What's the Real Reason for Sacrifices? - Torah Portion Tzav

Sacrificial altar, Tel Be'er Sheva, 8th C. B.C.E.
The question in the title seems like a reasonable line of inquiry. But in fact it's misleadingly simplistic. Here's why:

1. There are different categories of "reasons."

a) The theoretical/historical "reason behind" something.
b) The reason people typically cite when asked.
c) People's actual internal motivations for doing it.

Sacrifices aren't like say, lightbulbs. With the lightbub, the reason for inventing it, the reason people give for using it, and the actual motivation for turning it on, are all one and the same - being able to see in the dark without a candle. When it comes to sacrifices however, the theoretical or historical reason they exist (e.g. the belief that success requires sacrifice to the god) might have little to do with what the offerer in Temple times might give as the reason (e.g. the desire to serve God), and what the person "says" may not really express their real-life motivations (e.g. guilt, societal pressure).

So when we're talking about the "reason" for anything, we really need to clarify what category of reason we're referring to.

2. Multiple reasons may be at work simultaneously.

Even if we're talking about the theoretical "reason behind" sacrifices, who says there's necessarily just one? Sacrifices may be designed to alleviate guilt, to bring a person closer to God, to propitiate God in order to secure a blessing, and so on. These aren't mutually exclusive reasons.

3. It depends on the society.

Israelite society is not the same as Canaanite society, which is not the same as Egyptian society, etc. Each has its own set of values and beliefs, ideas about what God is (gods are) and what humanity's relationship is to them. This no doubt manifests in that particular society's concept of what offering sacrifices is about. Plus, even in a single society, you have:

1) Divisions within that society (e.g. mystical vs. rational approaches).

2) Different conceptions over time (where the reasons given in generation X aren't necessarily the same for generation Y).

4. It depends on the sacrifice.

Aside from the most general description, you can't really talk about "sacrifices" as a whole, any more than you can talk about "going out in the morning" as a whole. After all, I might get up and go to the store. I might go to work. Or I might just be going out for a little exercise and fresh air. The Israelite sacrificial system has the olah, shelamim, mincha, chatat, asham, etc., with different variations of each. So it's simplistic, even incorrect, to try to assign a single "reason" for all of that. Even if there's some conceptual overlap among them, each sacrifice clearly has its own reason, or set of reasons.


When we're talking about investigating the reasons for sacrifices, there are some things we need to get clear before even embarking on the conversation: We're speaking about Israelite sacrifices (which don't necessarily reflect on those of other societies), and specifically the mentality behind the Priestly tradition wherein the laws of sacrifices are primarily found (which doesn't necessarily reflect on the laity, the prophets, or other strata of society). We're probably talking about the theoretical reasons more than anything, though there may be something to say about Israelite psychology and motivations which can enter into the picture. Perhaps there are some general characteristics that can be gleaned about the Priestly concept of sacrifices (which we'll be focusing on here), but to really understand the system, we need to get into the specific types of sacrifices and their roles.

Now that I've given that preamble, I want to again utilize Jacob Milgrom as a starting point to discuss the concept of sacrifices. (See Anchor Yale Bible, Leviticus Vol. I, pp. 440-443.)

"Researchers in primitive and comparative religions," says Milgrom, "distinguish four possible purposes behind the institution of sacrifice." They are:

1. "To provide food for the god."

This is an interesting one. The language of the Torah does seem to support such a notion: "food gift" (lechem isheh), "my sacrifice, my food" (korbani lachmi), etc. There are morning and afternoon sacrifices, i.e. "meals." The fire of YHVH is described as "consuming" the sacrifice, the same verb used to convey "eating." The sanctuary has a "table" with bread inside it. And of course, the Mishkan and sacrifices were embedded in an ancient world where proper care and feeding of the gods was the norm.

"Nonetheless," Migrom concludes, "these words, objects, and mores are only fossilized vestiges from a dim past, which show no signs of life in the Bible." Meaning, the "feeding" talk is just that - talk. It's an anthropomorphic language that reflects earlier notions of sacrifices. The idea of YHVH actually having to "eat" would have been anathema to Israel.

I have a couple of questions on this interpretation. 1) Is all the food/eating language in the Torah a vestige of the past, or is it a nod to the mentality at the time among Israel's neighbors, for whom the god(s) needed to be "fed"? 2) Assuming that the Priestly school did not buy into the "feeding" concept, why did they feel the need to present sacrifices in those terms? Was it "traditional"? Or did the Israelite laity believe in the idea, and therefore it was a sort of capitulation to the masses?

2. "To assimilate the life force of the sacrificial animal."

Milgrom states that this kind of thinking reflects animistic religions (i.e. the belief that all things - even rocks, rivers, wind, etc. - are alive), but that it's not carried by the Bible.

I find this confusing. First off, there's a difference between the belief in a "life force" that is transferable from one living thing to another, and the belief that an inanimate object is alive or possesses a spirit. But putting aside the animism reference, I agree. I don't see any textual signs in the Torah that would point to the offerer absorbing the life force of the animal. However, I do think that "life force" may be a part of it, only that it works in the opposite direction. Like I conjectured in my previous post, it could be that it's the animal which absorbs (part of) the offerer's life force, and the Mishkan which ultimately assimilates it, via the blood.

The second part I find confusing is that Milgrom mentions the "substitution" theory of sacrifice as a derivative of the above rationale. I'll call it "2a."

2a. "The animal lies on the altar instead of its offerer."

Milgrom rejects this as being a motivation for Israelite sacrifice on several grounds:

1) There are primitive societies found by anthropologists where substitution plays no role in the sacrificial system... Honestly though, I don't see what that proves about Israelite sacrifices.

2) The primary source for substitution, Lev 17:11 (that the animal's nefesh is in its blood, and that this blood atones for our own nefesh), can be explained using a different interpretation (which Milgrom offers in Vol. II)... I haven't read it, so I can't comment just yet.

3) The chatat sacrifice "purges the sanctuary but not the wrongdoer"... I'm not sure about that. My own theory is that cheit (sin) is envisioned as an "excess" carried on the person, and that the chatat purges that excess, and then gives it to the Mishkan, filling the "deficit" it had previously accrued due to the tumot (impurities) of Israel. So the person is purged, and the sanctuary restored, in one sacrifice.

4) The scapegoat, which carries off Israel's sins into the wilderness, "does not even die or, for that matter, rate as a sacrifice"... That's an interesting point about not being a sacrifice. As far as dying, it's true in the Torah's own account. But in the rabbinic tradition, the goat is pushed over a cliff to its death (TB Yoma 67b). Even if we go with the Torah account that the goat doesn't die, again I'm not sure why this discounts the idea of substitution being a part of the Israelite sacrificial system - especially since Milgrom himself says that the scapegoat is not a sacrifice!

3. "To effect union with the deity."

Milgrom does not see this as being a rationale for Israelite sacrifice. The reason he gives is that the sacrifice is eaten "before YHVH," and not "with YHVH."

I'm not quite sure why he necessarily equates "union" with eating together, as opposed to the act of sacrifice itself. I can see several possibilities for "union" here:

1) Union via substitution. Milgrom refutes this, especially (like I mentioned in my previous post) in presupposing that "death brings one closer to God." But if the olah going up in smoke is seen as transforming/transporting it to the divine/spiritual domain, and if that animal is "standing in" for the human, isn't it possible at least that there is some sort of human-God union being represented here?

2) Union via purification. In the Priestly tradition, YHVH can only "dwell among" the Israelites when they are in the state of purity. So very simply, if sacrifice effects "atonement" (kapara) and "purification" (tahara), then it creates the possibility for union with YHVH.

3) Union via gift-giving. Apart from gift-giving as a form of propitiation (which we'll get into in a moment), there's gift-giving purely as a form of gaining closeness with the receiver. As Milgrom says, the words isheh, matana (Lev 23:38) and other terminology, implies gift-giving. Which actually brings up an interesting English-language distinction between the words "sacrifice" and "offering." The former implies "giving up" something of yours, the focus being on you. The latter implies "giving" to another, the focus being on the other. Just a distinction to possibly consider in terms of how to express the idea of "union."

4. "To induce the aide of the deity by means of a gift."

This is the rationale that Milgrom believes "manifests validity in all sacrificial systems," including the Israelite sacrificial system - again, in general terms, notwithstanding the particular functions of the various sacrifices. In other words, we offer gifts in exchange for divine help, which Milgrom divides into two categories:

1) "External aid, to secure fertility or victory, in other words, for blessing"
2) "Internal aid, to ward off or forgive sin and impurity, that is, for expiation"

However, the examples Milgrom gives all seem to point to "expiation" as the divine help. I can understand divine blessing being something sought after, but my impression is that this is more associated with Israel keeping up its half of the covenant, not something related to sacrifices per se.

Moreover, I think there are two ways of looking at this rationale. One can, like Milgrom, look at Israelite sacrifices in the framework of "exchange." But rather than "I give X to you so that you give Y to me," it could be that the thinking is simply to give a gift, an offering, and that through the offering any number of things might be accomplished: expiation (purging) of sin/guilt, purification and therefore closeness with YHVH, or a strengthened sense of citizenship, that one has appropriately given something of value to YHVH and thus shown their dedication and gratitude.

Milgrom offers a couple of additional rationales for sacrifice. I'll briefly mention the one he focuses on:

5. "Killing the animal evoked feelings of guilt that could only be assuaged by dedicating the victim to the deity."

I thought this was interesting. Consuming meat involves taking the life of the animal, so people wanted to dedicate the animal to their god in order to feel okay about the act of killing. Milgrom brings up the Sumerian myth of Lugalbanda, where the hero is a vegetarian but "receives divine approval in a dream to sacrifice whatever animals he can trap," and "the slaughtering itself is carried out according to divinely inspired prescriptions," and the Sumerian deities are invited to partake in the meal. In other words, sacrifice allows for the consumption of meat.
This is related to the rationale I hear people discuss even today when trying to justify the institution of animal sacrifice - i.e. that sacrifices at least acknowledge the killing, that eating animal flesh is a dispensation we're allowed only if we do it conscientiously. In a world of mass cruelty in industrial meat production, the idea of imbuing the process of killing animals for food with sanctity, solemnity and consciousness, is a considerable "step up." It's hard to disagree with that. Although it doesn't really account for killing an animal only to burn it whole on the altar.

The rationale I would add: Psychological health and well-being

It seems to me that on a certain level, what underlies all the God-language and sacrificial procedures is the attempt to maintain and restore psychological health, as individuals and as a society. Particularly, I'd divide this into three categories:

1. Purging guilt. It's not healthy to walk around with guilt weighing on the mind. It's much better to have some sort of procedure, a concrete action you can take to feel like you can put it behind you. That goes for sacrifices like the chatat, asham, and the olah, ones which effect kapara, atonement. The purging comes from taking something you own and giving it, an outward movement that also carries with it the psychological content which needs to be expelled. Like I said above, it's aided by hand-leaning on the animal and the sense that one's "excess" is purged by way of the animal's blood.

2. Sharing joy. Sacrifices like the shelamim and the todah are likewise "outward" in nature. But rather than purging guilt, it's taking some of one's concentrated joy and expressing it. It's not "excess" in the unhealthy sense. However, would-be joy that's bottled up and does not have an outlet for expression becomes stagnant. The "joy" really comes in the release, where it manifests as sharing with others. This is perhaps an odd analogy, but it's something like the prototypical guy in a bar who gets a piece of good news and yells, "Next round of drinks on me!" It's a psychological wholeness that comes with having the community bear witness to one's joy, and even experience it vicariously, aided by giving them something (e.g. food or drink) to likewise feel excited about. 

3. Expressing communal commitment. Beyond sharing one's joy, there's a larger psychological need to express one's commitment to the society. One part of that is gaining a sense of solidarity and identity with the society, feeling a part of the structure in which you live, as opposed to living on the fringe and feeling alienated or cynical. Another part is about reciprocity, not feeling "whole" when you benefit from a society without properly giving back to it. The Temple was once the central communal institution for all of Israel. By making the pilgrimage and "paying one's dues," it was possible to at once identify as a member of the larger society and to give back to that society.

I would also say that these three aspects of sacrifices and Temple life map incredibly well onto the subsequent (and current) model of "prayer in place of sacrifice" (tefila bimkom korban) and the synagogue (beit knesset). Prayer allows one to purge guilt feelings, or to express elation and gratitude, along with articulating uncertainty, frustration, hopes, one's desires in life, etc. And synagogue allows one to share life events with the community, to identify as part of something bigger, and of course, to "pay dues" and thereby contribute to the thing you derive benefit from.