The symbolism behind the sacrifices
Vayikra — Leviticus 1:1-5:26
Who cares about sacrifices!” people often complain, when they get to Leviticus. “Wake me when Leviticus ends.” But the sacrificial system is less about sacrifices than about who gets to eat them — and that is plenty interesting!
Of the three major types of sacrifice, only the first (the “olah”) was wholly a sacrifice, if by that you mean an animal slaughtered and offered up entirely to God.
The second (the “minchah”) was a grain offering, mostly fried on the altar as a sacred meal for the priests — payment-in-kind for their work on behalf of the people.
The last, and most interesting, was the “zevach sh’lamim,” usually translated “a sacrifice” (zevach) “of peace” (sh’lamim) — like shalom, but also irenicus and pacificus in the old Greek (Septuagint) and Latin (Vulgate) Bibles. Part of this sacrifice was sent off to God in smoke, but most of it was eaten by the priests and the people doing the offering.
Put all this together and you get ancient biblical wisdom on eating. We nowadays know enough to focus properly on “what” we eat; but the rules of sacrifice remind us to attend as well to “where” we eat, “how” we eat, and “with whom” we do the eating.
Start with the “where.” A straight line leads from the Temple cult to a synagogue kiddush or oneg Shabbat: all examples of eating as a sacred event in a sacred place. Synagogue meals expand the elemental sense of family beyond the accident of blood ties alone; they connect us with relative strangers in an effort to construct a story of shared identity, and destiny.
Our homes too are sacred: there too, we invite guests who attend as family around the intimate act of sharing food.
Restaurants are generally not sacred. By all means treat yourself to eating out, but not at the expense of meals in synagogue and home with people you might never otherwise get to know.
As for the “how,” sacred meals are not swallowed on the run. They feature conversation, affability, nicely set tables, putting our best selves forward, and time allotted also to ritual, prayer, and song. When we are done, an afterglow assures us that we have somehow experienced a deeper faith in friendship, a certain sense of how good it is to be alive, and a demonstration of what a life well led is all about.
Finally, the most important question: with whom do we choose to eat? Here, the third sacrifice, the zevach sh’lamim, becomes all-important. Targum Onkelos, a particularly ancient source for understanding Torah, generally translates the Hebrew into straightforward Aramaic: olah becomes “alata”; minchah becomes “minchata.” Yet sh’lamim becomes “kudshaya,” like the Hebrew kodesh, “holy.”
Jewish tradition usually considers the first two sacrifices (olah and minchah) holier than the third (zevach sh’lamim) because the third one could be enjoyed by ordinary Israelites, not just God and the priests. Onkelos defies that interpretation. For him, the zevach sh’lamim (the kudshaya) is the holiest one of all — for the very same reason. The midrash explains that with the sh’lamim, God, the priests, and ordinary Israelites are at one with one another.
Sacred meals unite us; they break down such arbitrary divisions as class and caste. The history of humanity is an ever-expanding circle of those with whom we are willing to eat.
“Look not at the bottle, but at what it contains,” is good rabbinic advice, especially when studying sacrifices. Leviticus is an old bottle of wisdom, but not on that account to be discarded on the trash heap of yesterday’s detritus. It is, instead, a genuine antique, no longer in use (we don’t sacrifice anymore) but worth treasuring for the lessons it contains: how ordinary eating can be the sacred way to include, not exclude; and to rediscover our godly gifts of compassion, love, conversation, humor, and enjoyment — all part and parcel of elemental human empathy and the way to become most fully human ourselves.
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is cofounder of Synagogue 3000 and a professor of liturgy, worship, and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.