R. Hirsch on Sinfulness, Physicality, and the Sacrificial Order

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau


By Rav Yitzchak Blau


Shiur #07:

R. Hirsch on Sinfulness, Physicality, and the Sacrificial Order



Although many thinkers contend that Judaism rejects the notion of humanity’s inherent sinfulness, and that it demands the sanctification of the physical, the centrality of these two themes in R. Hirsch’s thought is nevertheless striking.  These themes influence his reading of narrative portions of Torah, impact on his understanding of the Torah’s legal sections, and play a particularly prominent role in his conception of the sacrificial order.  




R. Hirsch categorically rejects the notion of “original sin,” the idea that since the sin of Adam and Eve, humanity is essentially corrupt and needs external help to achieve salvation.  He cleverly notes that when administering punishments after that sin, God employs the word “arur” (cursed) with relation to the snake and the earth, but not with relation to Adam and Eve.  Mankind is not cursed, something that might have implied an inescapable taint.  People have not lost their ability to be good and they are not forced to sin.  They need no external medium to achieve goodness.  R. Hirsch quite clearly aims this critique at Christianity when he writes that religious success does not depend upon “a medium that dies and returns to life.”


            Many Jewish texts support R. Hirsch’s idea.  The mere existence of individuals such as Avraham, Moshe, Yeshayahu and Yirmiyahu reveals the live possibility of attaining greatness.  One midrash (Bereishit Rabba 56:7) even says that every generation has the potential to produce an Avraham or a Moshe.  Jews recite each morning:  “My God, the soul that you gave me is pure.”  All this argues against a Jewish concept of original sin.  R. Hirsch considers the idea that humanity has the freedom to choose a life of purity to be a cardinal principle of Judaism, second only to the idea of the one, singular God (commentary on Bereishit 3:19).


            The same concept appears in R. Hirsch’s commentary on the mishna’s saying, “A person should not be wicked in his own eyes” (Avot 2:18).  R. Hirsch writes:


Do not allow yourself to be taken in by the erroneous idea advanced by some alien philosophies, that man on his own must of necessity be crushed by the weight of his guilt and that it is solely through the gracious intercession of another that he can gain control over evil and be delivered from the burden of his sin. The one person able to free you from sin and to raise you to the level of pure and free devotion to duty in the service of God is none other than yourself. (trans. Gertrude Hirschler)


            There are two biblical verses that arguably indicate otherwise.  When explaining the cause of the upcoming deluge, the Torah says: “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth and that every imagination (yetzer) of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Bereishit 6:5).  After the flood, God states that He will not bring another such calamity upon the earth.   “I will not again curse the ground any more for man's sake; for the imagination (yetzer) of man's heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done” (Bereishit 8:21).  Do not these verses attribute an inherent sinfulness to mankind?


            R. Hirsch answers in the negative.  He says that the biblical phrase “yetzer” does not refer to a force that coercively pushes man to do evil. Rather, “yezter” refers to the results of human choice.  Man’s choices have the potential to generate evil but nothing forces him in that direction (commentary on Bereishit 6:5).


            Regarding the verse following the flood, R. Hirsch argues that the phrase “evil from his youth” cannot be the explanation for why God will not destroy the world again.   After all, an almost identical phrase comes to explain why God did bring the deluge.  How could the same factor both cause the flood and ensure that it will not be repeated?  R. Hirsch reads the phrase as a parenthetical remark in the middle of God’s promise not to bring another deluge: God declares that he will not destroy the world, even if “the imagination of man’s heart will be evil in his youth.”  For R. Hirsch, such a possibility represents an unnatural occurrence.  He rejects the idea that the time of youth reveals human corruption.  “Woe to the one who thinks that the average child is evil.”  In fact, adults are the ones who exhibit true evil in their pursuit of money and pleasure while scorning the idealism of youth (commentary on Bereishit 8:21).  Apparently, R. Hirsch wants to emphasize that man can become evil through a series of bad decisions, but he is not born evil.  Therefore, the greatest evil is manifest in adulthood. 


            This theme plays an important role in R. Hirsch’s analysis of sacrifices.  If religion stresses human corruption and sin, then the paradigmatic offering should be a sin offering.  R. Hirsch argues that the burnt offering, the korban ola, is far more central than the sin offering, the chatat.  The basic daily offering brought each morning and late afternoon is a burnt offering.  Many different sacrifices are offered on the outer altar, but the altar is specifically called the mizbach ha-ola.  People can volunteer to bring a burnt offering, but only someone obligated can bring a sin offering.  Finally, there are cases where an offering cannot be brought in the originally intended form and those sacrifices legally revert to burnt offerings.  R. Hirsch infers from all this that the essential path to God is manifest through the dedication and desire for ascent represented by the burnt offering, and not through the lowly sense of sinfulness represented by the sin offering (commentary on Vayikra 4:24).


            As shown, R. Hirsch has offered some valid proofs for the centrality of the ola.  However, if the burnt offering also relates to sin, then his broader thesis downplaying the sense of sin might not work.  The Torah does ascribe an atoning element to the ola (Vayikra 1:4).  In addition, some sources indicate that the ola atones for the negation of positive commandments (Sifra 4:8), and others claim that it atones for problematic thoughts (Vaykira Rabba 7:3).  If we emphasize the ola’s atoning element, then its centrality does not minimize the sense of human sinfulness.


            In defense of R. Hirsch, it should be noted that the burnt offering does not bear the same clear correspondence with sin as the sin offering.  A person must bring a sin offering after violating certain prohibitions.  Individuals are not obligated to bring a burnt offering even if they know that they had improper thoughts or if they negated a positive commandment.  Rather, when they voluntarily bring an ola, it serves as an atoning force.  In fact, one gemara suggests that repentance truly atones and the burnt offering is just a gift upon receiving atonement (Zevachim 7b). Thus, R. Hirsch can justifiably downplay the connection between sin and the burnt offering. 


            There may be further implications of R. Hirsch’s approach in how we think about the essential nature of sacrifices.  Rambam viewed the sacrificial order as a concession to the religious practices of the ancient world (Moreh Nevukhim 3:32).  God utilized the ancient form of religious worship to lead the people from paganism to monotheism.  Ramban vigorously contested this idea, arguing that sacrifices reflect an ideal, not a mere historical concession.  He explains that the sinner identifies his body parts with those of the animal on the altar because those body parts were involved in sin and deserve to be consumed (commentary on Vayikra 1:9).  Note that Ramban frames his essential explanation for the sacrificial order in the context of sin.  R. Hirsch would not agree.


Sanctifying the Physical


This second theme may link conceptually with the first theme discussed above.  An optimistic evaluation of humanity is more likely to think positively about mankind’s ability to sanctify physical acts.  Conversely, a pessimism that emphasizes human sinfulness will find it harder to think that man can elevate such mundane endeavors as eating, drinking, and sexuality.   Thus, R. Hirsch’s optimism and his emphasis on sanctifying the physical fit together well.


            We have seen that R. Hirsch emphasizes the burnt offering over the sin offering.  In other places, he stresses the peace offering (shelamim) over the ola.  No humans eat from a burnt offering, whereas even regular Israelites (not just Kohanim) can partake of the shelamim.  Thus, the peace offering stands for sanctifying the physical more than any other offering.   According to R. Hirsch, the halakha that gentiles can bring burnt offerings but not peace offerings reflects the uniquely Jewish nature of this religious conception.  The gentile understands the religion of total dedication represented by the ola but not a religion that finds holiness in the material act of eating represented by the shelamim (commentary on Vayikra 3:1). 


            While our patriarchs offered sacrifices, they were mostly burnt offerings.  However, before traveling down to Egypt to be reunited with Yosef, his beloved son, Yaakov brings a peace offering.  R. Hirsch again teaches that shelamim reflects Judaism’s unique religious outlook.  This offering, eaten by Israelite families together, sanctifies family life, transforms the dinner table into an altar, and changes the sons and daughters of the family into priests and priestesses.  Bringing this offering requires a sense of contentment and joy in one’s family life.  Only after Yaakov hears that he will once again see Yosef does he have the ability to offer this especially Jewish sacrifice (commentary on Bereishit 46:1).


            In characteristic fashion, R. Hirsch explains certain halakhic details based on philosophical themes.  Halakha demands that the owners finish eating a peace offering during the first two days after the sacrifice is brought.  Leaving it past this time violates the prohibition of notar.  Having the wrong thoughts about the sacrifice while performing the service invalidates the offering and renders it pigul.  One example of pigul would be slaughtering the animal without the intention to eat it.


R. Hirsch explains that the eating of the sacrifice must happen in close chronological proximity to its offering on the altar because the Torah demands a strong connection between those two actions.  On the one hand, the real goal of the shelamim is the human partaking, because that element sanctifies the mundane family dinner table.  Yet, the religious context needed to sanctify physical eating depends upon the connection to the offering on the altar.  This inter-connectedness saves us from two problematic ideas.  If we focus only on human eating, we run the risk of undisciplined gluttony.  On the other hand, if we view the offering as the end in itself without any human consumption, we run the risk of adopting a pagan attitude where religion consists of fearfully appeasing the deities rather than a joyful sanctification of life (Vayikra 19:6).


A verse in Devarim describing coming to the Temple (12:7) exemplifies this idea.  The Torah says: “And there you shall eat before the Lord your God and you shall rejoice…”  For R. Hirsch, the pinnacle of serving God involves eating and rejoicing before Him in His Temple.  Again, he emphasizes the contrast with a paganism of fear where the gods are hostile to human happiness.  He also contrasts this ideology with a modern error that religion only addresses the human spirit and not the body (commentary on Devarim 12:7). 


The unusual tithe of ma’aser sheni also teaches the same principle.  Tithes tend to go to the needy or worthy such as the poor, the priests and the Levites.  In contrast, the owners keep the produce of ma’aser sheni but bring it to Jerusalem to eat it there.  This tithe reflects our ability to sanctify the act of eating.  When done in the right fashion, physical eating becomes a crucial religious expression (commentary on Devarim 14:22). 


Not surprisingly, R. Hirsch’s discussion of the nazir returns to this theme.  There is a famous Talmudic debate about whether we should view the nazir as a sinner or as holy (Taanit 11a).  This discussion often serves as a focal point for rabbinic thinking about asceticism and physicality.  Why does the nazir bring a sin offering upon completing his period of abstention from wine, hair cutting and coming into contact with the dead?  Rambam says that the sin offering indicates that nezirut is not the ideal (Hilkhot De’ot 3:1).  Ramban, in contrast, saw nezirut as ideal and argues that the nazir brings a sin offering to atone for leaving this exalted state and returning to mundane functioning (commentary on Bemidbar 6:14).  R. Hirsch sides with Rambam and views nezirut as a temporary corrective measure but not as a religious ideal.  A religiously guided life of enjoyment is preferable to a life of asceticism.


R. Hirsch emphasizes the peace offering brought by the nazir who completes his period of nezirut, even though the nazir brings other types of offerings as well.  This offering symbolizes the return to a religious life that does not eschew physicality.  The former nazir cuts off his long hair and burns it under the peace offering. For R. Hirsch, the long hair represents the anti-social component of nezirut, in which looking presentable is not important.  Now that the nazir returns to society, he consumes the symbol of isolationist asceticism under the holier fire of a peace offering that involves sharing physical enjoyment with other people (commentary on Bemidbar 6:8). 


Though many more examples of this theme exist in R. Hirsch’s writings, one more will suffice.  The Torah relates that, during the Israelites’ wandering in the desert, a group of women donated their mirrors to the Tabernacle’s construction, and this donation was used to craft the laver in which the priests wash their hands and feet.  Mirrors certainly belong to a world of physicality, yet they have a prominent place in the holiest of sites (commentary on Shemot 38:8).


Many Jewish writers mention that Judaism rejects “original sin” and believes in sanctifying the physical, but few write about these themes with such cleverness and consistency as R. Hirsch.


[For further discussion of these issues, see Mordechai Breuer, “Shitat Torah im Derekh Eretz be-Mishnato shel R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch,Hama’ayan, Tishrei 5729, and Yonah Emanuel, “Yisrael mul ha-Natzrut,” Hama’ayan, 5749].