Parshat VaYikra


Rabbi Bernard Fox



“Speak to Bnai Yisrael and say to them the following:  When a person from among you offers a sacrifice to Hashem, if it is an animal sacrifice, it should be taken from the cattle or the flocks of sheep or goats.”  (VaYikra 1:2)

This passage introduces the Torah’s discussion of sacrifices.  The midrash offers many important insights into the Torah’s concept of Divine service and the commandments regarding the sacrifices.  One of the most interesting insights is presented in connection with our passage.


The midrash asks a question.  Imagine a king served by two chefs.  The first prepares a dish for the king.  The king eats the delicacy and is pleased.  The second chef also prepares a special dish for his master.  The king partakes of this second offering and is also pleased.  How can we determine which cuisine was most appreciated?  The midrash responds that we merely need to observe the king’s subsequent actions.  The chef that is summoned to prepare the next meal has won the contest.  The king’s choice indicates his preference.


The midrash explains that this simple story has an important parallel.  When Noach left the ark, he offered sacrifices.  The Torah tells us that the Almighty regarded these offerings as “an appeasing fragrance”.[1]  The sacrifices of Bnai Yisrael are also frequently referred to as “an appeasing fragrance”.[2]  How can we determine which sacrifice is preferable?  The midrash responds that we must consider the Almighty’s subsequent actions.  He commanded Bnai Yisrael in the laws governing the Burnt offering – the Olah.  The Torah states, “This is the law of the Olah.”[3], [4] Through this command, Hashem indicated that the sacrifices of Bnai Yisrael are preferred.  The discussion in the midrash continues.  However, we will limit our analysis to this portion.


The midrash asks a simple question.  Which sacrifices are preferable – those of Noach or those of Bnai Yisrael?  The midrash compares this question to the inquiry regarding the alternative dishes prepared by two chefs.  It is important that we understand this analogy.  The analogy allows us to accurately define the midrash’s question concerning sacrifices.  In the analogy the king’s preference is not determined by any bias towards one of his servants.  The king makes his choice based on a comparison of the virtues of the two dishes.  The question concerning sacrifices must be defined in the same manner.  The midrash is asserting that the sacrifices are fundamentally different – just as each cuisine presented to the king is distinct.  They represent two interpretations of the concept of sacrifice.  What are these two different types of sacrifice?  In other words, in what fundamental characteristic are the sacrifices of Noach different from those legislated by the Torah?


The most obvious difference is that Noach was not guided by a system of laws and regulations.  His decision to offer sacrifices was spontaneous.  He was not following any commandment from G-d.  Also, his method of sacrifice was a personal expression.  He was not directed by any system of instructions.  In contrast, the Torah created a highly regulated system of sacrifices.  Specific occasions require sacrifices.  The sacrificial service is regulated down to the minutest details.   True, a person can offer a free-will offering. Nonetheless, in regard to sacrifices, the Torah leaves little room for personal expression and spontaneity.


We can now clearly define the midrash’s question.  Which type of sacrifice is preferable?  Does Hashem prefer the spontaneous sacrifice that is a personal expression?  Does the Almighty favor the highly regulated and structured offering?


One might argue that the Almighty, Himself, replaced the informal sacrifices of Noach with the structured sacrifices of the Torah.  This suggests that the Torah’s concept of sacrifice represents an evolution from the more primitive sacrifices of Noach! 


This certainly is a reassuring argument.  However, it is not sound.  In order to understand the defect in this argument, we must consider the reason Hashem introduced regulation and structure into the sacrificial service.  Sforno discusses the issue in his commentary on Sefer Shemot.  He explains that the commandment to build a Mishcan was a consequence of the Golden Calf – the Egel HaZahav.[5]  Bnai Yisrael created and worshipped the Egel.  This indicated that the nation had not shed its idolatrous attitudes.  These tendencies could influence Divine worship.  In order to preserve the integrity of the Divine service, regulation was introduced.  In short, the introduction of intricate structure into the sacrificial service was a response to a failing in the nation.  It cannot be defined as an evolutionary advance.


We have shown that the midrash’s question cannot be easily dismissed.  In fact, it seems that a powerful argument can be made in favor of Noach’s sacrifices.  Is not the heartfelt, spontaneous offering superior to the structured regulated sacrifices of the Torah?  It seems that the Torah’s sacrifices are only an artificial imitation of the personal and expressive sacrifices offered by Noach!


There is a remarkable parallel to the development of sacrifices.  Maimonides discusses the mitzvah of prayer in his Mishne Torah.  He explains that, according to the Torah, we are required to pray every day.  The Torah does not establish a set number of prayers for each day.  Neither is there a specified text.  Each person is free to pray once or numerous times each day.  Each individual’s prayers are a personal expression of one’s own feelings.


Originally, the mitzvah was observed in the manner prescribed by the Torah.  However, after the destruction of the first Temple and the subsequent exile a problem arose.  The majority of the nation was no longer fluent in Hebrew – the sacred language.  Hebrew was replaced by a variety of languages.  Most were unable to effectively express themselves in appropriate prayers.  Ezra and his court intervened.  They ordained that we should pray three times each day.  They also established a specific text for the prayers.[6]  In short, prayer was transformed.  Originally, it was a personal expression.  Ezra created structure and regulation. 


It seems that the midrash’s question can also be expressed in reference to prayer.  Prayer and sacrifices both experienced and identical transformations.  A personal, creative activity was transformed into a highly structured and regulated expression.  The midrash is dealing with a basic question.  Which expression is superior – the personal or the structured?  The midrash frames the question in reference to sacrifices.  However, the same question is relevant to prayer.


The midrash responds to the question.  The structured form of worship is superior.  The midrash quotes an interesting passage.  In describing the process for offering an Olah sacrifice the Torah states, “This is the law of the Olah.”  Why does the midrash quote this passage?  It is because the passage refers to the laws of the Olah.  The midrash is telling us the Torah’s sacrifices are superior as a result of their structure and regulation – the laws of the Olah!


However, the midrash does not provide an explanation for its conclusion.  Why is the structured sacrifice superior to the spontaneous offerings?  The midrash does not provide much information.  This raises an important issue.  Does the midrash’s conclusion also apply to prayer?  In order to answer this question, we must better understand the midrash’s conclusion.  Why is the structured sacrifice superior?  Once we answer this question, we can determine if this midrash’s conclusion also applies to prayer.  We can answer this question through analyzing another pasuk from our parasha.




“And he shall split the bird apart by its wings.  He should not completely separate it.  And the Kohen should burn it on the altar on the wood that is on the fire.  It is an Olah, a fire offering, an appeasing fragrance to Hashem.”  (VaYikra 1:17)

Various creatures can be offered as an Olah.  This includes types of cattle and even some fowls.  Our passage discusses an Olah of a fowl.  The pasuk explains that this Olah is an appeasing fragrance to Hashem.  Rashi observes that the same phrase is used in describing the Olah brought from cattle.  Rashi explains, based on the Midrash Sifra, that the passage intends to compare these two offerings. The Olah of the fowl is a modest offering.  Typically, the fowl is offered by a poor person.  The Olah brought from cattle is a more substantial sacrifice.  Nonetheless, both are an appeasing fragrance to Hashem.   The modest and the more substantial offering are equal to the Almighty.  Both represent submission to His will.[7]  This is implied by the phrase, “an appeasing fragrance to Hashem”.   According to Rashi, this phrase means that the person has fulfilled the will of Hashem.[8]


Rashi is providing a basic insight into the concept of sacrifices.  The object offered does not define the value or quality of a sacrifice.  Instead, the element of submission is fundamental to the sacrifice.  The modest sacrifice is not inferior to the more substantial offering.  The important issue is that the person bringing the sacrifice surrenders to the will of the Almighty.


How does the sacrifice represent this submission to the will of Hashem?  This occurs through the adherence to the specific laws regulating the sacrifice.  Conforming to these laws represents submission to Hashem’s will.  This surrender defines service to Hashem and worship.


We can now more fully understand the midrash’s comments.  The sacrifices of Noach were not regulated by any system of law.  They did demonstrate submission.  However, this demonstration was only symbolic.  Noah represented himself through the animal on the altar.  He communicated he, like the sacrificed animal, was completely devoted to Hashem.[9]  However, these sacrifices did not involve an actual act of submission.  They did not conform to any Divinely ordained structure or law.  This structure and law did not exist.  The Torah introduced an elaborate system of law governing sacrifices.  With these laws, sacrifices acquired a new significance.  The sacrificial service was transformed from a symbolic to an actual submission.


Now, our question regarding prayer is answered.  Ezra’s reformulation of prayer did not detract from the mitzvah.  Instead, the mitzvah was enhanced.  Ezra made prayer more accessible to the average person.  He also added structure and regulation.  This addition enhances the element of devotion in prayer.  The supplicant, through adhering to these laws, demonstrates submission to the Almighty’s will.  Through Ezra, prayer more closely models the concept of Divine service expressed in sacrificial service.


[1]   Sefer Beresheit 8:20-21.

[2]   The midrash cites as an example Sefer BeMidbar 28:1.

[3]   Sefer VaYikra 6:2.

[4]   Midrash Rabba, Sefer VaYikra 7:4.

[5]   Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Shemot 31:18.

[6]   Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Teffilah 1:1-6.

[7]   Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 1:17.

[8]   Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 29:18.

[9]   See Rav Yitzchak Arama, Akeydat Yitzchak on Sefer Shemot, Parshat VaYikra.