Friday, July 06, 2007

Moon Worship?

This week reading there is an interesting verse that has created a lot of controversy because of an interpretation the Rabbis give it.

טו וּשְׂעִיר עִזִּים אֶחָד לְחַטָּאת, לַיהוָה, עַל-עֹלַת הַתָּמִיד יֵעָשֶׂה, וְנִסְכּוֹ. {ס}

15 And one he-goat for a sin offering unto the LORD; it shall be offered beside the continual burnt offering, and the drink offering thereof.

The problem is that it is the only time that a sin offering is referred to as to Hashem. The Rabbis in Chulin 60b, Shevuot 9a and Breishit Rabah (in the popular editions- not in Theodor-Albeck) explain:

אמר רבי פנחס בכל הקרבנות כתיב שעיר עזים אחד חטאת ובראש חדש כתיב שעיר עזים חטאת לה' אמר הקב"ה הביאו כפרה עלי שמיעטתי את הירח

In all offerings it says one goat as a sin offering while for Rosh Chodesh (the new moon) it says a goat offering to God? HKBH said bring an offering to me (for me?), for I (because I?) made the moon smaller.

Technical note: I copied the Midrash version. In the Bavli the author of this is Resh Lakish, not Rav Pinchas. The regular Bavli editions leave out the word Alai however the more reliable Munich MS as quoted in Dikdukei Soferim on Chulin 60b has it.

The traditional explanation of this Chazal, as translated in the two parentheses with question marks, is that God asks us to bring an offering as forgiveness (for God!) for having made the moon smaller. It is one of the most difficult Chazal and over the generations much has been written about it. (For those of a poetic bend please see the Sforno here.)

Rambam in MN 3:46 addresses the issue without quoting the Chazal:

I will here call your attention to a very remarkable thing, although it does not seem at first thought to belong to our subject. It is only the goat brought on New moon as a sin offering that the law calls "a sin-offering unto the Lord" (Num. xxviii. 15). The sin-offerings brought on the three festivals (ibid. vers. 22, 30; xxix. 5, 11, etc.) are not called so, nor are any other sin-offerings. The reason thereof is, according to my opinion, undoubtedly this: The additional offerings brought by the congregation at certain periods were all burnt offerings; only "one kid of goats to make atonement" was offered on every one of these exceptional days. The latter was eaten [by the priests], whilst the burnt offerings were entirely consumed by fire, and are called "an offering made by fire unto the Lord." The phrases "a sin-offering unto the Lord" and "a peace-offering unto the Lord" do not occur in the law, because these were eaten by man; but even those sin-offerings that were entirely burnt (Lev. iv. 12, 21) cannot be called "an offering made by fire unto the Lord," as will be explained in the course of this chapter. It is therefore impossible that the goats which are eaten [by the priests], and are not entirely burnt, should be called "sin-offerings unto the Lord." But as it was found that the kid offered on New moon might be mistaken as an offering brought to the moon, in the manner of the Egyptians, who sacrificed to the moon on the days of New moon, it was distinctly stated that this goat is offered in obedience to God's command, and not in honor of the moon. This fear did not apply to the sin-offerings on the Festivals, or to any other sin offering, because they were not offered on the days of New moon, or on any other day marked out by Nature, but on such days as were selected by the Divine Will. Not so the days of New moon; they are not fixed by the Law [but by Nature]. On the New moon the idolaters sacrificed to the moon, in the same manner as they sacrificed to the sun when it rose and set in certain particular degrees. This is described in the works [mentioned above]. On this account the extraordinary phrase "A sin-offering unto the Lord" is exceptionally introduced in reference to the goat brought on New moon, in order to remove the idolatrous ideas that were still lingering in the sorely diseased hearts. Note this exception likewise.

Meiri in his Chibur Hateshuvah (Ma’amar 2 Chapter 13 – page 545) ties this Rambam into this Chazal and explains it the way I translated it, emphasizing that the offering is to God and not the moon which was the custom of the time. This reading also supports Rambam’s understanding that Korbanot are to deflect from idol service.

Rambam’s explanation that the reason a sin offering is not referred to as to God because it is eaten is also interesting. The idea that an offering may be eaten is in itself a very Jewish idea. The Gemara Zevachim 116a brings an opinion of Rabbis that until the Jews all offerings were burnt offerings. The gods were jealous; they would not allow man to partake in their food. The idea of offerings in Judaism is not to bribe God but to worship Him. It is an Avodah. It is man giving and God accepting graciously. Avodah as one of the three pillars that the world stands on at the beginning of Pirkei Avot is Avodat Hakorbanot according to Pirush Hamishna.

For a comprehensive overview of this see Rabbeinu Bachya on this verse.

Shabbat Shalom.


  1. of course Rambam says that it's anti-‘avoda-zara ;-) .

    i like the idea that God is asking for atonement — or in other words, apologizing — for having created a necessarily imperfect world.

  2. I am not sure if the claim that all idolatrous offerings were burnt offerings is historically accurate. Do you have any data on this?

  3. >Do you have any data on this?

    The gemara has an argumnet on this in Zevachim. The obvious question is what did Noach bring? If shelamim it would be eaten. Though maybe all Korbanot no matter what type were burnt offerings.

    I am not that taken with the historicity isssue. to me these discussion are ideas rather than facts. If the Rabbis saw it that way it shows what they were thinking. I should write about this one day. That is why I am not that committed in looking at DH. To me religion is evolving and how it was understood once is irrelevant (other than Halacha lema'asseh). We have to revisit it at every stage using our basic sources and adapt the theology to make it relevant to our times.

  4. >for having created a necessarily imperfect world.

    Interseting. Would you consider 24 hour sunlight a perfect world? I believe R. Bachya uses this argument that it shows Teshuvah - God had to fix things! ( I hope I ma quoting correctly from memory).

  5. >>>To me religion is evolving and how it was understood once is irrelevant (other than Halacha lema'asseh). We have to revisit it at every stage using our basic sources and adapt the theology to make it relevant to our times.

    Well said - if this isn't the ikar, what is?

  6. mevaseretzion7/06/2007 2:57 PM

    Very nice. However, this does not flow with the expanded explanation of the Gemara, in which G-d appeases the moon for minimizing it.

    The Rif has an explanation there. I think this is an example of the Rambam's 3rd כת in his introduction to perek chelek, of a midrash that needs wisdom not to be scoffed. May we all be zocheh to find meaning in it.

  7. I think that it is interesting that the Rambam writes that during the days of enosh the people wanted to worship G-D,so thay chose to praise his creations thinking that in this way they were praising G-D(They gave praise to the creations that reflected G-D's greatness.).Eventually the philosophy was forgotton and only worshipping the creations as seperate deities remained.In the same way the moon also only gets its greatness and shine from the sun.People notice the moon but don't realize that its greatness is really a reflection of the power of the sun.They in fact diminish its greatness by not realizing its true source.
    The same thing applies to what happened with the philosophy of the generation of Enosh and the resulting diminishment of nature by thinking that objects in nature have their own powers and not realizing natures true cause and creator.

  8. Mevaseret - The meimra itself is by Resh Lakish and is well explained by Rambam and Meiri. The gemara attaches to it a separate aggadeta and syas "Heinu deresh lakish". I am not so concerned with that extensive back and forth. I am sure one of the meforshim found a way with it. Rif is brought down by all and is quite difficult(at least to me) to understand.

    Anonymous - Nice.