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After having setup the framework of the Mishna as referring to the maintenance of social order, we last explained how Avoda, sacrificial service, applies to this framework according to the opinion of the Ramban. We would like to now understand the position of the Rambam on sacrifices in general and his explanation of sacrifices being relevant to our Mishna. Let us review the various statements of the Rambam and the questions we were left with.
The Rambam on our Mishna says that Avoda refers to the safekeeping of commandments in general which are the sacrifices. We pointed out that this statement is quite problematic: sacrifices themselves are a type of commandment. Therefore, how could one term refer to both, commandments in general and a specific type of commandment?
The next step is to understand the general institution of sacrifices according to the Rambam. We started with the Ramban’s commentary on the Torah where he quotes the Rambam from the Moreh Nevuchim (Guide to the Perplexed, Book 3, Chapter 46) 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 redirect those animal offerings 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’s opinion, 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, sacrifices won’t be a ‘cure’ but rather will be even more harmful. He explains this as due to the idolaters’ assumption that these animals have power, so they were used in worship, and now the Jews are going to give honor to this belief by using those very animals in the worship to God! The best method to counter idolatry would have been to eat those animals, while it was forbidden to them, in order to show how stupid are their beliefs.
To fully appreciate the Rambam’s opinion we need to look at another comment of his on sacrifices, also written in the Moreh Nevuchim (Book 3, Chapter XXXII). The Rambam says that it is impossible for beings to suddenly go from one extreme to another, and that is the reason for certain commandments. An example he gives is that in those times it was customary to perform sacrificial rituals to idols. Therefore, God did not prohibit these types of worship, since that would be against the nature of man. Rather, God commanded that these activities be performed to Him alone and to no other being.
When we compare this explanation with the one quoted above by the Ramban, we are faced with two seemingly contradictory reasons why sacrifices are required. According to this last statement, it seems the commandment of sacrifices was given because the Jews were not be able to cleanly break from their attachment to that form of worship, so God had to allow for it in some context; namely that they only be brought to Him. However, according to the Ramban, the reason for the commandment seems to be the exact opposite: sacrifice was a method of teaching the correct ideas through breaking the emotion towards idolatry. Is sacrifice a way of breaking the emotions toward the primitive form of worship or not?
The Rambam says it would have been too difficult to give up sacrifices as a method of worship so what had to be changed was the object of worship. Clearly, the Jews had to be removed from the primitive framework of idolatry and directed towards true ideas. How was this done? The sacrifices commanded in the Torah have a unique system of the Temple and the Priests: only with these circumstances and with certain people could sacrifices be brought. In this way, the primitive emotions would always be in check, subordinated to the guidelines and ideas of Halacha (Jewish law). Halacha safeguards our correct use of the Temple; it is regulated by logic and ideas. Conversely, primitive emotions (expressed I pure idolatrous sacrifice) are attached to particular actions and objects. It was vital that man remove himself from that emotional mindset and relate to the universal ideas of halacha. This is also the reason why only the Priests could bring the sacrifices – as they were the ones who were entrusted with the system of Halacha, and they generally worked only two weeks a year in the Temple so that they were involved in Torah study the rest of the time. Thus we see how the two statements of the Rambam work well together in defining the overall framework of sacrifice. While man could not give up worship through sacrifices quickly, the system given by God was constructed in a way where it broke the primitive emotions of man and directed them towards reality.
Now we are in a position to understand how the Rambam would answer the Ramban’s question. The Ramban argued that allowing sacrifices to be brought would only encourage the false ideas of other nations and religions. The Rambam may answer that when done according to Halacha, the primitive emotions cannot prevail. The Temple is diametrically opposed to primitive religions because now the primitive emotions are subjected to a rigorous intellectual system in Halacha so that they will be broken. The criticism of the Ramban is based on the premise that the same emotions from idolatry will carry through into the Torah’s system of sacrifice. However, according to the Rambam, though the action may look the same as those of the other nations, the demanded framework of Halacha changes it. Thus the benefit of sacrifices is to break the primitive emotions of man.
With this understanding of the institution of sacrifice, we may now understand the Rambam’s comment on our mishna. What does he mean that Avoda refers to safekeeping of commandments, which are the sacrifices? Sacrifices sublimate the emotions of man towards God. This idea is applicable for all commandments, though sacrifices are a specific, unique form of it. The term Avoda in the Mishna represents the removal of the primitive emotions in man, which is accomplished by all commandments, but by sacrifices to the highest degree. The commandments are for all man’s basic needs whereas the institution of sacrifices is a specific response to a specific primitive emotion in man.
In the end, though, all commandments have the common denominator of removing man from his basic instincts. It is this idea that is necessary for ‘the world to stand’ as it essential that man perfects himself, raising himself to a higher level of existence, thereby permeating society with morally and intellectually correct ideas, and individuals.