic issues of "davar she'eino mitkaven" (an act done for one purpose, where an inadvertent transgression may occur) and "pesik reisha" (where the transgression will certainly occur). Again, it's another example of a world that Milgrom's material entices interested readers to open up and explore.

Lastly, a couple of source-related points:

Antiquity of P - According to Milgrom, the P source (of which the bulk is in Leviticus) is pre-exilic and indeed predates D, which is conclusively demonstrated by P's language as well as the fact that D clearly draws from P.

The notion of P being post-exilic has always struck me as odd, since so much of it centers around temple ritual, and where the Ark of the Covenant plays a pivotal role. For P to have been written in Babylonia following the destruction of the temple seems fairly incongruous, not to mention wholly unpractical, since what's the relevance now of introducing all this detailed sacrificial instruction when you can't even do it? If it came from Second Temple times, that would be very late, and there was no Ark in the Second Temple. And like Milgrom points out, a late date for P doesn't square with the terminology it employs, doesn't account for D's apparent references to P, etc.

P and H - Milgrom distinguishes between P (the Priestly source) and H (the Holiness Code), and asserts that H is later and in fact the redactor of P. He quotes Knohl (1987) that the P source tends to be precise, terse, and rather dry, whereas H is imprecise and contains motivational clauses and exhortations, e.g. additions like "for he has desecrated the holy things of YHVH, and this person will be cut off from his people" (Lev 19:7).

Though I happened across Milgrom's comment on Lev 17:10, regarding another instance of karet, being "cut off," and saw that he distinguishes between two forms of the verb which appear in the Torah - vehikrati, "and I will cut him off," and venikrat, "and he shall be cut off." The former is active, the latter passive. Milgrom says that the passive, impersonal formulation is characteristic of P, whereas the active, more "emphatically immediate" formulation is characteristic of H. But it's not as if the notion of karet as a motivational exhortation is exclusive to H. According to Milgrom, the concept exists in P as well.

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I'm going to stop here for now, but it's a wholly arbitrary stop. There is so much more material to talk about, and I'm only partway through Leviticus 1. This Torah portion alone encompasses 240 pages of commentary! So consider it a sacrificial sampler of assorted hors d'oeuvres designed to whet your appetite on the topic. (Either that, or it's made you close the menu and head for the hills.) I recognize that everyone has a different intellectual palate. As for me, I can hardly get enough of this stuff.

To me, this is a window into a different era in human history, and a very different mindset. We tend to underestimate how the things we do as a society, and the words we use to talk about what we do, shape our thinking and our outlook on life. It's natural for us in the 21st century to want to project our thinking back upon the world of sacrifices. But if we take a look at these practices in their historical context, and examine the words used to describe them with fresh eyes, we may in fact come away with an alternative way of thinking, encounter a reality that's fairly different from our own. Which, aside from allowing us to attain a more accurate reading of the text, is a fascinating adventure in and of itself!