The Laws of Sacrifices

  • Rav Yoel Bin-Nun

In honor of our father Alvin Reinstein and our
brother Sam Reinstein finishing semicha


This shiur is dedicated in memory of
HaRav HaGaon R. Chaim Heller zt"l,
whose yahrzeit falls on the 14th of Nissan,
by Vivian S. Singer.

  1. Parashat Vayikra vs. Parashat Tzav

Parashat Tzav introduces the third set of laws of sacrifices in Sefer Vayikra. The previous two were discussed in Parashat Vayikra. The first set included the free-will offerings – the burnt offering, the meal offering, and the peace offering. The second set, in the latter half of the parasha, included the obligatory sin and guilt offerings. In each of these two units, the focus was on the person bringing the offering; he is the focus of the occasion, while the kohanim serve him. The person bringing the sacrifice may even slaughter the animal: “Slaughter [of a sacrificial animal] performed by an outsider [non-kohen] is valid” (Zevachim 32a). In fact, the kohanim are not meant to slaughter; a kohen should not hold a knife or a sword, since these instruments shorten life, while the service of the kohanim upon the altar is meant to lengthen life (see Rashi, Shemot 20:21).

Moreover, the person who brings the offering is also supposed to handle the sacrifice after the relevant parts have been offered on the altar. Everything other than the actual altar service is to be performed by the owner. The kohanim are responsible only for offering the blood and the fats, and in the case of a burnt offering they offer up the animal whole.

Since the emphasis in both of the units treated in Parashat Vayikra – the freewill offerings and the obligatory offerings – is on the person who brings the sacrifice, the term “torah” (in the sense of “teaching” or “instruction”) does not appear anywhere in Parashat Vayikra.

Only when we reach the third unit, in Parashat Tzav, do we encounter the “torat ha-kohanim,” the “teaching for the kohanim,” setting forth the sacrificial service. Here the kohanim are the focus, and accordingly we find the “torat ha-olah” – the “teaching of the burnt offering” – followed by the “teaching of the meal offering,” the “teaching of the sin offering,” the “teaching of the guilt offering,” and finally, the “teaching of the peace offering.”

The word “torah” is derived from “hora’ah,” meaning instruction. The role of the kohen is to instruct the people, as we learn from Sefer Malakhi:

For the kohen’s lips shall keep knowledge, and they shall seek instruction (“torah”) from his mouth. (Malakhi 2:7)

The “torah” is the instruction of the kohanim relating to Divine service. Therefore, the term is used in connection with the sacrifices – and specially that aspect of the sacrifices in which the focus is on the kohanim.

What is that aspect of the sacrifices in which the kohanim are the main focus? Not the actual offering itself, since that is mentioned already in Parashat Vayikra in the first two units, where the function of the kohanim was presented from the perspective of service to those bringing sacrifices. It would therefore seem that the “torat ha-korbanot” – the teaching of the sacrifices that pertains to the kohanim directly – is the instruction as to the consumption of the sacrifices. Indeed, the laws in this regard are the main subject of Parashat Tzav. This unit, featuring the expression “teaching of…,” deals with the laws of how and by whom the sacrifice is eaten.

For this reason, Parashat Tzav is divided in different terms than Parashat Vayikra. While Parashat Vayikra, as noted, is divided into freewill offerings and obligatory offerings, Parashat Tzav is divided into kodshei kodashim and kodshim kalim; the former are eaten by the kohanim, while the latter are eaten by the owners (other than those parts that are contributed to the kohanim). Kodshei kodashim include the burnt offering, the meal offering, the sin offering, and the guilt offering, and they appear in this order in the unit setting forth the “teaching of the sacrifices.” The kodshim kalim are the thanksgiving and peace offerings, which are eaten by the owner.

The laws of when and where the sacrifices are to be eaten are likewise different for these two categories. Kodshei kodashim are eaten by the kohanim in the courtyard of the Tent of Meeting, in a sanctified place. Kodshim kalim, in contrast, are eaten around the Mishkan, in the Israelite camp. When the Mishkan stood in Shilo, the law was that they could be eaten anywhere “in sight” of the Mishkan, and in later generations, at the time of the Temple, they could be eaten anywhere in Jerusalem.

  1. The torat ha-olah upon the altar and the offering of the ashes

And the Lord spoke to Aharon, saying: Command Aharon and his sons, saying: This is the teaching of the burnt offering: it is the burnt offering, which shall be burning upon the altar all night until the morning, and the fire of the altar shall be kept burning in it. And the kohen shall put on his linen garment, and his linen pants shall he put on his flesh, and take up the ashes which the fire has consumed with the burnt offering on the altar, and he shall put them beside the altar. And he shall take off his garments, and put on other garments, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a clean place. And the fire upon the altar shall be kept burning in it; it shall not be put out, and the kohen shall burn wood on it every morning, and lay the burnt offering in order upon it, and he shall burn on it the fat of the peace offerings. The fire shall always be burning upon the altar; it shall never go out. (Vayikra 6:1-6)

In contrast to both the kodshim kalim and the kodshei kodashim, in the case of a burnt offering, no part of the sacrifice is eaten by anyone. The altar alone consumes the entire animal. Therefore, the first part of the unit concerning the burnt sacrifices conveys to the kohanim the laws of the consumption by the altar. The entire sacrifice is consumed upon the altar, and all that remains are the ashes, which must be removed.

The role of the kohen is to take up the ashes from upon the altar and remove them to a place outside of the camp; this completes the consumption of the burnt offering upon the altar.

To carry out this task, the kohen must wear simple linen garments, which are mentioned here and in the unit describing the service of the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur. The simple linen garments are a service uniform, not royal garb. The kohen performing the duty takes up the ashes and removes them, and sees to the fire that must burn continually upon the altar.

The unit setting forth the laws of the burnt offering and the offering of the ashes (terumat ha-deshen) formed the basis of the daily order of the Mishkan and, later on, of the Temple. The reason for this is that every night the sacrifices of the previous day would remain burning upon the altar, the last of which to be offered was the daily sacrifice. The service of each new day therefore began with the kohen performing the “terumat ha-deshen” – the taking up and removal of the ashes.

Returning to the theme we noted in last week’s parasha, we see that the Torah first focuses on the person bringing a sacrifice, and then addresses the actual altar service performed by the kohanim. A similar order is to be found in Sefer Shemot, where the Torah first describes the freewill offering of the individual, then the service of the kohanim, the daily sacrifice, and finally the obligatory half-shekel contribution. In other words – first freely-chosen initiative, afterwards the command; first the person who offers the sacrifice, afterwards the service performed by the kohanim.

  1. The torat ha-mincha

And this is the teaching of the meal offering: The sons of Aharon shall offer it before the Lord, before the altar. And he shall lift from it his handful, of the flour of the meal offering, and of its oil, and all the frankincense which is upon the meal offering, and shall burn it upon the altar for a sweet savor, [with] its memorial part, to the Lord. And the remainder of it shall Aharon and his sons eat; with unleavened bread shall it be eaten in the holy place, in the courtyard of the Tent of Meeting shall they eat it. It shall not be baked with leaven. I have given it to them for their portion of My offerings made by fire; it is most holy (kodesh kodashim), as is the sin offering and the guilt offering. (Vayikra 6:7-10)

In the teaching of the meal offering, we find instruction as to how the offering is to be consumed. In contrast to the burnt offering, which is consumed in its entirety upon the altar, the meal offering is eaten by the kohanim, since it is “kodesh kodashim.”

The laws of the meal offering were already given in Parashat Vayikra, and they are repeated here in brief form, lest there be any mistake. The essence of the unit is the way in which the meal offering is to be eaten.

  1. The meal offering of the Kohen Gadol

And the Lord spoke to Moshe, saying: This is the offering of Aharon and of his sons, which they shall offer to the Lord on the day when he is anointed: The tenth part of an efa of fine flour for a perpetual meal offering, half of it in the morning and half of it at night. In a pan it shall be made with oil, and when it is well soaked, you shall bring it in, and the baked pieces of the meal offering shall you offer for a sweet savor to the Lord. And the kohen of his sons who is anointed in his place shall offer it: it is a statute forever to the Lord; it shall be wholly burnt. For every meal offering of the kohen shall be wholly burnt; it shall not be eaten. (Vayikra 6:12-16)

Just as Am Yisrael offers a daily sacrifice (one lamb offered in the morning and another offered at twilight), so the Kohen Gadol offers a daily meal offering in two parts – half in the morning and half at twilight. This meal offering, called the minchat chavitin, which is soaked and fried in oil to make it especially soft, is part of the daily order of service. Every kohen, on the day he is inaugurated into the priestly service, offers a minchat chavitin. The Kohen Gadol, as noted, brings this offering every day.

The minchat chavitin is burnt wholly upon the altar, since a sacrifice that belongs to the category of kodesh kodashim cannot be eaten by the person who brings it. If an Israelite brings a meal offering, the kohen can eat it; when a kohen brings his meal offering, it must be consumed by the altar.

  1. The torat ha-chatat

And the Lord spoke to Moshe, saying: Speak to Aharon and to his sons, saying: This is the teaching of the sin offering: In the place where the burnt offering is killed shall the sin offering be killed before the Lord; it is most holy (kodesh kodashim). The kohen who offers it for sin shall eat it; in the holy place it shall be eaten, in the courtyard of the Tent of Meeting. Whatever touches its flesh shall be holy, and when any of its blood is sprinkled upon any garment, you shall wash that upon which it was sprinkled in the holy place. But the earthen vessel in which it is boiled shall be broken, and if it is boiled in a brass pot, it shall be both scoured and rinsed in water… And no sin offering, of which any of the blood is brought into the Tent of Meeting to be sprinkled in the holy place, shall be eaten; it shall be burnt in the fire. (Vayikra 6:17-23)

The laws of the sin offering include details that are reminiscent of the laws of kashrut pertaining to vessels. The element most reminiscent is the stipulation that an earthen vessel cannot be purified. As we read further on in Sefer Vayikra:

And every earthen vessel into which any of them fall, whatever is in it shall be unclean, and you shall break it… And everything upon which any part of their carcass falls shall be unclean, whether it be an oven or ranges, they shall be broken down, for they are unclean… (Vayikra 11:33-35).

An earthen oven or cooking range is subject to the same laws as earthen vessels. Since the taste of the food is absorbed into the sides of the vessel in such a way that it cannot be expelled, in the event that it has contracted impurity, there is no way of purifying it.

A vessel of brass or metal, in contrast, may be purified. This is stated both here and in Sefer Bamidbar, in the command concerning the vessels taken in the war against Midian:

But the gold and the silver, the brass, the iron, the tin, and the lead; everything that passes through fire – you shall pass it through the fire, and it shall be clean… And all that does not pass through the fire shall you pass through water. (Bamidbar 31:22-23)

These verses set forth various laws all based on the same principle: “The manner of absorption is also the manner of expulsion.” In the same manner that the vessel absorbed that which was prohibited, so must it expel that substance.

Our parasha, however, is not talking about forbidden substances, but rather about sanctified food. Why, then, does a brass vessel in which the sin offering is cooked require any sort of cleansing process?

The answer seems to be, quite simply, that since the sin offering cannot be eaten the next day, whatever flavor of the meat is absorbed into the pot falls under the category of “notar” (forbidden remainder). Therefore, it was vital that all the vessels of the Temple be scoured (with boiling water – see Zevachim 97a) and rinsed each and every day.

Perhaps we might go even further. The peace offering may be eaten on the day it is offered, on that night, and the next day. A thanksgiving offering and kodshei kodashim may be eaten only during the day when they are offered and during that night. If the meat of a peace offering came into contact with a vessel in which the thanksgiving offering was cooked, then it would have to be eaten during that same day and night. As Chazal teach, “It may be eaten [only] in accordance with its stringencies” (Zevachim 97b). Our parasha states, “Whatever touches its flesh shall be holy” – in other words, whatever comes into contact with the flesh of the sin offering becomes subject to the law of kodshei kodashim, and “is eaten in accordance with its stringencies.”

Therefore, it was necessary for the vessels of the Sanctuary to be scoured with boiling water every day, since no remainder of the kodshim could remain absorbed within its sides. Obviously, this law also had hygienic significance; the vessels of the Temple had to be scrubbed and cleansed of the previous day’s sacrifices.

With regard to this law, the gemara (Zevachim 96b) records a dispute as to whether this high standard could be maintained even on the pilgrim festivals, with the masses of pilgrims bringing their sacrifices to the Temple. R. Tarfon argues for leniency, arguing that the cooking of the sacrifices of the next day might be considered a cleansing of the vessels from the previous day. The Sages do not accept R. Tarfon’s opinion, even though he himself served as a kohen in the Temple. The Sages were unwilling to accept that cooking could be considered a cleansing of meat that had been cooked the previous day, whose time for consumption had already elapsed.

This strict law imposed a very heavy burden on the Temple service, and it may be assumed that there were times when the kohanim did in fact follow R. Tarfon’s opinion. One of the documents found in Qumran would appear to express protest against the method of cleansing in the Temple (“the cleansing after the offerings”).

The halakha, in any event, maintains the strict standard set forth in the teaching of the sin offering.

  1. The torat ha-asham

And this is the teaching of the guilt offering: it is most holy. In the place where they kill the burnt offering they shall kill the guilt offering, and its blood shall be sprinkled round about upon the altar. And he shall offer of it all the fat – the fat tail and the fat that covers the innards, and the two kidneys, and the fat that is upon them, which is by the flanks, and the appendage above the liver, with the kidneys shall he remove it. And the kohen shall burn them upon the altar for an offering made by fire to the Lord; it is a guilt offering… Like the sin offering, so is the guilt offering: there is one teaching for them; the kohen who makes atonement with it shall have it. (Vayikra 7:1-7)

The guilt offering is a great innovation of the Torah. In chapter 5 of Sefer Vayikra, in contrast to all the preceding sacrifices, the Torah offers no description of the manner in which it is offered; it describes only the circumstances in which it is brought. The reason for this is that this sacrifice was unknown, and it was therefore necessary to start off by explaining its purpose. The burnt offering, meal offering, peace offering, and sin offering, in contrast, were all familiar; the information that the Torah gives in their regard concerns mainly the manner in which they are offered.


In our parasha, the Torah describes in detail the laws of the guilt offering, since these do not appear in Parashat Vayikra. These laws are identical to the laws of the sin offering, which do appear in Parashat Vayikra. The place where the guilt offering is slaughtered is likewise the same place where the sin offering is slaughtered, and the laws pertaining to the offering of the fats and the details of how it is to be consumed are likewise identical. As the Torah notes, “Like the sin offering, so is the guilt offering; there is one teaching for them.” The only difference is that the laws of sacrificing a guilt offering are presented in Parashat Tzav, not in Parashat Vayikra. This would seem to indicate that the guilt offering was a previously-unknown concept, requiring an explanation of its rationale.

The main reason for this would seem to be that the guilt offering has an aspect of willful sin, for which, according to reason, no sacrifice can atone. Obviously, a guilt offering for theft is dependent on the return of the theft, but the possibility of atonement still represents a great innovation.

  1. The torat ha-kohanim – who eats?

And the Kohen who offers any man’s burnt offering – that kohen shall have for himself the skin of the burnt offering which he has offered. And all the meal offering that is baked in the oven, and all that is dressed in the frying pan, and in the pan, shall belong to the kohen who offers it. And every meal offering, mixed with oil and dry, shall be for all the sons of Aharon, one as well as another. (Vayikra 7:8-10)

The Torah concludes this section on the kodshei kodashim with the skin of the burnt offering, which is given to the kohen who offers it, and the laws of the various meal offerings (baked in an oven or fried or baked in a pan). Only a regular meal offering mixed with oil or a meal offering of a sinner (which is dry and not mixed with oil) may be eaten by any of the kohanim on a given shift. This is the peshat of the verses.

Ramban explains this exceptional aspect of the meal offering in terms of the extra effort required to bake it. It is for this reason that the Torah doubles the kohen’s reward, granting him the meal offering to eat, while a regular meal offering is shared.

The problem with this interpretation is that nowhere does the Torah state that it is the kohen who bakes or fries the meal offering. It is quite clear that the meal offering can be prepared by a non-kohen, and therefore the owner of the offering is the one who should invest the effort in preparing it (as explained in connection with Parashat Vayikra).

Chazal reject the peshat understanding for a different reason. To their view, what the Torah means is that the kohen who performs the offering always shares all the sacrifices with all the kohanim who are present and in a state of ritual purity – in other words, the priestly household on duty at the time. The midrash, as cited by Rashi, teaches:

“Shall belong to the kohen who offers it” – … Can this mean for him alone? [Surely not.] Therefore, it says it “shall be for all the sons of Aharon.” Can this really mean all of them? [Surely not.] Therefore, it says, “to the kohen who offers it.” How can both be fulfilled? [It belongs] to the [priestly] household of that day, who offer it. (Rashi, Vayikra 7:9)

This arrangement would seem to be designed to avoid an argument over each meal offering. By means of a division among all the kohanim, the Torah prevents attempts by the kohanim to “claim” for themselves whoever brings a meal offering in order to be able to eat it, creating aggressive competition (a similar situation to the one involving the sons of Eli, as described in Shemuel I 2:12-17). The Sanctuary must be a place of peace.

The laws setting down the priestly shifts and the division of work so that each shift works for two weeks out of the year, as described by Chazal, are likewise meant to maintain the peace in the Temple. Competition and arguments violate the very essence of the Sanctuary.

Chazal make peace among the kohanim and divide the sacrifices among all the kohanim serving on a shift, despite the peshat.

There are also other laws and enactments pertaining to the priestly status that are built on the same principle of maintaining good working relations in the Temple. For instance, only the kohanim bless the nation, and only the levi’im serve them. Even an important personage – a learned rabbi, wealthy patron, political leader, or anyone else who might be considered important – is barred from blessing the people. On the other hand, any simple kohen, even if he is not learned, participates in the priestly blessing. This commandment and its related laws were established in this way because it is God Himself Who, via the kohanim, blesses His people with peace. If the blessings were given by candidates based on status and levels of importance, there would be no end to the arguments surrounding this ceremony.

The same applies to the order of reading the Torah. First a kohen is called up, then a levi, and then an Israelite. Were this not the set order, the first aliyot would be a matter of fierce competition. Anyone familiar with synagogue politics knows what sort of arguments take place over who receives those aliyot considered most prestigious. Indeed, there were times when a learned scholar would be honored with reading the first portion (“rishon”), and this caused much jealousy and dissent.

The Torah and Chazal exert great efforts to keep such discord to a minimum.

  1. The torat ha-shelamim – a thanksgiving sacrifice

And this is the teaching of the peace offerings, which he shall offer to the Lord. If he offers it for thanksgiving, then he shall offer with the sacrifice of thanksgiving unleavened cakes mixed with oil, and unleavened wafers anointed with oil, and cakes mixed with oil, of fine flour, well soaked. Together with loaves of leavened bread shall he make his offering, these to be added to his peace offering of thanksgiving. (Vayikra 7:11-13)

The category of peace offerings, which are kodshim kalim and are eaten by the owners, are introduced with the thanksgiving offering. This is a special sacrifice that is brought with offerings of bread: three types of matzot, as well as loaves of leavened bread (chametz). There is no other sacrifice brought by an individual that includes leavened bread. There is only the communal offering of two loaves brought on Shavuot, concerning which the Torah states, “they shall be baked with leaven” (Vayikra 23:17).

  1.  The significance of the chametz and the matza in the sacrifices and in relation to Pesach

Why is it that “all meal offerings are brought [in the form of] matza, with the exception of the leaven brought for the thanksgiving offering” (Menachot 5:1)? By way of comparison, the “ram of consecration,” appearing further on in our parasha (Vayikra 8:22-31), requires only the three types of matzot. Furthermore, there is an explicit prohibition on offering any type of chametz (leaven) upon the altar (Vayikra 2:11). How, then, are we to understand the leaven that is brought with a thanksgiving offering and in the two loaves offered on Shavuot?

If we can arrive at an understanding of the place of chametz in this offering, perhaps we can achieve a better understanding of the prohibition of chametz on Pesach and the Festival of Matzot,[1] and the obligation of eating matza.

All the sacrifices offered with bread/matza (the Pesach sacrifice, the “ram of consecration,” and the thanksgiving offering) share a common denominator: all are eaten by the owner on the same day and that same night (the Pesach sacrifice is eaten only in the night), with a prohibition in each case on leaving any of the sacrifice for consumption the next morning.

The comparison among these sacrifices may teach us more about each of them.

The Pesach sacrifice is offered with one matza (“bread of affliction”), with no oil, and it is eaten “with bitter herbs” (Shemot 12:8). This expresses the affliction and bitterness of a people shut up in their homes at the end of a long period of servitude, waiting for a miraculous deliverance, but meanwhile destitute. All are equal.

The ram for a peace offering brought by a nazir on the day when “his days of separation are fulfilled” (Bamidbar 6:13-15) is brought with “a basket of unleavened bread, cakes of fine flour mixed with oil, and wafers of unleavened bread anointed with oil” – two types of matza, with no chametz. Here, too, we are speaking of someone who is about to embark on a long journey, since the period of the nazirite vow is merely a period of preparation for the repaired, more elevated life that will follow.

The ram of consecration, brought by a kohen who commences his service, includes three types of matza: loaves, wafers, and also loaves of fine flour soaked in oil, making them softer. All three include oil, but they contain no chametz. The newly-inaugurated kohanim are likewise embarking on a journey of priesthood, a responsibility that has no end. A soldier is eventually discharged from service (according to the Torah, at the age of sixty); a levi, too, will reach the end of his service (at the age of fifty). But a kohen is a kohen forever.

For this reason, the kohen brings a basket of matzot with his sacrifice, which he eats during the days of his inauguration. The nazir embarks on a long life-journey that is inspired and nourished by his period of nazirite vow, and he brings a sacrifice with a basket of matzot. Am Yisrael embark on a journey that is eternal, and thus every year we bring matzot, “bread of affliction.”

We are left with only the thanksgiving offering and the bikkurim offering of Shavuot – the two loaves – which involve chametz. The thanksgiving offering is brought at the end of a period or incident, when a person can look back and appreciate his deliverance and thank God for His goodness: “Thank You for healing me,” “thank You for saving me.”

This is exactly what the bikkurim express as well. When an individual brings his bikkurim (first fruits) to the Temple, he gives thanks not just for the fruit that his land has yielded, but also for the exodus from Egypt. It is specifically in this unit that the Torah includes the verses introduced with the words, “A wandering Aramean was my father” (or, “An Aramean sought to destroy my father”) (Devarim 26:5-10), which are the point of departure for the narrative in the Haggada. The bikkurim offering of Am Yisrael as a whole on Shavuot likewise invites a look backwards at what they have experienced. This is the endpoint of a long journey over the course of which the nation merited to receive the Torah, and also to receive the land, with its first fruits. The bikkurim offering is called the “korban reshit” (“offering of the beginning”) (Vayikra 2:12), since it involves “the first of the fruit of the land” (Devarim 26:2). At the same time, it is also a conclusion and an expression of thanksgiving for having reached the land and meriting to grow fruit in it.

Thus, chametz is an expression of the aim, the purpose. It expresses the end of the long journey on which Am Yisrael embarked on Pesach. For this reason, an individual who undergoes his own journey likewise brings a thanksgiving offering of chametz when he arrives at his destination.

The Torah teaches that the matza loaves correspond to the loaves of chametz: “Together with loaves of leavened bread shall he make his offering, these to be added to his peace offering of thanksgiving.” From this emphasis, Chazal derived the law that half the quantity should be matzot, and the other half chametz. In other words, each loaf of chametz corresponds to three matzot.

We may therefore conclude that the three matzot allude to the stages of the long journey that a person underwent on the way to his healing, to his release, to the moment when he gives thanks. Chametz, on the other hand, symbolizes the actual endpoint – the joy of the moment of thanksgiving. Therefore, there is chametz in the thanksgiving offering and on Shavuot, but chametz is categorically prohibited on Pesach. Pesach and the Festival of Matzot mark the starting point, while Shavuot marks the destination and conclusion.

Translated by Kaeren Fish

[1] I elaborate on this in my book Zakhor Ve-Shamor – Teva Ve-Historia Nifgashim Be-Shabbat U-Ve-Luach Ha-Chagim (Alon Shvut, 5775), pp. 84-88, and in my article “Chametz U-Matza Ve-Korbanot Ha-Lechem,” on my website.