Parashat Tzav / When Texts Supplant Sacrifice

Yakov Z. Meyer
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
'Noah Sacrificing after the Deluge,' by Benjamin West (circa 1800).
Yakov Z. Meyer

After the Flood, Noah and his sons, emerging from the ark, offer animal sacrifices to God. The following homily presents an anachronistic, historical dispute concerning those sacrifices.

“Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Yossi, son of Rabbi Hanina, debated. Rabbi Elazar said: The sacrifices presented by Noah’s sons were shelamim (peace-offerings). Rabbi Yossi, son of Rabbi Hanina, said: The sacrifices presented by Noah’s sons were olot (burnt-offerings)” (Vayikra Rabbah 9:6).

Two kinds of sacrifices are depicted in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Tzav (Leviticus 6:1 - 8:36), olot and shelamim. The olot (from the root ayin-lamed-heh, “to go up”) gets its name because the sacrifice is completely consumed by fire on the altar and rises heavenward. In contrast, only part of the shelamim is burned on the altar; the rest is distributed to the priests, who are permitted to eat the animal’s flesh.

Animals used for the olot offerings were slaughtered on the north side of the altar; the shlemamim, on the south. According to Rabbi Yossi, Noah’s sons sacrificed only olot, but Rabbi Elazar says they also sacrificed shelamim. Each of these renowned scholars presents evidence to prove his case, and thus we see that the core of the argument is whether, before the Torah was given on Mount Sinai, it was permitted to eat the flesh of a sacrificial offering – as in the case of shelamim – or whether that was forbidden, meaning that only olot offerings were permitted.

The midrash continues: “Rabbi Elazar replied to Rabbi Yossi, son of Rabbi Hanina: It is written, ‘And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof’ (Genesis 4:4). That is, he brought a sacrifice in which the fat is sacrificed.” Since the Torah explicitly states that Abel sacrificed the firstlings of his flock together with their fat, Rabbi Elazar deduces that only the fat was consumed by fire; in other words, this was a shelamim offering.

“What did Rabbi Yossi, son of Rabbi Hanina, do with this verse? He interpreted ‘and of the fat thereof’ as ‘the choice fat sheep in his flock.’” In other words, Abel’s sacrifice was in the category of olot – the same one as Noah’s sons offered, according to Yossi.

Rabbi Elazar cites additional examples, explaining with regard to the Children of Israel at Mount Sinai, that it is written, “[the young men of the Children of Israel, who] offered burnt-offerings, and sacrificed peace-offerings” (Exodus 24:5). Moreover, regarding Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, it is written that he “took a burnt-offering and sacrifices [= peace offerings]” (Exod. 18:12). Rabbi Yossi, however, counters all of Rabbi Elazar’s arguments one by one, interpreting the verses in question as describing only olot.

After presenting the debate, the midrash introduces additional evidence and settles the dispute: “The following verse helps Rabbi Yossi, son of Rabbi Hanina: ‘Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south’ [Song of Songs 4:16]. The words ‘Awake, O north wind’ refer to olot, slaughtered in the north – to the northern side of the altar. Why does the Bible use the verb ‘Awake’? Because this is an ancient practice that was revived. The words ‘and come, thou south’ refer to the shelamim, slaughtered in the south – on the southern side of the altar. In other words, the act is something new.”

Thus, the midrash continues, the Song of Songs describes the beginning of the presentation of the sacrifices depicted in this week’s portion. Since the singular form of olot, olah, is also the command to arise – that means it already existed in the world and that it was merely asleep. In contrast, the shelamim offering is commanded to come; it is thus ordered for the very first time. Thus, Noah’s sons could not have sacrificed shelamim; they could sacrifice only olot.

Leviticus Rabbah continues: “The following verse [in this week’s Torah reading] can help Rabbi Yossi, son of Rabbi Hanina, prove that Noah’s sons sacrificed only olot: “This is the law of the burnt-offering: it is that which goeth up [on its firewood upon the altar]” [Leviticus 6:2]. The midrash arrives at that conclusion based on the following: “When the shlemamim offering is mentioned [in this week’s reading], it is written, ‘And this is the law of the sacrifice of peace-offerings’ [Lev. 7:11]. However, the verse does not continue, ‘which one offered unto the Lord,’ but rather says: ‘which one may [or will] offer unto the Lord’ [Lev. 7:11]. Thus, only from that point onward, could shelamim be sacrificed.”

Regarding the shelamim offerings, the Torah uses the future tense, to emphasize that the Children of Israel were not hitherto permitted to make them and thus had sacrificed only olot.

For Rabbi Elazar, the above passage from Song of Songs refers not to sacrifices per se, rather to the era of the exiled Jews’ return to the Land of Israel, when Gog, the northern king, was to fight his last battle in the south, and when the Messiah King would come from the north to build the Temple, in the south.

This week’s Torah portion and the midrash offer solid evidence in favor of Rabbi Yossi’s view: The sacrifices Noah’s sons offered were olot. Only after God gives the Torah to his people at Mount Sinai, and only after the Portable Tabernacle is constructed in the wilderness, are shelamim also allowed.

Rabbi Johanan learns the following from this, according to the same midrash: “Rabbi Johanan said: The Torah teaches us proper conduct. A bridegroom cannot go under the wedding canopy without first receiving his bride’s permission, as it is written, ‘Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his precious fruits’ [Song of Songs, 4:16], which is followed by ‘I am come into my garden, my sister, my bride .... I have drunk my wine with my milk. Eat, O friends; drink, yea, drink abundantly, O beloved one’ [Song of Songs 5:1].”

The historical transition Rabbi Yossi portrays is one that goes from the olah sacrifice – where the king (God) is invited to partake of the feast in his garden – to the shelamim offering – whereof the friends (that is, the priests) are also invited to partake.

But why is the type of sacrifice offered by Noah’s sons so important? Because it indicates the possibility of changes in the nature of offering sacrifices. The sages lived in an era when the Temple in Jerusalem was in ruins and the various sacrifices depicted in Leviticus – which we began reading in the synagogue last Shabbat – could not be offered.

The fate of the act of making sacrifices, which for centuries had been seen as vital in terms of human communication with God, hinges on the question of whether changing the system of offerings is even possible.

According to Rabbi Elazar, the Messiah will come from the north and rebuild the Temple, and the system of sacrifices will be reinstated and will function precisely as before the Temple’s destruction. However, if, as Rabbi Yossi argues, Noah’s sons could sacrifice only olot, but the granting of the Torah at Sinai and the construction of the Portable Tabernacle in the wilderness enabled the sacrificing of shelamim as well – that would mean that change is possible in the sacrificial system.

An earlier passage in Vayikra Rabbah (7:3) reads, “Rabbi Acha, citing Rabbi Hanana, son of Papa, said: Whereas Israel offered all the sacrifices when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, what can Israel do now with all these sacrifices? God said to Israel: Since you are studying the passages concerning the sacrifices, I will consider your study as being equivalent to the actual presentation of these sacrifices.”

If we argue that Noah’s sons offered only olot, we can conclude that the granting of the Torah at Sinai enabled the sacrifice of shelamim as well. We can also assume that the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem facilitated a further transformation in the system of sacrifices: the presentation of textual sacrifices – that is, offerings made in the course of studying the relevant laws governing sacrifices.

The Book of Leviticus can be understood not as a “memorial book,” but rather as a new temple, one that can enable us to continue, within its boundaries, to worship God through the presentation of sacrifices. But this mode of worship has undergone a transformation, becoming an intellectual activity. It has evolved into the study of texts – involving a struggle for the preservation of the significance of sacrifices, a struggle wherein the study of the text has replaced the actual offering itself.