Sacrifice & Societal Order


Rabbi Israel Chait

Written by student



“On three things the world stands: Torah, avodah, gemilut chasadim”


After defining the framework of this Mishna as the maintenance of a functioning society, we explained the meaning and place of the factors of Torah, and Gemilut Chasadim (acts of kindness). We now move to the element of Avodah, which literally means ‘service’ and generally refers to the services performed in the Beit Hamikdash, the Holy Temple. Rashi on our Mishna thus comments that here the Mishna refers to the service in the Temple which, quoting from our Sages, allows for the heavens and earth to exist.

The Rambam makes an interesting remark on our Mishna, which deserves a thorough analysis. In explaining the term ‘Avodah’, he says that it refers to the keeping of all commandments which are the sacrifices brought in the Temple. This comment is quite perplexing; what does the Rambam mean that the keeping of commandments is the bringing of sacrifices? Sacrifices are a group of commandments themselves! Which group is being referred to in the mishna: the keeping of all commandments or the laws of sacrifices?

To unravel the meaning of the Rambam’s commentary we must first investigate the area of sacrifices in general and understand their import. Let us begin with the commentary of the Ramban on the verse in Vayikra 1:6. The Ramban begins by quoting the Rambam from the Moreh Nevuchim (Guide to the Perplexed) who says that the Jews had lived amongst idolatrous nations, such as the Egyptians, who would use animals to sacrifice to their gods. Therefore, God commanded the Jews to use those animals as sacrifices so that we use that, which they used for sin, in order to serve God. In this way, says the Rambam, there can be a cure for the ‘sickness of the soul’ by going to the opposite extreme. After quoting the Rambam, the Ramban launches a number of criticisms on this approach. We will focus on one of those criticisms.

The Ramban says that according to the Rambam’s idea, there won’t be a ‘cure’ but rather it will be even more harmful to bring sacrifices, because the idea of the idolaters was that these animals have power so they were used in worship. Now, the Jews are going to give honor to this belief by using those very animals in the worship to God! The best way would have been to eat it for ourselves, when it was forbidden to them, in order to show how stupid are their beliefs! (At a later point, we will attempt to defend and explain the idea and meaning of the Rambam)

After rejecting the Rambam’s reasoning, the Ramban continues with his own explanation of the institution of Temple sacrifices. He explains that God obligates a person to bring a sacrifice after he sins in order so that he should reflect that really it is his own body and blood that should be spilled and burned, if not for the kindness of the Creator who accepts the animal as a replacement.

A bit of elaboration is needed to clearly grasp the idea of the Ramban. According to the Ramban, the idea behind the bringing of sacrifices is repentance. People have a sense of identification with animals, seen in human remorse in killing animals. By a sacrifice, the person realizes that what is being done to the animal should really be done to him, bringing about the recognition of the person’s own evil state. This is a means to the process of repentance and removal of one’s own sin.

We may now explain the element of Avodah in our Mishna, using the idea of the Ramban. Avodah refers to sacrifices and the idea of sacrifices according to the Ramban is repentance. In the framework of maintaining society, repentance is essential in that it reflects man’s ability to evaluate his own actions. Repentance is a constant process that allows a person to examine his actions and emotions, as he strives to discern if he is following the path of the instinctual towards destruction.

What about today when we don’t have sacrifices? How is this element achieved so that the “world stands”? Our Rabbis say that one who learns through the laws of sacrifices is considered as if he brought the sacrifice himself. Also, we mention sacrifices in our prayers. The idea is that although we no longer have the benefit of the actions of sacrifices, we still maintain the benefits of sacrifices through our awareness and study of them. When one studies the laws of sacrifices and sees the wisdom contained in them, he too has access to the benefits of the institution of sacrifices. In this way, sacrifices continue to exist in the maintenance of our society.

At this point, we are still left to wonder about the position of the Rambam on sacrifices. How can we explain his position and address the criticisms of the Ramban?

To be continued.