The portion of Vayikra opens where the book of Exodus left off; after God’s glory descends to the Tabernacle, Moses cannot enter, therefore God has to call to him to come forward. The portion, like most of the book of Leviticus, continues with a detailed accounting of several sacrificial services. It begins by looking at the voluntary offerings brought by the people under various circumstances, then continues by discussing the mandatory offerings required under different conditions.
As the Israel Bible points out, the Hebrew word for sacrifice is “korban”, which is derived from the word karov, meaning “close”. The purpose of the sacrifice, then, is to bring the bearer closer to God. Like the Tabernacle in which it is brought, the goal of the sacrifice is to foster the relationship between God and the Children of Israel. Thus, the one who brings the sacrifice gains much more than he gives. Today, since the Temple no longer stands in Jerusalem, we are unable to practice the sacrificial rites as outlined in the Torah. Instead, the prayer service is meant to bring worshippers closer to God.
The Torah describes three types of burnt offerings which one might choose to bring to the Tabernacle, a cattle offering, an offering ‘from the flock’, or an offering of fowl. In the first two cases, the text specifies a male animal shall be brought — a bull, a male sheep or a he-goat. For the fowl, a turtledove or young dove is appropriate. In each case, the Torah details where to bring the animal, how to slaughter it and what to do with its various parts. In all cases (except the crop of the bird, which is discarded), the animal is burnt in its entirety on the altar — it is called a ‘sweet savor to God.’
Points to Ponder
Why do you think the portion opens with the rules of voluntary offerings before mandatory ones?
The meal offering consists of a portion of grain and oil, usually mixed with frankincense. It can be brought raw, baked, fried or cooked. If it is not raw, it must not be leavened, nor may honey be added to it, but it must be seasoned with salt. A portion of the meal offering is burned for God, and the rest is eaten in holiness by the priests.
As the Israel Bible points out, the ingredients for the meal offering are far less expensive than those of the animal offerings mentioned previously. According to the Talmud, for this reason the Hebrew word nefesh, which means ‘soul’, is used to describe the one who brings the meal offering — when a poor person goes to this much trouble to bring an offering from his meager means, it is valued as if he has offered his soul to God.
Points to Ponder
What do you think is the significance of forbidding honey but requiring salt be added to the meal offering?
The peace offering is an animal offering of either cattle, sheep or goat. It may be either male or female, but it must be unblemished. The individual making the offering must bring it to the Tabernacle and rest his hands upon its head while it is slaughtered (as is mentioned for the burnt offering of the bull in 1:4). The blood of the animal is sprinkled on the altar, and portions of the animal are burnt. Although it does not state as much explicitly in our portion, other parts of the animal are consumed by the priests, and what remains is eaten by the one who offers the sacrifice, along with his family.
The peace offering is unique in that it is the only sacrifice which is shared between God (symbolically, through the burnt portions), the priests and the owner; and it is the only sacrifice which may be eaten anywhere in Jerusalem. The Israel Bible explains that according to the Sages, this is precisely why it is called a peace offering — it demonstrates and promotes the peace between the parties which share it. The name of Jerusalem, too, comes from the root word for peace, shalom, and it is therefore fitting that it may be eaten anywhere within the city.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think there are so many options for voluntary offerings? What might be the differences between them?
Sin Offerings and Guilt Offerings
Two more types of offerings are discussed in this week’s portion, and they are intimately related. To begin with, they are both mandatory offerings, required under specific circumstances. The circumstances in both types of offerings are also that of transgression of God’s laws.
Sin offerings are required when an individual commits a sin against God unintentionally. The text delineates different sin offerings for different people: a bull for the priest or the elders, a he-goat for the ruler and a she-goat or female lamb for an individual who sins. The sinner must place his hands upon the animal as it is slaughtered. Its blood is dabbed on the horns of the incense altar, and what remains is poured on the base of the sacrificial altar. In the case of the bull-offerings, the blood is also sprinkled towards the curtain of the Holy of Holies. The innards of the animal are then burnt upon the altar, and in some cases, the entire animal is then burned outside the camp. Thus the sinner is granted forgiveness.
The Israel Bible points out that the elders are required to bring their sin offering for cases where the entire community sins due to a mistaken ruling. This reinforces the unity of the nation, demonstrating that the members of the community are collectively responsible for one another.
In some cases, such as contact with spiritually contaminated objects or inadvertently broken vows, the precise make-up of the sin offering varies according to the means of the sinner. A wealthy man brings a female sheep or goat, a poorer individual may bring a bird, while a truly destitute person can bring a grain offering.
The guilt offerings are set for specific transgressions: violating the sanctity of God’s altar, breach of trust, or when a person is unsure whether he has sinned or which sin he has committed. The guilt offering consists of an unblemished ram whose value must suit the transgression. In all cases where the transgression involved actual theft, restitution must be made and a fifth must be added to the value of what was stolen, before the guilt offering can provide expiation.
Among the violations for which one must bring a sin or guilt offering are unfulfilled or false vows. The Israel Bible points out, this is so significant that the Yom Kippur prayer service begins with a prayer to nullify any oaths we may have made or will make so that they are not broken. This teaches us how important it is to be careful with our speech.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think some sins can be atoned for at a “variable rate” based on what the sinner can afford, while others have specific sacrifices required?