Torah from Around the World #316

Recent Issues

By: Rabbi Natan M. Landman is

a retired U.S. Air Force Chaplain with extensive experience as a teacher of Judaism

The Dynamics of Levitical Sacrifice

Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When any of you presents an offering of cattle to the Lord, he shall choose his offering from the herd or from the flock. (Lev. 1:2)

Animal sacrifice was virtually unanimous among primitive religions in the Middle East. In pagan rites, the offerings were propitiatory in nature to win the favor of the pagan gods. They were also based on the idea that the gods had sensual needs that had to be satisfied. (They literally “tasted” or “smelled” the offering.)

Biblical Israel was never free from the cultures in which it developed. But we can see by the nature of the terminology for “offering” (above)—the Hebrew word is


—that the fundamental purpose was something else entirely.


comes from the Hebrew root

kof raysh bet

, meaning “to draw near.” The purpose of the sacrificial system was not its effect upon God but what it did for the person making the offering—how it enabled him or her to draw near to God. Ritual (i.e., formalized religious worship) dynamically is meant to do the same thing. Ritual establishes


that provide venues for the worshipper to feel close to God. By constantly reiterating prayers that embody basic Jewish values, one is more likely to internalize those values into habits of living. That is why Judaism was able to survive despite the trauma of the destruction of the First and Second Temples.

By 70 CE, when the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans, the synagogue was already in place as the locus for worship; prayer had replaced sacrifice as the means of approaching God. The basic prayer formula demonstrates the dynamic of drawing near to God: We always begin

Baruch Atto Adonaye

(Praised are You, O Lord—direct second-person address) then

Oseh Ha-Shalom

(Maker of Peace—now third person). By shifting to the third person, we are describing that 106 Rabbi Nathan M. Landman attribute of God that we wish to internalize as an active value. It is for our benefit, not God’s, for the deity does not need to be told why he is being praised.

What began in elaborate temple rites administered by a priest on behalf of the offerer metamorphosed into a pattern that has enabled Jews to draw near to God in any age, in any place, at any time and strive to live a life of holiness.

About the Author


author of

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