Moshe Ben-Chaim

There is a famous argument between Ramban and Maimonides on the purpose of sacrifice. Maimonides writes in his great work the Guide for the Perplexed (Book III, Chap. 46) that the purpose of sacrifice is to eradicate false notions that certain species of animals were deities. By sacrificing to G-d, the heathens' worshiped species, we counter the problem, as Maimonides writes:
"....In order to eradicate these false principles, the law commands us to offer sacrifices only of these three kinds: 'Ye shall bring your offering of cattle, of the herd and of the flock' (Lev. 1:2). Thus the very act which considered by the heathen as the greatest crime, is the means of approaching G-d, and obtaining His pardon for our sins. In this manner, evil principles, the diseases of the human soul, are cured by other principles which are diametrically opposite."
Ramban argues vehemently on Maimonides in the beginning of his commentary in the book of Leviticus (Lev. 1:9). There, Ramban lodges two salient arguments:
1) We see that sacrifice existed in the days of Adam's son Able, and in Noah's days when idolatry of this kind did not yet exist. Therefore Maimonides cannot be correct to suggest that sacrifice is to function to remove idolatrous notions.
2) Sacrifice is really viewed as an approach to G-d, as shown by Bilaam's offerings, not a neutralizing procedure. How can sacrifice be a negative, i.e., an agent countering idolatry, when it is described as a positive, "a pleasant fragrance".
These questions certainly require a response. But I wondered, is Ramban really suggesting that Maimonides was ignorant of the stories in every Torah, that of Able, and Noach and Bilaam? This possibility is absurd. So what exactly is Ramban saying when quoting the facts that these early individuals offered sacrifice?
We are forced to say that Maimonides knew very well that sacrifice existed prior to the command at Sinai. Perhaps then, Maimonides' reasoning is that the Sinaic command of sacrifice is that alone to which he refers which is to counter idolatry. But cases prior to the Sinaic command of sacrifice were not for the eradication of idolatry. But again, this answer is far too basic that someone like a Ramban would not consider. I am of the opinion that Ramban considered this answer, and yet, still lodged his arguments against Maimonides.
Perhaps Ramban held that even with the sacrificial command at Sinai, sacrifice can not be removed from its original form. This I believe to be the pivotal point between Ramban and Maimonides.
Ramban held that although a new command and Torah system was given, nonetheless, if sacrifice had an inceptional structure, i.e., to approach G-d, it cannot deviate from this form. It may have incorporated additional purposes at Sinai, but it cannot be exclusively to eradicate idolatry as Maimonides holds. There is sound reasoning as to why Ramban takes this approach. When something comes into existence, its form at that moment is integral to its definition. Water was created in a moist state, and as such, it is inherently moist. Water without moisture is not water. Once dust was created inherently dry, this feature forms part of its very definition. So also, sacrifice at Adam's, Able's and Noah's time, emerged as man's own attempt to approach G-d. Since this is the very inception of the institution of sacrifice, sacrifice by nature is an approach to G-d, and cannot be viewed as lacking this property. Sacrifice without approach to G-d is no longer sacrifice, according to Ramban. Based on this reasoning, Ramban held that sacrifice could not be defined solely as that which eradicates idolatry. It must - by definition - include the inceptional property of an approach to G-d.
However, Maimonides was of the opinion that although sacrifice came into existence in this form, as Ramban says, nonetheless, Sinai has the ability to redefine its structure from the ground up, and completely undermine its original nature. But this addresses Ramban's second argument alone, dealing with the structure of sacrifice. I believe his first argument to be dealing with the goal of sacrifice. There, Ramban is of the opinion that just as the structure cannot deviate, so also the goal of approaching G-d must be an inherent property of sacrifice. It is for this reason that Ramban gives two arguments, as each addresses an additional point of contention Ramban had with Maimonides' view.
According to Maimonides, Sinai had the ability to take an institution and completely redefine it. The new reality of "national commandments" given at Sinai are so overwhelmingly objective in their truth, so real, as they emanate from G-d as part of His Will, that commandments go so far as to define what truth is. The Sinaic Commandments redefined reality for the Jew. Sacrifice according to Maimonides for all halachik intents and purposes didn't exist prior to Sinai. Historically it did, but now as the Jews had new laws governing their lives, previously known activities were only similar in name, and nothing else. Sacrifice prior and subsequent to Sinai were as divergent in nature as are color and weight. This was clear to Maimonides, and he therefore had no qualms about explaining sacrifice as if it never existed before.
Ramban was of the opinion that although Sinai redefines our actions, it only adds the nature of 'command' to a preexisting institution of sacrifice, but it does not redefine its original nature.