The tokhecha section of Parashat Bechukotai presents God’s warnings of the calamities He threatens to bring upon Benei Yisrael should they disobey His commands. These warnings include, “Va-hashimoti et mikdesheikhem” – “I shall make your Sanctuary desolate” (26:32).
This verse is an important source relevant to discussion among the poskim concerning the halakhic possibility of offering sacrifices at the site of the Beit Ha-mikdash, even in the Mikdash’s state of destruction. The Mishna in Masekhet Eduyot (8:6) brings a tradition that “makrivin af al pi she-ein bayit” – sacrifices may be offered at the site of the Temple even without a Temple. The Rambam famously adopts this view in Hilkhot Beit Ha-bechira (6:15), and he explains (6:16) that the halakhic sanctity of the site of the Temple depends not on the presence of the structure, but rather on the presence of the Shekhina (divine presence), which, the Rambam writes, never left the site. As a source for this position, the Rambam cites the aforementioned verse, noting Chazal’s observation that the verse refers to the Mikdash as such – “mikdesheikhem” – even in foreseeing its desolation. That is to say, even after its destruction, the site remains “mikdesheikhem” – a sacred site. As the site’s halakhic sanctity remains intact after the Temple’s destruction, sacrificial offerings are, at least in theory, possible at the site even in the Temple’s absence.
Among the questions raised regarding the Rambam’s position relates to the continuation of the verse, where God proclaims that in the wake of the Temple’s destruction, “ve-lo ari’ach be-rei’ach nichochakhem” – “I shall then not smell the pleasing fragrance [of the sacrifices].” Even if the site of the Temple retains its halakhic sanctity after the destruction, the Torah makes it very clear that sacrifices would not be pleasing to God at that point. And the Mishna in Masekhet Zevachim (56b) states explicitly that sacrifices must be offered “le-sheim rei’ach nichoach” – with the intention that their “fragrance” should be pleasing to God. Seemingly, if the Torah establishes that God does not “smell” sacrifices after the Temple’s destruction, then this means they should not be offered. Why, then, do the Mishna and the Rambam allow offering sacrifices at the site of the Beit Ha-mikdash after the destruction, when the sacrifices are not accepted as “rei’ach nichoach”?
Rav Yaakov Ettlinger, in the first responsum in his Binyan Tziyon, writes that indeed, the Mishna and the Rambam should not be understood to mean that sacrifices are to be encouraged when there is no Mikdash. The conclusion of the verse makes it very clear that our sacrifices would not be welcomed by God after He destroys the Temple. When the Mishna and Rambam rule, “makrivin af al pi she-ein bayit,” Rav Ettlinger explains, this means that sacrifices would technically be valid if they are offered without a Beit Ha-mikdash, but not that this should actually be done. Rav Ettlinger writes that this is why even those Tanna’im who followed this view of “makrivin af al pi she-ein bayit” did not offer sacrifices, because this position was not intended prescriptively, to sanction sacrificial offerings in the Temple’s absence.
Instead, as Rav Ettlinger proceeds to explain, this ruling means that sacrifices are theoretically possible – a possibility which yields several practical ramifications. First, if one offered a sacrifice at a site other than the site of the Mikdash, he is in violation of the prohibition of shechutei chutz (offering sacrifices outside the Temple). This prohibition took effect only once the Temple was built in Jerusalem, at which point it became strictly forbidden to offer sacrifices anywhere else. After the destruction, this prohibition remains in place, because even though we cannot, in practice, offer sacrifices in the Beit Ha-mikdash, such sacrifices would theoretically be valid, and thus suffices to make it prohibited to offer sacrifices anywhere else.
Secondly, Rav Ettlinger explains that when it becomes possible to rebuild the Beit Ha-mikdash, it would then be permissible to offer sacrifices at the site, even before the Mikdash is built. God’s warning that He would not look pleasingly upon our sacrifices refers only to the time when He angrily denies us the privilege of a Beit Ha-mikdash. But once He gives us this opportunity, our sacrifices are welcome even if we have yet to complete the process of building the Temple.
Additionally, Rav Ettlinger writes, this ruling means that a person who is required to offer a personal sacrifice discharges his duty if he offers a sacrifice even in the Temple’s absence. Although this should not be done, as God warned that He would not look pleasingly upon our sacrifices when the Temple is destroyed, nevertheless, if a sacrifice is offered, it is valid and the individual has fulfilled his requirement.