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VAYIKRA: Blood on the Altar

VAYIKRA: Blood on the Altar


Joel Cohen's Question:

Animal sacrifice is hard enough to understand. When we see it displayed in contemporary times, as practiced, for example, by the Santeria religion, it seems inhumane, and at least arguably barbaric. One can understand that animal sacrifice was intended as a substitute for the punishment of death for the Israelite who violated G‑d's sacred commands—i.e. "the animal's blood for our blood." Essentially, the blood from the sacrificial animals would remind the people of their vulnerability, and how G‑d chose to spare them through animal sacrifice.

But the blood-letting ceremony on the altar seems particularly bizarre. For example, in the instance of the Sin Offering, the young bull was sacrificed and the priest would sprinkle from the blood seven times "before G‑d" toward the Curtain, he would then put some blood on the horns of the altar, and the remaining blood he would pour on its base. But nothing says that the individual offering the sacrifice (presumably, in substitution for his own body) would be situated nearby so that the experience of the blood-letting would infuse his personal consciousness.

Maybe, just maybe, animal sacrifice was merely a ritual intended to satisfy G‑d Himself, and had nothing to do with the consciousness of the offeror, other than the monetary sacrifice he made in purchasing the animal whose carcass, kidneys, fat, diaphragm and liver, etc. – each identified individually – would go up in smoke.

Gentlemen, please help me to understand why this practice should sound like a good thing to me (and, presumably, the many others who might see it as I do). Yes, I know—G‑d instructed us to do it. But still...

Rabbi Adam Mintz Responds:

Joel, this week you have jumped ahead of yourself. You have posed the question regarding why the offerer of the sacrifice does not stand by as the blood is being sprinkled. You sound as if you understand the process of the sprinkling of the blood in the first place. I would like to focus on the mitzvah of sprinkling the blood and then answer the question that you asked.

When the Torah describes the mitzvah to sprinkle the blood, it tells us that the blood must be sprinkled "around the altar." This was accomplished through the sprinkling on two opposite diagonal corners of the altar so that the blood would actually be found on all four sides of the altar.

But why does it matter how many sides of the altar have the blood? We have to imagine that the altar must have been a pretty messy place—did one more blood offering really make a difference?

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that this detail of the blood sprinkling is essential in understanding the reason for the entire practice. We are obligated to sprinkle the blood, explains Rabbi Hirsch, because it represents the soul of the person who is offering the sacrifice. But, what is the relationship that the offering is trying to establish? According to Rabbi Hirsch, the sacrifice strengthens our relationship with G‑d. This relationship is one that encompasses everything that we do and is represented by the fact that the blood is sprinkled on the entire altar. The process of sacrifice is the process of giving our complete being to G‑d. How better to reflect that essence than by sprinkling the blood on the entire altar?

So, why is the sprinkling done by the priest? The Talmud explains that the process of sprinkling the blood was one of the most complex activities that took place in the Temple. It had to be done by the experts—having anyone else hanging around would only serve as a distraction to the process. So the priest sprinkled the blood for the offerer of the sacrifice but he was instructed to remain at a distance. Sometimes, we non-priests are most helpful from a distance!

Rabbi Eli Popack Responds:

Joel, you could not have said it better. No matter how many rational explanations we will provide for the mitzvot, some of the details will always be "out there."

Popular conception has it that after G‑d created a world, He decided to give us earthlings a moral code to follow. Thus, the Torah was born—somewhat as an afterthought. It's here to keep the world civilized and sprinkle some meaning into man's often chaotic life. Something like a self-help manual for humankind.

Now, such a manual is not a bad thing to have. But if that were the sum total of Torah, it would have very little to do with G‑d Himself. It might be part of the Creator-of-the-World job description, but – like if Einstein were to sew his pants – it has little do with G‑d's essential wisdom. Don't steal, don't hurt anyone, give charity—very nice, but this you call infinite wisdom?

And so, we are told that, "The Torah preceded the world by 2000 years" (Midrash Tehillim 90:4).

In other words, the Torah is not just G‑d's guidebook for man. It precedes man, precedes the world and all of existence. It's G‑d's own will and wisdom, that He, so to speak, relishes Himself. And He decided to share that with us.

That's why in every mitzvah there are some details that don't seem to fit with the rationale or meaningful experience that the general mitzvah is supposed to provide. It's a small reminder that the grasp of the human mind on G‑d's wisdom is both perfect and imperfect at once. Is it possible that the mind and will of the Creator could fit within the mind of the created?

(Truth be told, according to the Kabbalah, G‑d's will is beyond His own wisdom as well. But we'll leave that for another time…)

Nevertheless, I should point out that Maimonides writes (Laws of Temurah 4:13): "Although the chukim [statutes] of the Torah are [divine] edicts . . . it is proper to contemplate upon them, and find reason for whatever possible."

As such, even for those mitzvot – or details of mitzvot – which are essentially incomprehensible, we should attempt to find a reason or lesson. Hence Rabbi Mintz's answer above...

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Baruch S. Davidson for April 20, 2010

The significance of the blood Blood represents life, warmth and enthusiasm. These attributes are intended to be sanctified -- sprinkled on the altar in the Holy Temple. This is to inspire us to have open and unrestrained excitement with regards to serving G‑d, doing a favor for another, fulfilling mitzvot, or studying Torah. Reply

mike louisville, ky March 26, 2010

whar is the significence of the blood Reply

Judah Lincolnton, NC/USA November 10, 2009

Vayikra: Blood on the Altar 7 always symbolizes the seven days of creation, the four corners symbolized the blessed gift remember always the Jew was required to leave the four corners of their land for the widows and opans. It was charity. and G-d was giving man kind charity. and blood was never to be drunk so it is not the same as cults which always have you to drink blood which I myself would never do. To anyone who has never killed their own food it would be hard to understand that the blood is the Life Blood of all animals. When the animal is killed you see the Life leave it and when the blood is drained from the animal which is required for it to be kosher meat the flesh of the animal turns white....and white is always the symbol of purity....and as for the ritual of sprinkling the blood that is no longer required but for anyone who eats meat. The killing of the animals still is done and if you think this is revolting don't ever go to a place that kills animals. G-D spoke for priest who liked to eat meat. Reply

Eugene Talahasee, FL March 31, 2009

Re: The Blood Deana,
You're not the first one to be traumatized by the graphic details of the sacrifices. I came across this article, maybe it'll help: Reply

Deana Truman Temecula, CA via March 28, 2009

the blood i'm not jewish (officially..but that's another topic :-) but have been studying along with the local Chabad group for at least a year, maybe more...I was raised VERY strict and biblically "knowledgable" Christian...but I hadn't studied Vayikra/Leviticus probably since I was a child. However, this year I discovered an 'interpolated' copy of Shemot, and began reading the weekly Parsha fairly regularly. As a child, I just sort of skimmed the details as a ritual no longer practiced. As an adult, I have to say I had the same reaction as Joel. As I visualized the blood being thrown around the altar, I was rather shocked at what I 'saw', and thought, what in the world could G-d possibly be 'thinking'? My next thought was, 'maybe this religion really is an ancient Middle East I just deluding myself?' My modern sensibilities find it quite revolting personally, altho I can understand it if I separate myself emotionally.But should I really separate emotionally from G-d/Torah etc? Reply

Josh NYC, NY March 26, 2009

Good question! Great Answer. Reply

gershon mcgreevy March 25, 2009

i like this blog and i would like it even better if mr. cohen would share some insight as well since i understand he is no small scholar in his own right. Reply

Each week, Joel Cohen poses questions on the weekly Parshah (Torah reading). These questions are addressed by Rabbis Adam Mintz and Eli Popack.

About the Participants:
Joel Cohen, a former federal and state prosecutor, practices criminal defense law at a prominent NYC law firm, and is an Adjunct Professor of Professional Responsibility at Fordham Law School. He also authors a column at the New York Law Journal.

Rabbi Adam Mintz has served as a pulpit rabbi for over twenty years. He is an adjunct professor in Jewish History at Queens College, and lectures widely on a variety of topics. His weekly streaming video, “This Week in Jewish History,” is featured at Rabbi Mintz has recently published Jewish Spirituality and Divine Law (Ktav, 2005).

Rabbi Eli Popack grew up in South Africa, and is the founder and president of Map International, a socially responsible business engaged in Electronic Financial Infrastructure in Africa. In the summer he serves as spiritual guide to the Beach Minyan in Westhampton Beach, NY.