The Torah in Parashat Tzav (7:15-16) establishes a distinction between the toda (thanksgiving) offering and other shelamim sacrifices – the category of sacrifices which are eaten not only by the kohanim, but also by the individual who brought the animal. Shelamim sacrifices have a lower status of sanctity than other sacrifices, expressed by the fact that the meat is not reserved for the kohanim, and that the meat may be eaten throughout the city of Jerusalem, and not only in the Beit Ha-mikdash. Most shelamim sacrifices also feature an additional measure of leniency – that they may eaten through the end of the day after the sacrifice is offered. Higher level sacrifices may be eaten only through the night that follows the day they are offered, whereas standard shelamim sacrifices may be eaten also the following day. The exception to this rule is the toda, which, although it may be eaten by non-kohanim and throughout Jerusalem, may be eaten only through the night after it is offered.
One common explanation for this exception is that the Torah wanted to encourage the one bringing the thanksgiving sacrifice to invite a large group of guests to share in his festive celebration. As this sacrifice is offered to express gratitude to God for being rescued from danger – as Rashi (7:12) explains – it is to be eaten together with a large crowd, in order to publicize the experience and thereby bring glory to the Almighty. The toda was a very large offering, consisting of an animal as well as forty loaves of bread, and thus by requiring that it be consumed by the end of the night, the Torah all but ensures that the individual will invite a large number of participants. This results in a festive gathering where God’s kindness is publicized.
Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, however, suggests a different explanation. He writes that the shorter time-frame allotted for the consumption of the toda expresses a link between the physical act of eating, and the slaughtering of the animal in the Beit Ha-mikdash. This link is established in the case of a toda because being rescued from danger, a person is to reflect upon the fact that God intervened to sustain him, for a purpose, in order for him to live his life in God’s service. In Rav Hirsch’s words:
Here [in the case of a toda sacrifice], above all, the necessity is present to have the akhila [eating] – the whole future enjoyment of the restored well-being which God has granted us – in the clearest and most definite manner, only on the grounds of the zevicha [slaughtering]. That we have been saved from a danger makes us vow, with even deeper fervor than ordinarily, that we will use and enjoy the pleasures of life only on the basis of giving everything in our lives completely up to the Will of God.
Having been delivered safely from a situation of peril, we are to commit ourselves with greater conviction to live in accordance with the divine will. Such an experience reminds us of the basic truth of which we should always be cognizant, but too often forget – that if we are here in this world, then this means that God wants us here in order to serve Him with devotion. And therefore, after this kind of experience, upon recognizing God’s hand in sustaining him, one brings a special sacrifice which must be eaten in conjunction with its slaughtering in the Temple – symbolizing the devotion of the totality of his life to the Almighty.