Shiur #23: The Reasons for the Mitzvot of Sacrifices

  • Rav Chaim Navon


A.        The Purpose of the Laws of Sacrifices


The Rambam introduces his discussion of the sacrifices, in chapter thirty-two of Book III of the Guide, with an assertion concerning the biological realm: every creature develops gradually. This applies in terms of space as well as time. In the spatial dimension, the Rambam describes how soft tissue gradually extends outwards and then hardens. In terms of time, every one of us experiences the gradual development of an infant into an adult. Likewise, he explains,


Many laws of the Torah are the result of a similar course adopted by the same Supreme Being. It is, namely, impossible to go suddenly from one extreme to the other.


In other words, the biological rule teaches an educational lesson. The Torah educates the Jewish people in stages, with the understanding that it is impossible to attain the desired degree of perfection instantaneously.


The very inference from a biological process to a spiritual one is typical of the Rambam. We are used to viewing nature and the religious world, facts and values, as two separate spheres. This division is quite prevalent in modern philosophy – at least since the advent of David Hume. However, it is rejected by the Rambam. In his view, God operates nature in exactly the same way that He operates the world of the spirit and of values. He therefore maintains that observing nature can teach us moral values, and that by imitating these values we are able to fulfill the commandment "You shall follow His ways" (Devarim 28:9). Thus, observing nature can teach us the principle of gradual development, which also applies to the world of the spirit.


What has all of this to do with the sacrifices? According to the Rambam, the sacrificial service is also the product of the same need for a gradual transition from a world of paganism to a world of true service of God:


When God sent Moshe to make us a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Shemot 19:6) by means of the knowledge of God… the custom which was in those days common among all men, and the general mode of worship in which the Israelites were brought up, consisted of sacrificing animals in those temples which contained certain images, to bow down to those images, and to burn incense before them… It was in accordance with the wisdom and plan of God, as displayed in the whole Creation, that He did not command us to give up and to discontinue all these manners of service; for to obey such a commandment it would have been contrary to the nature of man, who generally cleaves to that to which he is used… For this reason God allowed these kinds of service to continue; He transferred to His service that which had formerly served as a worship of created beings, and of things imaginary and unreal, and commanded us to serve Him in the same manner.


According to the Rambam, the significance of the contribution of the sacrifices to our spiritual world is not in its focus on "doing good," but rather "keeping away from evil": the sacrifices are meant to wean Bnei Yisrael off of pagan worship. Because at that time everyone in the world served different gods through sacrifice, the Israelites could not accept a Torah that did not include sacrifice. Therefore God commanded that sacrifices be offered to Him, rather than to pagan gods. Had the Torah instructed that His service not include sacrifice,


It would in those days have made the same impression as a prophet would make at present if he called us to the service of God and told us in His name, that we should not pray to Him, not fast, not seek His help in time of trouble; that we should serve Him in thought, and not by any action.[1]


Moshe ben Yehoshua of Narbonne, in his commentary on the Guide, explains that the Rambam does not mean that the sacrifices are nothing but a "post-facto" measure designed to distance Jews from idolatry. According to him, the intention here is that the sacrifices are a legitimate manner of divine service, and God chose specifically this manner of service because it was common in those generations. However, many other commentators have taken a different view, according to which the Rambam views the sacrifices as nothing but a means of keeping Am Yisrael from worshipping idols. Indeed, this seems to be the plain meaning of what the Rambam is saying.


He then goes on to assert that the essential nature of the sacrifices, as merely a means, serves to mold the specific laws involved:


As the sacrificial service is not the primary object [of the commandments about sacrifice], whilst supplications, prayers, and similar kinds of worship are nearer to the primary object, and indispensable for obtaining it, a great difference was made in the Law between these two kinds of service. The one kind, which consists in offering sacrifices, although the sacrifices are offered to the name of God, has not been made obligatory for us to the same extent as it had been before. We were not commanded to sacrifice in every place, and in every time, or to build a temple in every place, or to permit anyone who so desires to become priest and to sacrifice… All these restrictions served to limit this kind of worship, and keep it within those bounds within which God did not think it necessary to abolish sacrificial service altogether. But prayer and supplication can be offered everywhere and by every person. The same is the case with the commandment of tzitzit (Bemidbar 15:38); mezuza (Devarim 6:9; 11:20); tefillin (Shemot 13:9, 16); and similar kinds of divine service.


This is an extremely far-reaching proposition. In the Rambam's view, even prayer and similar mitzvot are a means to an end – concentrating one's thoughts on God. These mitzvot are relatively "close" to the purpose that they aim to realize. The sacrifices, in contrast, are a "distant" means – so far removed, in fact, that the exalted sanctity of the desired aim is almost indiscernible in them. They are bound up with a specific set of historical circumstances, and their whole purpose is to distance a person from the sin of idolatry. On this same basis the Rambam goes on to explain all the laws pertaining to the concentration of divine service in a single place, as set forth in Sefer Devarim. Here the Torah sets very strict boundaries on the sacrificial service, requiring that it be carried out only in the Temple, which will be established "in the place that God will choose." Our initial impression is that the many limitations on the sacrifices are a reflection of their importance and sanctity. The Rambam draws the opposite conclusion: the multitude of limitations and boundaries on the sacrificial service are imposed with a view to lessening it and diminishing its scope, since it is not intrinsically important.


The Rambam uses the same understanding to explain the prophets' protest against the nation's focus on sacrifices:


Does God take as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying Him?! (I Shmuel 15:22)


"To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to Me?” says God. (Yishayahu 1:11)


For I did not speak to your forefathers, nor command them, on the day I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices; but this thing I commanded them, saying, “Obey Me, and I will be your God, and you will be My people." (Yirmiyahu 7:22-23)


The Rambam gives special attention to the words of Yirmiyahu (perhaps because Yishayahu emphasizes criticism of social norms, while in Yirmiyahu's words the Rambam finds a criticism of the nation's religious faith):


This passage has been found difficult in the opinion of all those whose words I read or heard; they ask, How can Yirmiyahu say that God did not command us about burnt-offering and sacrifice, seeing so many laws refer to sacrifice? The sense of the passage agrees with what I explained to you. Yirmiyahu says [in the name of God] that the primary object of the precepts is this: Know Me, and serve no other being ... But the commandment that sacrifices shall be brought, and that the temple shall be visited, has for its object the success of that principle among you; and for its sake I have transferred these modes of worship to My Name; idolatry shall thereby be utterly destroyed, and Jewish faith firmly established… You, however, have ignored this object, and taken hold of that which is only the means of obtaining it; you have doubted My existence… you have served idols… you continue merely to attend the temple of the Lord, and to offer sacrifices.


How can Yirmiyahu claim that God did not command Bnei Yisrael concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices when He brought them out of Egypt? While in the wilderness, Bnei Yisrael heard a great many commandments about sacrifices! To this the Rambam responds that what Yirmiyahu is trying to convey is the message that sacrifices are a means, not an end. When people offer sacrifices to God, while at the same time continuing to serve idols, the sacrifices are not fulfilling their purpose as a means of eradicating idolatry, and hence they are of no value.[2]


B.        Criticism of the Rambam


The Rambam foresaw at least one aspect of the criticism of his approach: "I know that you will at first thought reject this idea and find it strange." What is the main psychological difficulty involved in the Rambam's position?


You will put the following question to me in your heart: How can we suppose that Divine commandments, prohibitions, and important acts, which are fully explained, and for which certain seasons are fixed, should not have been commanded for their own sake, but only for the sake of some other thing: as if they were a scheme that God thought up for us, in order to achieve His primary object?  What prevented Him from making His primary object a direct commandment to us, and to give us the capacity of obeying it?


Indeed, many of the Rambam's critics do indeed attack fiercely his view that the sacrifices are merely an educational, pedagogic device, rather than an end in and of themselves. However, the Rambam formulates this criticism in a very particular way. He puts in the mouths of his critics the following philosophical question: What prevents God from simply giving a direct command not to engage in idolatry, and at the same time giving Bnei Yisrael the inner, spiritual capacity to make this radical change? To this the Rambam offers his firm response:


Although in every one of the miracles [related in the Torah] the natural property of some individual being is changed, the nature of man is never changed by God by way of miracle.


God does not violate our free choice, and does not "bestow" on people psychological qualities that are beyond their true ability (although of course He is capable of doing so). Therefore the Torah provides no educational shortcuts. The Rambam brings proof for this claim from elsewhere in the Torah. When Bnei Yisrael left Egypt, the Torah records, God deliberately led them on a circuitous route:


God did not lead them by the way of the land of the Pelishtim, although it was close by, for God said: Lest the people have second thoughts, when they see war, and return to Egypt. (Shemot 13:17)


What was the point of making their journey longer? Some commentators explain that this would spare the nation an encounter with the Egyptian border guards who were stationed on the main road from Egypt to Gaza. Others explain that if Bnei Yisrael followed a circuitous route, they would not be able to return to Egypt, even if they wished to do so, for they would not be able to find their way. The Rambam proposes a different understanding, which sits well with the plain meaning of the text, and emphasizes the educational aspect of the situation:


It is not the nature of a person who has been trained to labor as a slave with mortar and bricks and the like, all at once to wash the dirt off his hands and go right off to wage war against giants.


According to the Rambam, God lengthened the journey so that Bnei Yisrael could undergo an educational process of psychological empowerment. Only at the end of this process would they be able to wage war against the giants of Cana’an (see Bemidbar 13:22, 28). And just as God did not bring about this transformation in a miraculous manner, so too concerning the sacrifices. Quite simply, if it were not the case that God refrains from intervention in free will, He could have done away with the entire realm of reward and punishment, and simply programmed us to follow His mitzvot automatically.


As noted, the Rambam addresses one aspect of the criticism of his approach. However, the opposition could be formulated in stronger terms. Even if we accept the Rambam's assumption that sometimes God employs educational devices in order to advance man, can we really view the sacrifices, which occupy such a central place in the Torah, as a mere "post facto" educational device? Moreover, why does God include the laws of the sacrifices as part of His eternal Torah, if their whole purpose is to solve an educational problem that pertains only to a particular era?


To this the Rambam can only respond by emphasizing the great value of educational devices. By means of the sacrifices, and similar mitzvot, idolatry was erased from amongst Am Yisrael. So why were the sacrifices themselves not cancelled and erased from the Torah? To this the Rambam would probably respond that if the Torah were to be subject to periodic changes, it would undermine the faith of the masses. As he writes elsewhere,


it would not be right to make the fundamental principles of the Law dependent on a certain time or a certain place; on the contrary, the statutes and the judgments must be definite, unconditional and general. (Guide III:34)


In our chapter, he likewise explains:


God knew that the judgments of the Law will always require an extension in some cases and curtailment in others… He therefore cautioned against such increase and diminution, and commanded, "Thou shalt not add thereto nor diminish from it" (Devarim 13:1); for constant changes would tend to disturb the whole system of the Torah, and would lead people to believe that the Torah is not of divine origin.


This response failed to satisfy the Rambam's opponents in this regard, to the extent that after studying the Guide's teachings in the matter of the sacrifices, Rabbi Yaakov Emden concluded that it was not possible that the Rambam, compiler of the Mishneh Torah, was also the author of the Guide.[3]


Let us examine the dissenting view of Ramban, who expresses eloquently the position of the Rambam's opponents on this matter:


These are nonsensical words, which offer healing for a great injury and for considerable difficulty for the disgraced; they defile God's table, and their only purpose is to address the potential misunderstanding of the wicked and the foolish. The verse states that [sacrifices] are “food of a fire-offering, for a sweet-aroma” (Vayikra 3:16).


When Noach departed the ark with his three sons, there was no Chaldean or Egyptian in the world; he offered a sacrifice, and it found favor in God’s eyes… “And Hevel also brought from his choicest sheep and fats, and God turned to Hevel and his gift” (Bereishit 4:4), and there was no trace of idolatry in the world. And Bilaam said “I have arranged these seven altars, and I offered bull and ram on the altar” (Bemidbar 23:4), and his intention now was not to negate false beliefs, nor was he commanded regarding that.  Rather, he did this in order to draw closer to God, so that God’s word would descend upon him. And the language employed regarding sacrifices is “My sacrifice of food fire-offering, My sweet aroma” (Bemidbar 28:2). Heaven forfend that they have no purpose or desire other than the negation of idolatry from the minds of fools.



It is more fitting to listen to the reason that they offer regarding them, that since the acts of man are accomplished through thought, speech, and deed, God commanded that when one sins, he bring a sacrifice. He should rest his hands upon the animal, corresponding to the deed, he should orally confess, corresponding to his speech, and he should burn the innards in the fire, corresponding to the thought and desire. The thighs correspond to man’s hands and feet which perform the actions of man. He should cast the blood on the altar, corresponding to his own blood. By doing all of this, man will consider that he sinned against his God with body and soul, and it is fitting that his blood be spilled, and his body be burned, if not for the kindness of the Creator, who accepted from him a substitute and ransom of this sacrifice, so that its blood is in lieu of his blood, a soul for a soul, and the major limbs of the sacrifice correspond to his major limbs… These words are acceptable, drawing the heart, like the words of Aggada.


In truth, sacrifices carry a hidden secret.    (Ramban, Vayikra 1:9)


Ramban starts off with an attack on the Rambam. First, he argues, the Rambam's explanation of the sacrifices diminishes their value and importance. Second, Hevel and Noach offered sacrifices to God before any idolatry existed in the world. Ramban then goes on to offer his own explanation: a person who brings a sacrifice undergoes a religious experience, as though he were sacrificing himself to God – since, strictly speaking, this is what he should be doing, in view of his sin. Ramban also hints that this reason is not final and absolute, and that the true reason for the sacrifices is hidden in Kabbalah. However, he does present a reason that "makes sense and appeals to the heart," and it has indeed attracted the hearts of our sages throughout the generations.


In his book The Halakhic Mind, Rav Soloveitchik analyzes the fundamental difference between the Rambam and Ramban in this matter, from his unique philosophical perspective. Let us examine just one paragraph (p. 131, n. 108):


Philosophically, [Nachmanides' interpretation] is far superior to Maimonides' explanation. While Maimonides' causalistic aspect in the Guide is pure instrumentalism, Nachmanides' interpretation penetrates the complex concept of sacrifice itself.


In The Halakhic Mind, Rav Soloveitchik analyzes various different approaches to the philosophy of religion. In our context, he views the difference between the Rambam and Ramban with regard to the reasons for the laws of sacrifices as typifying the difference between two fundamental approaches. The Rambam represents the causalistic approach, which inquires what God's reason was for giving us a certain law. Ramban represents an approach that seeks not reasons but rather meaning; he is less interested in why God gave us the mitzva, focusing instead on how the mitzva influences our own lives. For this reason the Rambam looks to the past, while Ramban offers an eternal explanation that is relevant in every period.


However, Rav Soloveitchik adds another important point: the causal approach is adopted by the Rambam only in the Guide of the Perplexed; in his Mishneh Torah the picture is very different. Indeed, in the Mishneh Torah the Rambam offers the following background to the sacrifices:


It is appropriate for a person to meditate on the judgments of the Holy Torah and know their ultimate purpose according to his capacity. If he cannot find a reason or a motivating rationale for a practice, he should not regard it lightly. Nor should he break through to ascend to God, lest God burst forth against him. One's thoughts concerning them should not be like his thoughts concerning other ordinary matters….a person [should] not treat them derisively because he does not understand their rationale. He should not conjure up matters that are not true concerning God, nor should he think about them with his mind as he would ordinary matters.


For Vayikra 19:37 states: "And you shall guard all My decrees and all My judgments and perform them." Our Sages commented: This adjures us to guard and perform both the decrees and the judgments. The meaning of "performing" is well known, i.e., that one should observe the decrees. "Guarding" means to treat them with caution and not think that they are any less than the judgments. The judgments are those mitzvot whose motivating rationale is openly revealed and the benefit of their observance in this world is known, e.g., the prohibitions against robbery and bloodshed and honoring one's father and mother. The decrees are the mitzvot whose motivating rationales are not known…


All of the sacrifices are in the category of decrees. Our Sages said: "The world exists for the sake of the service of the sacrifices." For through the performance of the decrees and the judgments the righteous merit the life of the world to come. And between the two of them, the Torah gave precedence to the command for the decrees, as Vayikra18:5 states: "And you shall heed My decrees and judgments which a person will perform and live through them." (Laws of Me'ila, 8:8)[4]


What the Rambam says here is very different from his words in the Guide, and also different from Ramban. In the Mishneh Torah, the Rambam makes no attempt to provide any reason for the sacrifices. Sacrifices belong to the realm of "chukkim" – statutes, i.e., those laws "whose reason is unknown." These laws, too, have a reason, but it is hidden from us.


To conclude our discussion of the Rambam's exposition of the reasons for the mitzvot, let us consider Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch's general criticism of the Rambam's approach:


"Mitzvot, then, were to [the Rambam] only guides – albeit indispensable ones – leading to better understanding and to protection against errors, some of which, indeed, only arose, at one time or another, in connection with polytheism. Thus mishpatim became rules of prudent behavior, as did mitzvot; chukkim became rules of health inculcating sound feelings or protecting against passing aberrations; and edot were in part as ordained to promote philosophical purposes, among others. None of them were conceived as rooted in the eternal essence of things, as resulting from an everlasting demand upon me and from my immutable destiny. They were not understood as symbolic actions through which ideas were forever to be perpetuated." (Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, The Nineteen Letters, trans. Karin Paritzky, Feldheim Publishers 1995, p. 265)


Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1]  This not-so-subtle hint tells us that in the Rambam's opinion, pure thought is superior to action, and even to prayer.

[2] The Rambam then suggests that we might understand Yirmiyahu's words as referring to the specific laws that were given to Bnei Yisrael at Mara, soon after the Exodus. These commandments do not pertain to sacrifices; rather, they concern Shabbat and certain specific laws. (See Shemot 15:25-26, and Rashi's commentary ad loc., citing Chazal's teaching.)

[3]  He writes: "How could one imagine that these two works (i.e., the Mishneh Torah and the Guide of the Perplexed) were written by the same author? For according to the Guide, all of the extensive and profound laws of sacrifices are as if worthless acts; the philosophers who follow this view will certainly consider them nonsense and a waste of time… Similarly the numerous, impenetrably profound and extensive laws of ritual purity and impurity, leprosy, and tents, in all the details of their requirements, will likewise be viewed as empty and meaningless by the stubborn and misled, who are lost [lit. "perplexed"] in the treachery of the book Guide of the Perplexed. They are not to be blamed for their view, since they have found support for their errant understanding in the words of their teacher… Therefore the book Guide of the Perplexed cannot be attributed to the Rambam, who merited to bring merit to others, since anyone who brings merit to the collective does not come to sin. A lapse such as the Guide of the Perplexed, which has undoubtedly caused many people in the world to stumble in Torah – who knows how many hundreds or thousands have abandoned the religion for this reason – is the direct cause of the destruction and uprooting of many great and mighty Jewish communities throughout Spain and France… And had the Guide of the Perplexed contained just this one subject, i.e., what it says concerning the reason for the sacrifices – it would be worthy of condemning to the flames." (Mitpachat Sefarim, chapter 8, p. 88).

[4] Translation by Eliyahu Touger