Sacrifices & Contemporary Society: Never the Twain Shall Meat? (Parashat Tzav)
It is customary to begin a child’s Torah studies with the matter of sacrifices: “Rabbi Asei said: Why do we start children in their Torah studies with Leviticus and not Genesis? Since children are pure and the sacrifices are pure, the pure ones (i.e., children) come to occupy themselves with pure ones (i.e., sacrifices)” (Leviticus Rabbah 7:3).
And yet, there is no doubt that countless Jewish parents ask each year, “Why does my kid’s bar/bat mitzvah portion have to be about sacrifices?” With Pesaḥ only a couple weeks away, the topic of sacrifices comes up yet again when we sit at our seder table and point to the zero’a (the shank bone which symbolizes the Pesaḥ offering that our ancestors ate).
References to sacrifices make up a sizable portion of the Torah, with the majority of appearances in Leviticus and Numbers, but what is it about sacrifices that troubles so many of us? For some people it’s difficult to contextualize or relate to sacrifice as the means by which our ancestors used slaughtered animals to connect with and worship God. In fact, Rambam (Maimonides, 1135–1204, Cairo, Egypt) in The Guide for the Perplexed, speaks unenthusiastically about the sacrificial system claiming that this was not God’s primary desire for humankind, but only allowed this practice to continue because such a significant change to the status quo “would have been contrary to the nature of man, who generally cleaves to that which he is used” (3:32). Additionally, people needed something to counteract the attraction of idolatry.
That being said, one of the positive outcomes of many sacrificial offerings is that they functioned somewhat like block parties. According to Dr. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, The Effie Wise Ochs Professor of Biblical Literature and History at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, “Sociologically speaking, sacrificial rites in antiquity served to bind community by providing a common meal that made scarce and costly meat available to many. Certain sacrifices functioned like a neighborhood barbecue celebrating a modern holiday: an opportunity to socialize and to eat well” (1460).
While meat is probably more affordable and certainly less scarce than in Temple times, perhaps we have lessened how we value what we eat and have also lost out on the communal meal opportunities. Admittedly, I have not eaten red meat in almost 14 years, but I know that eating meat is still a part of many people’s diet. Yet this should give us pause as to how we relate to what we eat. In Many Waters, the fourth book of Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet, we hear about a powerful hunting scene in which the hunter would “always stop to thank the animal he had killed, thank it for giving them the food necessary for life” (204).
As we turn toward Pesaḥ and our s’darim (seders) where the symbolic nature of food is taken to a whole new level, we are obligated to point out the zero’a. For some, the zero’a is one of the more difficult items on the seder plate to relate to, and can seem so out of place with contemporary society. Whether or not we would like to restore the sacrificial system, we can at least appreciate the value and importance that sacrifices had for our ancestors. Along with expressing gratitude to God, perhaps it’s also necessary to have some acknowledgement that a living creature gave its life so that we could eat. After all, as we say in the first blessing before the morning Shema (yotzer or): the Creator of everything . . . and everything includes all living creatures.
Ḥag Kasher v’Same’aḥ!
Anderson, Gary A., “Sacrifice and Sacrificial Offerings: Old Testament”, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman
(New York: Doubleday, 1992). 871.
Eskenazi, Dr. Tamara Cohn. The Torah: A Women’s Commentary. CCAR Press. Kindle Edition.
Jewish Publication Society (2008-09-15). The Jewish Bible: A JPS Guide (Kindle Locations 5249, 5312, 5323, 5367-5368). Univ of
Nebraska – A. Kindle Edition.
L’Engle, Madeleine. Many Waters. Holtzbrinck Publishers, 1986.
Maimonides, Moses. The Guide for the Perplexed. Trans. M. Friedländer. Second Edition, Revised. London; New York: George
Routledge & Sons Ltd.; E. P. Dutton & Co., 1919. Print.