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Korbanos under the microscope

In his introduction to Chumash Vayikra, the Ramban writes that this entire Chumash is devoted to the topic of sacrifices (korbanos); all the mitzvos in this Chumash are linked in some way to korbanos.[1] Therefore, we are going tackle a central issue this week: what is behind the institution of korbanos? And to tackle this, we shall examine a ‘famous’ machlokes (‘dispute’) between the Rambam and the Ramban.
In Moreh Nevuchim, the Rambam writes[2] that the prime reason for korbanos is to show that the other nations are wrong in their idolatrous outlooks and forms of worship, which also involved sacrifices. Therefore, our korbanos are the opposites of other nations’ idolatrous practices, which also involved sacrifices. He displays this with regards to the details of various korbanos. For example, other nations (e.g. the Egyptians) worshipped the sheep, and so we slaughterthe sheep and offer it as a sacrifice to HaShem. So too, did other nations’ practice involve putting honey on their sacrifices but no salt, whilst we put salt on our korbanos and are not allowed to put honey on them. The Ramban[3] disagrees vehemently with the Rambam’s reason, and says instead that on one level, a korban is meant to inspire the korban’s donor to repentance,[4] and on a much deeper level it has a certain spiritual power to ameliorate HaShem’s Creation.[5] However, before his explanation, the Ramban asks four searching questions on the aforementioned explanation of the Rambam, and our goal will be to answer these questions for the Rambam.

The first question he asks is simply why should there be a mitzvah purely for the other nations; to teach them that their ways are incorrect. Every mitzvah is for us, the Bnei Yisrael, and not in order to prove a point to other nations? Secondly, the Ramban asks that according to the Rambam, there is really no positive spiritual reason for korbanos; it is purely to counteract idolatry. If the other nations would not have served idols, there would be no (reason for) korbanos whatsoever. Yet the pasuk records that the korban is ‘a pleasant smell to HaShem,’ (Vayikra 1:9) implying that there is a positive effect of a korban – how does this fit with the Rambam’s explanation? Next, the Ramban asks that the reason the Rambam gives is not logical; if the idea is to ‘put down’ the practices of the other nations, then we should not use their gods as sacrifices (e.g. using the sheep, the Egyptian deity, as a sacrifice). On the contrary, we should eat the sheep as normal food, in the example above, in order to show that the sheep is not a god. Using a sheep in the service of HaShem, of anything, lends respect to the idea that a sheep has sanctity? And the final knock-out blow the Ramban delivers is to point out that korbanos were around long before the days of idol worship; Hevel (son of Adam) and Noach both brought korbanos.[6] So how can the idea of korbanos be to counteract idolatry, if korbanos preceded idolatry?

As mentioned, our challenge is to find answers for the Rambam. The answer to the second question (‘where’s the ‘positivity’ of korbanos’) is relatively painless; the gemarra[7] reveals that ‘one who denies idol worship is as if he has admitted to the entire Torah.’ We are being told that removing the presence of idolatry itself has a positive effect; one which would be ‘a pleasant smell to HaShem.’ As the Rambam himself writes,[8] ‘the foundation of Torah is the removal of that (idolatrous) outlook.’ What about the other three questions?

Our journey begins with the Meshech Chochmah, who writes[9] that the Ramban’s reason is accurate for the korbanos offered in the beis hamikdash, whilst the Rambam’s reason is correct for the korbanos offered on private altars (bamahs). In theory, this should answer several of the Ramban’s questions, but it is a difficult resolution purely because neither the Rambam or the Ramban limit their statements to only certain korbanos. On the contrary, the Rambam seems to make mention of the mikdash in the same section[10] in which gives his reason for korbanos. In fact, it is not clear whether the Meshech Chochmah himself telling us that there is no real dispute between the Rambam and the Ramban, or that he admits that there is a dispute (and so both are referring to all forms of korbanos) but is merely trying to ‘pasken’ who is correct in which case; and so he is not answering any of the questions whatsoever. Either way, we need a new answer.
Cue the Maharit,[11] who writes that the Rambam is not saying what we think he is saying. According to the Maharit, the Rambam agrees that HaShem set up korbanos as a prime means of service of Him well before any idolatry existed in the world. However, because the other nations took on this practice of offering sacrifices to their deities, HaShem should have annulled the practice of korbanos even as a form of Divine service for us. The Rambam is merely giving a reason for why HaShem did not subsequently annul the institution of korbanos after they had been ‘perverted’ by other nations via their idolatrous practices. Again, this would answer all of the Ramban’s questions, but again, if one looks in the Moreh Nevuchim, one does not get the impression that this is what the Rambam is saying. It seems that the Rambam is giving a reason for korbanos itself (not just a reason for why korbanos was not subsequently annulled); certainly the Ramban, Meshech Chochmah, and the Ritva (we are about to quote from the Ritva) understood him this way. Therefore, again we need a new answer for the Rambam.
So enter the Ritva, in his ‘Sefer Hazikaron;[12]’ a sefer in which he defends the Rambam from questions of the Ramban al Hatorah. The Ritva begins by saying that when the Ramban quoted the Rambam, he was quoting the wrong part of the sefer Moreh Nevuchim. The part the Ramban quotes is about the details of each korban, and not the korban itself,[13] whilst the real opinion of the Rambam vis-à-vis the reason for korbanos is earlier in the sefer.[14] There, the Rambam says the following interesting idea. When Bnei Yisrael were in Egypt, they picked up the various idolatrous practices of the various nations around them. These idolatrous practices would often involve building a temple and serving the deity via sacrifices. Now, since it is not human nature to be able to suddenly give up something that one has developed a real routine for and is really accustomed with, HaShem did not abolish all these forms of idolatry. Rather, in order to wean the Bnei Yisrael off idolatry, HaShem commanded that the practices previously used for idolatry should be used to serve Him; an altar, korbanos, etc. This answers one of the questions of the Ramban. The Ramban asked: how can there be a mitzvah which is to teach the other nations a lesson? And the answer is that korbanos is not for them; it is for us – to push us away from idolatry. And if one looks at that part of the Rambam which the Ramban quotes, the Rambam is not saying that korbanos was to teach the other nations the fallacy of idol worship; he is saying that it is to teach us the fallacy of idol worship. This point is also seen from the Midrash,[15] which is the source for the Rambam’s explanation here. The Mirdash compares korbanos to a son who eats non-Kosher things, and the father tells him ‘better you eat it at my table and gradually learn not to eat those things…’so too, HaShem told the Bnei Yisrael [who were stooped in idolatrous practices] to use the practices common to idolatry in the service of Him and that way they would be saved from such practices. It is clear that korbanos are for the Bnei Yisrael, and not merely to teach the other nations a point. But this does not deal with the other two questions of the Ramban [namely: 1) if we want to show disrespect, we should eat their deities, not use them for Divine service, and 2) Noach/Hevel’s korban]. On the contrary, if anything, this makes these other questions all the more pressing. The Ritva openly answers the first of these questions. He points out that the other nations used to offer wild animals to their deities as sacrifices; they would never offer ‘tame’ animals like sheep, cows etc. (all the animals we use for korbanos are ‘tame’). Therefore, in our korbanos we are not doing exactly as the nations did when they offered sacrifices to their deities. So we are not showing respect for the nations’ sacrifices by doing the same actions as they did; we are showing disdain for such practices by making sure that our korbanos do not emulate their sacrifices. And the Ritva does cryptically refer to an answer for the question regarding Noach/Hevel, but he does not explain exactly what he is referring to.[16]

Therefore, we have one question remaining. And we shall add another question; courtesy of the aforementioned Maharit. He points out that many times in the Torah we find the importance of distancing oneself from idol worship. For example, after listing idolatrous practices, the Torah says ‘do not do like that to HaShem your G-D,’[17] and tells us to make sure that we are not influenced whatsoever by the idolatrous practices of other nations. And the Rambam writes that the prohibition of shaving off one’s hair is based avoiding the pagan practices of the idol worshippers. So if it is a central theme in the Torah to stay away from idolatry, why with regards to korbanos, according to the Rambam, do we take on what are essentially based on idolatrous practices; and that is the reason for korbanos?!

The final answer, is therefore, an extremely central and important concept with regards to giving reasons for mitzvos. The Ritva (above) writes the following: ‘my opinion as to the reasons given for mitzvos in the Moreh Nevuchim is that he (the Rambam) did not write them thinking that these are the real (one and only) reasons for that mitzvah, but that he wanted to provide some logic for the mitzvos so that the people would have what to answer a heretic.’ The concept the Ritva is touching on is that we do not know the infinite wisdom HaShem put into each mitzvah, and so we cannot pinpoint a reason for any given mitzvah; we do not know the reasons. But we can suggest reasons, knowing that they are (at the most) part of a bigger picture, and could even intermingle with several other reasons. There are many sources which reflect this idea; notably the Sefer Hachinuch (the great reason-giver for mitzvos), who writes that ‘even though there are mitzvos which we cannot know the full depth and scope of, due to the limitations of our knowledge, we have not held back from writing about them with regards to all that we can understand as to the benefit which results from performing them.’[18] And the Rambam himself echoes this idea in several places.[19] This is why the reason offered by a commentator for a mitzvah can never dictate the halachos and practice of that mitzvah; because we are not sure that this reason is the true reason. Many authorities say this, including (again) the Rambam himself; see footnote.[20]

Therefore, the answer to the Rambam above is that the reason he gives for korbanos being as an antidote of some sorts to idol worship is not the one and only reason, and is not necessarily even the true reason; it is a suggestion to try and fathom the infinite depth of HaShem’s mitzvos. This must be true, because the Rambam writes[21] that there will be korbanos in the third beis hamikdash, despite the fact that there is no idol worship any more. Thus, korbanos must go further than the reason of ‘their going against idolatry.’

The practical point to take from this regards the depth of mitzvos. We often see practical benefits to keeping mitzvos; there is a physical benefit to resting once a week, a benefit to one’s relationship with one’s spouse of keeping the laws of niddah, etc. These are wonderful, but they are not the reasons for the mitzvah. The truth is that we do not know the infinite depth HaShem has placed within every mitzvah, and we certainly do not know the reasons of HaShem for commanding each mitzvah; the most we can do is suggest. As the prophet Yeshaya puts it (55:8) ‘for My thoughts are not your thoughts and your ways are not My ways, says HaShem.’
Have a great Shabbos!!!!!!!!!

[1] For example, laws of tumah can disqualify someone from entering the mikdash.
[2] Moreh Nevuchim chelek gimmel perek 46
[3] Ramban Vayikra 1:9
[4] The Sforno Vayikra 1:2 echoes this, and see the Sefer Hachinuch mitzvah 95 for a more comprehensive explanation of this.
[5] ‘Metakein olamos.’ The Ramban is rather cryptic as to this part, but the Meshech Chochmah in his introduction to Chumash Vayikya spells it out a drop further.
[6] See Bereishis 4:1-8 and 8:20-21. Idol worship did not start until the days of Enosh, which was after Hevel’s korban; see Rashi Bereishis 4:26 and Rambam hil. Avodah Zarah 1:1
[7] Gemarra Nedarim 25a
[8] Moreh Nevuchim chelek gimmel perek 30
[9] Meshech Chochmah, introduction to Chumash Vayikra
[10] In another place in Moreh Nevuchim; chekel gimmel perek 32. We will cite this section more fully later.
[11] In his sefer Tzafnas Pane’ach, first Drash on Vayikra. He is mainly referring to the paragraph of the Rambam in chelek gimmel perek 32, which is the main perek on the subject, but I have cited the Maharit in general terms which could refer to both parts of the Moreh Nevuchim.
[12] Sefer Hazikaron, parshas Vayikra
[13] The Rambam himself in Moreh Nevuchim chelek gimmel perek 26 makes a distinction between the reason for any given mitzvah and the details/halachos within that mitzvah (which do not necessarily all have one overriding reason).
[14] Moreh Nevuchim chelek gimmel perek 32
[15] Vayikra Rabbah 22:8
[16] He writes that if the Ramban would have realised the Rambam’s explanation for the episode of Kayin and Hevel, he would never have asked the question on the Rambam. But we are not aware of what exactly the Ritva is referring to here.
[17] Devarim 12:31
[18] Sefer Hachinuch, end of mitzvah 545. He says the same in mitzvah 95
[19] See the end of hilchos Me’ilah and Temurah. In the former, he writes that ‘it is fitting for one to look into the reasons for a mitzvah according to his ability;’ implying that there are varying degrees of reasons which fluctuate according to people’s ability. This must mean that we cannot fathom the real answer.
[20] Rambam quoted by Rabeini Bechayei Devarim 29:28. The Kesef Mishna and Lechem Mishna (both in hilchos Avodah Zarah 4:4) say the same.
[21] Rambam hilchos Melachim 11:1, and the text of the tefillos by the Rambam at the end of sefer Ahava is full of references to the returning of the korbanos in the third beis hamikdash – as we say in our tefillos constantly.