On the Mishna Avot 1:2, that says that the world stands on three things, Torah, Avodah and Gemilut Chassadim Rambam comments:
The Tanah Shimon Hatzadik says that Torah which stands for knowledge, Gemilut Chassadim for perfection of personal traits and Korbanot (note how he substitutes Korbanot for Avodah!) for keeping the commandments of the Mitzvot, all together, promote the continuity of the betterment of the world and its orderly existence in the best possible way.
I would like to focus here on the last comment where Rambam substitutes Avodah – worship – with Korbanot (fire offerings – sacrifices in the
In MN 3:32 Rambam explains that Korbanot are a concession. Idolaters understood worship of the many gods as the need to curry their favor. That was translated practically into bringing sacrificial offerings to those gods. This practice became so ingrained into the culture of the times that it was impossible to shake this habit cold turkey. The Torah on the other hand taught that there is only a unique transcendental God that we worship because He is Truth. Ideally, the worship of such a God would not require any physical or outward manifestation; it should be totally an internal intellectual and emotional experience. After all physicality has no meaning in His context. However, humans, even the more sophisticated, need a practical outlet for their devotion. At the more basic popular level, the idea that we need to do something to placate God when something bad happens is unshakable.
“ 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.” (MN3:32)
(It is noteworthy that Rambam sees prayer, fasting and seeking His help in time of trouble as a concession to human weakness! But that is a related but separate subject which I plan to address in another series of posts on prayer.)
With this in mind, there is really no intrinsic value in any specific physical worship. Action being only a concession, any action that somehow can be related to a particular emotion would be appropriate and satisfy the human need. Mitzvot that require certain acts have no meaning as far as God is concerned. Korbanot were an unshakable habit and the Torah indulged the people’s weakness by allowing them to continue the practice. However, it set very strict restrictions and limitations with minute details on how they should be performed.
This position of Rambam is famous and has been debated in every generation since it was written. Less has been done to try to understand his true position especially in light of what seems to be contradictory statements. The first statement that contradicts this idea is the one at the beginning of this post in the Mishna in Avot where he sees Korbanot as the paradigm for all worship and Mitzvot! There are several other seeming contradictions, as we will see. What is going on?
I believe that Rambam can be understood if Korbanot are seen in context of his understanding of Avodah Zara. In fact in MN3:32 he presents his position in that context. As I wrote in previous posts, AZ evolved into a religion where “specialists” devised ways of worship that flourished, fueled by the imagination of the priest. Just as the worshiped entities were the fruits of the priest’s imagination, so too was the worship. It was an unregulated worship resulting from emotions and imagination allowed to run free. The Torah accepted parts of that worship out of necessity but redirected it and repackaged it as service to a transcendent God that cannot be known nor imagined. Our knowledge of God is very limited and the worship of such a God has to be limited and restricted. Our emotions have to be controlled by our rational faculty, as is the outlet that we were allowed.
Because Korbanot were such a central worship of the Avodah Zara, they are the most regulated category of Mitzvot. Any slight deviation makes the Korban Passul – invalid. In truth though all Mitzvot have the same status of concession to human weakness. That is why they are also regulated and limited. If someone gets into an ecstatic moment and wants to serve God by shaking the Lulav in July, he contravenes the issur of Bal Tossef – one may not add to the Mitzvot of the Torah.
Interestingly, Korbanot that started as a concession to human frailty thus became the paradigm for all Mitzvot. All the Mitzvot that require action of any kind, and there are very few that do not, are surrounded by rules and regulations and one may not deviate. If not for the human condition, they would not be here. To remind us of that, to keep that in focus, our emotions have to be controlled by our rational mind. We have to learn those detailed rules, know them and keep them in mind while we act. Korbanot are the ultimate example of this as anyone that has learned Kodoshim can attest.
That is the meaning of the Mishna according to Rambam. He substitutes Avodah – service – with Korbanot, as they are the model for all Mitzvot, a concession to human needs. Korbanot are also extremely regulated and are therefore a model for the commandments of the Mitzvot. The world stands, its continuity is assured, if man fulfills his role in it. That can only come through accepting a unique transcendental God and rejecting all other “spiritual” powers. Worship of God through physical action contravenes this ideal unless it is regulated and controlled by the intellect. All Mitzvot are therefore modeled after the ones that needed the greatest concession and therefore are the most regulated – Korbanot. This interpretation fits exactly into Rambam’s understanding of Korbanot.
But there is a great shift in thinking. From being a concession suddenly, Mitzvot become a-priori required practice as we will see. How did this happen? To be continued.