Saturday, March 12, 2011

Korbanot: It's the thought that counts

My article from this week's Toronto Torah:

Feeling like an astronaut does not mean I’ve been to the moon (to borrow from Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald), and studying the laws of Lulav is not halachically equal to picking up a palm branch and waving it. When dealing with korbanot, though, it seems that feeling = doing.

Vayyikra Rabbah (7:3) illustrates this point, saying, “Since you involve yourselves in studying them, I consider it as though you had actually brought them.” This message is reminiscent of Hosheia’s surprising statement, as explained in Yoma 86b, that reciting the pesukim of the korbanot is considered equivalent to performing their rituals.
Similarly, the Mateh Ephraim (621:10) says that one should study, in advance of Yom Kippur, the version of the Avodah which matches the version in the Avodah poem he will read on musaf of Yom Kippur.

This idea is most unusual within Judaism’s view of mitzvah fulfillment, though. We do not apply this concept of “study = fulfillment” to any other temporarily inaccessible mitzvah, such as Hakhel or Mechiyyat Amalek. How do we understand the korban-specific equation between recitation and practice?

One answer may emerge from the Rambam’s discussion of why HaShem decreed the existence of korbanot, at all. Rambam was troubled by Yirmiyahu’s declaration (7:22-23), “For on the day I removed your fathers from Egypt, I did not speak to them and I did not command them regarding burnt offerings and celebration sacrifices. Only this did I instruct them, saying: Hear My voice and I will be your G-d, and you will be My nation.” Yirmiyahu seems to say that HaShem does not desire korbanot - but the Torah itself, and particularly Sefer Vayyikra, is testimony to the contrary!

Rambam (Moreh haNevuchim 3:32) explained that Yirmiyahu was trying to teach us the importance of the thought that accompanies, and validates, a korban. “The primary object is that you should know Me and serve no other, and I will be your Gd and you will be My nation. I instructed you in all of these rituals in My Name, until the name of idolatry would be erased and the principle of My Oneness would remain, so that this principle would endure in your hands.”

In other words, to borrow from Sanhedrin 106b, “רחמנא ליבא בעי,” HaShem desires the heart. The goal of the korban is to bring us closer to Gd; absent that goal, the korban itself is meaningless. [Of course, this emphasis upon the heart does not render the korban ritual meaningless; viduy without a korban chatat is as meaningless as a korban chatat without viduy. Nonetheless, the thought is essential to the korban.]

We see evidence of the importance of our feelings in the names that the Torah and our sages used to identify the korbanot themselves. Whereas ritual mitzvot are often named for the objects they employ – Matzah, Lulav, Menorah – the korbanot are primarily named for the emotions and thoughts they represent: Chatat [sin-offering], Asham [guilt-offering], Todah [thanks-offering], Shelamim [peace-offering], Neder and Nedavah [voluntary vows to Gd]. [The korbanot which do not follow this model – such as Pesach, Bechor, Maaser – tend to involve other mitzvot beyond the korban itself.]

Perhaps this is why we can, in the temporary absence of a Beit haMikdash, study about the korbanot and merit Divine credit as though we had brought those offerings ourselves. If the korban’s primary element is its thought and emotion, and the secondary element, its ritual, is unavailable, then our engagement in the primary piece may suffice for now.

May Gd’s will be that we soon see the re-building of the Beit haMikdash and the restoration of our korbanot in both ritual and emotion, the primary and secondary elements united once again in the Land of Israel in our service of HaShem.


  1. Important point about thoughts and feelings with regard to korban
    That may also explain why specifically with regard to a korban that 'pigul'will invalidate the korban.

  2. It seems as if it's essential to be there with the offering to get the full feel of the experience emotionally and spiritually. How does one approximate this nowadays by reading or reciting details of the ritual? Is our imagination really up to that? Are there specific aspects to think about now that are able to put us into the appropriate mood?

  3. daat y-
    Interesting thought, particularly in light of what the daf yomi just covered on Menachos 5, regarding the high standard necessary just to be eligible for thought-disqualification.

    This is a really big problem, to me. I believe that a real knowledge and comprehension of the steps of avodah will help, but it still requires a great deal of imagination.