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VAYIKRA: Blood on the Altar

March 24, 2009

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...

VAYAKHEL-PEKUDEI: Kindling Fire on the Sabbath

March 18, 2009

Joel Cohen's Question:

After stating clearly that the Sabbath is a day of rest, that on that day work is prohibited at penalty of death, the Torah's very next sentence adds a separate command: "You shall not kindle fire in any of your dwellings on the Sabbath day" (Exodus 35:1-3). Presumably, when the prohibition came into being kindling fire was "work." Starting a fire was not as simple as flipping a lighter today.

The Sabbath is a day of restful enjoyment (menuchah). Why, then, have the rabbis gone so far out of their way to undermine that enjoyment by expanding the fire kindling bar? Their bar includes so many things that are not "fire" in the traditional sense and which don't involve any form of work. For example, turning on an air conditioner to better enjoy the Sabbath on a brutally hot day; turning on a CD player to listen to a Torah class to comply with the command of learning Torah; or pressing an elevator button to go the 20th floor for Sabbath dinner, rather than engage in the cardio torture incurred in climbing 19 flights.

Given that the air conditioner, the CD player and elevator don't require "work," and certainly weren't considered as "fire kindling" by Moses when the Oral Tradition began, why does barring them make any sense today? Was that what the Torah intended when Moses received it from G‑d?

Rabbi Adam Mintz Responds:

Joel, this week you have addressed the basis of the principle of "Rest on Shabbat" and how that same principle that was introduced in the desert over three thousand years ago is still relevant today. It is a gigantic topic and I will try to discuss some of the basic ideas. The translation of melachah (the term used by the Torah to describe the activities proscribed on Shabbat) as "work" is overly simplistic. This week's Torah reading is actually the basis for the derivation of the 39 types of activity that are forbidden on Shabbat. The Talmud comments on the juxtaposition of the laws of Shabbat and the description of the building of the Tabernacle at the beginning of the reading. It derives that the reason that these two seemingly unrelated laws are written next to one another is to teach that the 39 categories of work that were used in the building of the Tabernacle are the same 39 categories of work that are forbidden on Shabbat.

Now, for the harder question of how we can apply these ancient categories to the modern world. You mention the relationship of the prohibition against kindling to electricity. Actually, at the beginning of the twentieth century when electricity began to be used in private homes, the question of its permissibility on Shabbat was discussed. Could you turn on a light switch? Is it really "work"—as you asked? The early authorities believed that electricity was prohibited based on the verse prohibiting kindling. However, as the understanding of how electricity evolved, the rabbinic authorities realized that electricity is not really the same as lighting a fire. Rather, they identified it with the prohibition of "completing the job," and explained that turning on a light switch is completing the circuit which allows the light to go on.

This issue, not surprisingly, is still being discussed today. Can one send email on Friday afternoon to someone in Israel where it is already Shabbat? Can you leave your computer on to be able to check the news or the sports or maybe even your emails on Shabbat? The answers are often matters of dispute between rabbinic authorities. However, they all point to the fact that the laws at the beginning of this week's Torah reading are still very much alive.

Rabbi Eli Popack Responds:

When G‑d announced, "Thou shall not steal," the people of the time undoubtedly understood stealing to mean reaching for your friend's wallet and taking his money, or entering his home and taking his food and clothing. Ponzi schemes and pirated software were definitely not what they thought of, yet today this "thievery" is on all of our minds. Would our litigator say that Madoff did not "steal"?

Point being, even if electricity doesn't seem to be fire in the conventional sense, this does not necessarily mean that it is not included in the prohibition.

Nonetheless, I believe that the other prohibition involved in electricity, namely, effecting the completion of a new object by closing the circuit, captures the essence of the melachot forbidden on Shabbat.

The Hebrew language has two words for "work"—avodah and melachah. Avodah is a general term meaning work, while melachah has a very precise halachic meaning. On Shabbat, melachah is prohibited.

The Torah specifically mentions one (or perhaps two) melachot, kindling a fire (and carrying in a public domain). The Mishnah further explains that 39 different categories of melachah went into building the Tabernacle. While these categories of labor refer to the construction of the Tabernacle, they actually encompass all forms of human productivity. These melachot are not a haphazard collection of activities, and do not necessarily represent physical exertion—as is evident from the prohibition of carrying in the public domain. Rather, the principle behind them is that they represent constructive, creative effort, demonstrating man's mastery over nature. This is where completing an object by closing the circuit comes in.

Here's the punch line: Refraining from melachah on Shabbat signals our recognition that, despite our human creative abilities, G‑d is the ultimate Creator and Master.

At first glance, the numerous laws and their many nuances would seem to present a hindrance to Oneg Shabbat—enjoying and delighting in Shabbat. However, the unique way in which we pursue ordinary activities on Shabbat actually serves as a constant reminder of the special nature of this day.

Partially based on an essay published in the Spice and Spirit cookbook.

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.