Although the book of Leviticus is not the longest book in the Torah in terms of the number of its verses, it is the focus of the largest number of halachic interpretations. There are halachic interpretations on almost every verse in the book, despite all the repetition it contains. From the verse, “The sin offering and the guilt offering have exactly the same laws,”1 for example, a multitude of halachot is derived.

One of the more important passages in Parshat Tzav is the ­following:

Whatever is left of the flesh of the offering must be burned in fire on the third day. If the person bringing the offering eats it on the third day, [the offering] will not be accepted. It is considered ­piggul, and it will not be counted in his favor. Any person who eats it will bear his guilt.2

From a halachic standpoint, this verse is very important. Major portions of tractates Zevachim and Menachot deal with laws that derive from this passage, and there are several tractates in the Talmud that one cannot study without quickly encountering one of these laws, namely, piggul.

Piggul is created when, during one of the korban procedures, a person intends to eat or burn any part of the korban after the prescribed time limit for doing so. However, even though the law of piggul is derived from this verse, the verse itself technically does not speak of such a case at all; it deals only with notar, that is, what was left over from the korban and not eaten within the prescribed time limit. The actual law of piggul is derived from the words “it will not be counted (yechashev) in his favor.” The use of the root ch-sh-b implies that the disqualification of piggul relates to thought and is entirely a matter of intention. To turn a korban into piggul, one need not perform any action; the thought alone suffices.

At first glance, this law seems very strange. What kind of transgression is this? People have many illicit desires, but why would a Priest want to disqualify a korban by improper intention? Doing so brings neither physical nor spiritual enjoyment, so why would anyone ever want to do this?

The truth is that we have no record of a Priest ever rendering a korban piggul. In order to accomplish this, the Priest would not only have to be exceedingly wicked, but a Torah scholar as well, an unlikely combination of traits.

In the book of Amos, however, the prophet rebukes Israel: “Come to Bethel and transgress, to Gilgal and multiply transgression. Bring your offerings in the morning, your tithes on the third day. Burn thanks­giving offerings of leavened bread and proclaim freewill offerings loudly.”3 This is surely not a serious invitation but a sarcastic rebuke for sins committed there. He rebukes them: At the thanksgiving offering, you burn the leavened loaf instead of giving it to the Priest; instead of bringing the korbanot within their prescribed time limits, you bring them “on the third day.” Why would a person want to burn the thanksgiving offering’s loaf of leavened bread, or to bring korbanot precisely “on the third day”? Is it only out of contempt? As a rule, today as in the past, when people rebel against traditional religious practices, there is usually some kind of benefit or convenience to be gained by doing so. But what can be gained from bringing korbanot “on the third day”?

Burning the korban

The answer to this question can be found in a different verse in this ­parsha: “Every meal offering brought by a Priest shall be a whole offering: it shall not be eaten.”4

There is a great deal of discussion surrounding this verse, but what clearly emerges from it is that the Priest does not partake of his own meal offering; the Priest’s meal offering – including its remnant – is burned entirely.

The simple reason for this is that one cannot bring a korban and partake of it as well. When one brings a meal offering, while a Priest may eat most of it, nevertheless, the person who brought it did so without receiving personal gain. If a Priest were to partake of his own meal offering, it would be as though he gave something to G‑d and then sat down to enjoy it, which is the very antithesis of the essence of a korban.

The act of giving is fundamental to a korban, and it even appears that the more sacred the korban, the less anyone may derive benefit from it. The inner korbanot are consigned to be burned entirely, and the less sacred the korban, the more the one who brings it may benefit from it. These include the firstborn, the tithe, and the Pesach offering, which are the least sacred offerings, and of which the one who brings the korban eats most of the meat.

The burnt offering is, for the most part, consigned entirely to the fire. One brings a burnt offering in one of two circumstances: one violated a positive commandment (one is not obligated to bring the korban in such a case, however), or one’s heart moved him to bring G‑d a gift.

In addition, a proselyte, besides undergoing circumcision and immersion, brings a burnt offering of fowl. The reason he must bring fowl specifically is that a burnt offering of fowl is the only korban that is truly burned entirely, of which absolutely nothing remains. In the case of a burnt offering of cattle, the Priest is entitled to some benefit – he receives the hide. A burnt offering of fowl, however, though it is not a large offering – one turtledove or a young common dove – it is burned in its entirety.

By contrast, a peace offering is very easy to bring. The parts that are burned on the Altar are generally of no interest to the one bringing the korban, simply because they are forbidden in any case: The fat and the blood belong to G‑d. When one brings a peace offering to the Temple, he basically enjoys a good meal. One sits in Jerusalem, eating fine meat, and what is more, one can take pleasure in the fact that the meat he is eating is sacred as well. What more could he desire? He has everything that he needs: sanctity, purity – and food. Such a korban resembles a ­festive Shabbat meal, whose consumption fulfills the mitzva of enjoying Shabbat. One can take pleasure not only from the delicious meal, but from the knowledge that he is performing a great mitzva as well – what more does one need?

Curtailing the convenience

For this reason, the laws of korbanot contain an additional element – the laws of piggul and notar, which set time limits for partaking of the korban. The purpose of these laws is to ensure that the korban does not turn into a game, and that the consumption of the korban does not turn into a picnic. The time limits serve to curtail the element of convenience inherent in certain korbanot. Hence, the thanksgiving offering, which a person brings when he is in a good mood, is allocated an especially short time frame: only one day and one night. If a person experiences a miracle and wants to give thanks to G‑d, he goes to the Temple and brings a korban. But once he does this, he must finish it as quickly as he can, for otherwise the meat will assume the status of notar and become unfit for consumption. Not only must he prevent this from happening, but he may not even think of consuming it after the time limit.

Amos said, “Come to Bethel and transgress, to Gilgal and multiply transgression.”5 What did they do there? In the Temple, there were limits that hampered people. But in Bethel and Gilgal, a person could plan a trip for the festival to Bethel, Gilgal, or Dan – all beautiful places to visit. He might plan to bring a large animal as a thanksgiving offering or a peace offering; the Priest will take his share, and he and his family can then stay a full week without having to worry about what to eat.

A korban is limited not only in that it cannot be eaten on the third or fourth day, but by the very fact that one may not entertain the thought of combining this religious ritual with some degree of pleasure. This is the essence of piggul, which, unlike notar, depends not on one’s actions but on his thoughts. That is what happened in Bethel, Gilgal, and Dan: The people turned their holiday pilgrimages into extended vacations, furthering tourism and helping the local hotels. Instead of staying for only two days, they would stay for a week, enjoying the meat of the korbanot. They reasoned: Why should we hurry? Why create tension? Instead of this race to finish consuming the korbanot, let’s change the regulation, so that a person will be able to bring a korban in a relaxed manner.

At the root of the matter, the obligation to bring a korban requires acknowledgement and understanding of the element of sacrifice that it entails. When one brings a korban, it is acceptable to relax to some extent, on the condition that this relaxation derives from a basic love of G‑d and an awareness of His presence. But if this goes beyond relaxation, entering the realm of nonchalance and irreverence – that is where the problem begins.

A sacrificial act is fundamental to the process of bringing a korban, and this kind of act necessarily involves tension. The moment an attempt is made to relieve this tension, it is no longer a proper korban. This same reasoning can explain the concept of piggul as well. Piggul is not just a problem of bad intentions; it is about the attempt to make the process of bringing a korban more convenient. This korban is fundamentally flawed because the attempt to deprive it of the element of tension also deprives it of its essence – the burning, the dimension of the fire that burns within it continually.

We read in Tanach of a “family feast offering;”6 this is also the korban referred to in the verse, “The people, however, brought offerings upon the bamot.”7 These were not bamot dedicated to idolatry, but rather, bamot dedicated to G‑d. Why, then, does Tanach oppose the practice? The concern here is with this very same issue. Next to everyone’s home there is a designated area for korbanot. A person would step outside his home, wash his hands, and announce: “Children, let us bring a korban today! We’ll call our friends and bring a peace offering.” This korban is dedicated to G‑d in every respect: The animal is slaughtered, a blessing is recited, the blood is sprinkled, and everything that must be done is performed in sanctity and purity. Nevertheless, when a person brings these korbanot beside his home, partaking of them for as long as he desires, so that no piece of meat should, Heaven forbid, go to waste – the korban then loses its essence.


These limits imposed on korbanot are not meant to needlessly make life difficult for people. They are simply an essential aspect of korbanot.

A korban is not just a matter of giving; it has an additional aspect: “A fire shall be kept continuously burning upon the Altar; it shall not be extinguished;”8 “This is the law of the burnt offering. The burnt offering shall remain on the Altar’s hearth all night until morning, while the fire on the Altar is kept going on it.”9

This fire slowly consumes the parts of the korban throughout the night, until they are entirely consumed. This is not a public ceremony; on the contrary, it is a process that takes place precisely when the Temple is closed. Although some of the korbanot were burned during the day, most of them – especially on busy days – were burned at night, from the time of the daily afternoon korban, “all night until morning” – hours upon hours of Temple service done entirely in private. All the doors are closed, and several Priests regularly transfer the korbanot from the ramp to the Altar; and above, upon the Altar, they feed them into the Altar’s main fire. The point of this service is that the Altar burns continuously. Whether a great ceremony is taking place, as in the korban Pesach, or whether no one is present and no one sees, the Altar must always be aflame.

This theme of “a fire shall be kept continuously burning upon the Altar” pertains to the essence of the korbanot; and just as it pertains to physical offerings, so, too, does it apply to spiritual offerings.

A human being is in a constant state of burning. There is no extinguishing this burning; it has no end, and it continues day after day and night after night. In halacha, this concept is called kayitz hamizbe’ach – the requirement to provide burnt offerings for the Altar from public funds when the Altar is idle. The nature of the Altar is such that fire must burn continuously upon it, a korban must always be upon it; and even if no private individual brings a korban, the Jewish people as a community brings a korban, so that the Altar should never be without a burnt offering.

Two problems

These two concepts – (a) notar and piggul and (b) the continuous fire – are problems that are inherent to the life of a Jew who keeps the mitzvot.

The first problem is that of piggul and notar. The korban is disqualified not only when it is actually left over beyond the prescribed time limit, but even when one merely thinks about how much easier it would be if he were not so pressured. Even for a completely devout individual, it is natural to sometimes prefer that religious life be a little easier. Why is it difficult for many of us to get up in the morning and pray? Is it so painful? What bothers people is that it is a daily requirement, even when there is no time to pray, or when one is not in the mood – and this makes all the difference. The moment that one decides to change the rules and eat the korban on the third day, the Torah cuts in, “It is considered piggul, and it will not be counted in his favor. Any person who eats it will bear his guilt.”10 One is taking something that was a korban and making a picnic out of it. If the intention is to make it easier, more convenient, more pleasant – “it is considered piggul”; it will not be accepted, it will not be counted.

The second problem is the continuous fire. To be sure, a person cannot live constantly in an elevated state of burning enthusiasm, and cannot tolerate a constant stream of momentous life events. Nevertheless, there is one aspect of our lives that must retain that constant spiritual high – the continuous fire. When one brings a korban, it must remain and burn upon the Altar. Although this may seem undramatic, we should remember that the continuous fire, which can burn quietly and in secret, must continue burning all day and all night. “A fire shall be kept continuously burning upon the Altar; it shall not be ­extinguished.”11