Monday, December 20, 2010

The Conundrum of Korbanot - Part 1 - Introduction.

Rambam’s explanation of the reason for the Mitzvot related to Korbanot has been discussed for generations from the famous Ramban at the beginning of Vaykra followed by almost every Maimonidean scholar and commenter, classic or modern, since. To complicate the matter even more is the apparent inconsistency in Rambam’s own position between the different places in his writing where he addresses the issue. (He addresses the issue in every one of his books, whether directly or implicitly. I will try to address all of them as we go along.)

For the contemporary Jew, Korbanot is a major problem. It is contrary to our whole understanding of right and wrong to sacrifice living things just to ask forgiveness or placate God. The idea itself of placating God, though still acceptable in many circle, goes against the sensibilities of a more sophisticated understanding of a transcendent God. In truth, even the prophets, found the idea of Korbanot to be incongruous. We read in the Haftorah before Tisha Be’av, where Yeshayahu 1:11 declares –

יא  לָמָּה-לִּי רֹב-זִבְחֵיכֶם יֹאמַר יְהוָה, שָׂבַעְתִּי עֹלוֹת אֵילִים וְחֵלֶב מְרִיאִים; וְדַם פָּרִים וּכְבָשִׂים וְעַתּוּדִים, לֹא חָפָצְתִּי.
11 To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me? says the LORD; I am full of the burnt-offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats.

And Yirmyahu (11:22) declares in an astounding denial –

כב  כִּי לֹא-דִבַּרְתִּי אֶת-אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם, וְלֹא צִוִּיתִים, בְּיוֹם הוציא (הוֹצִיאִי) אוֹתָם, מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם--עַל-דִּבְרֵי עוֹלָה, וָזָבַח.
22 For I spoke not unto your fathers, nor commanded them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt-offerings or sacrifices;

So how are we to understand the centrality of Korbanot in Jewish Halacha? Besides the extensive detailed precepts we find in the written Torah, in fact, it is the most regulated ritual of all, in addition we have a whole section in the Gemara – Seder Kodashim – discussing just those rules in addition to there being discussions scattered all over Shas. Rambam in his MT dedicates two of the 14 Books to Korbanot – Sefer Avodah and Sefer Korbanot. Our daily prayer is modeled after Korbanot and we pray constantly for their return once the Beit Hamikdash is rebuilt. How is a contemporary thoughtful Jew supposed to deal with this whole corpus of ritual?

I believe a discussion based on Rambam’s many writings on the subject can bring us closer to a resolution and a better understanding of how to deal with this dilemma. As a continuation of my earlier posts on Ta’amei Hamitzvot, I will dedicate a few posts to this subject.

As I have discussed many times, Rambam does not accept the idea that Mitzvot have any intrinsic worth. In other words, a Mitzvah does not influence God nor does it change His supposed opinion of us. All Mitzvot are meant for us, either to teach us a proper theology, or to help us change our behavior and improve ourselves or to establish and maintain a properly functioning society. It is in this vein that Rambam begins his discussion of Korbanot in MN 3:32. Interestingly it is here that he elaborates on the idea that Mitzvot are fine-tuned psychologically to help us change our way of thinking. He starts by giving a lesson in the natural evolution and adaptation to the environment of all living things.

If you consider the divine actions – I mean to say the natural actions – the deity’s wily graciousness and wisdom, as shown in the creation of living beings, in the gradation of the motions of the limbs, and the proximity of some of the latter to others, will through them become clear to you.

He then continues to detail how every limb and part of living things are so perfectly calibrated to function with each other, be protected from a hostile environment and generally the intelligent way all biological things are made. He then continues –

Many things in our Law are due to something similar to this very governance on the part of Him who governs…”

The Mitzvot according to Rambam are tailored to the physical world we live in. They are tailored to work with our human biology and psyche. Unlike many thinkers who saw the Mitzvot as a way of influencing higher powers, changing the way “shefa” – the flow - comes to us; Rambam sees them as intended to influence our behavior and thought process.

For a sudden transition from one opposite to another is impossible. And therefore, man, according to his nature, is not capable of abandoning suddenly all to which he was accustomed. As therefore God sent Moshe our master to make out of us a kingdom of priests and a holy nation- through the knowledge of Him…..”

Human beings cannot change their behavior or their thinking in one leap. They require a gradual process of education and learning, training oneself to react differently and to think rationally. Mitzvot are intended to help us accomplish that and bring about a change in our behavior and thinking. They accomplish that gradually. The goal of Mitzvot is to transform the primitive human being into a sophisticated thinker, one who is consumed with daily physical survival into an intellectual devoted to understanding existential matters. That goal is multi-generational and evolves over millennia. For it to work, the Torah had to be tailored so that it puts a person on a path to development, starting with the state he is in currently and advancing with him as he grows intellectually. All Mitzvot are therefore only tools necessary for us to reach our goal of intellectual development.

“… and that similarly all the actions prescribed by the Law – I refer to the various species of worship and also the moral habits that are useful to all people in their mutual dealings – that all this is not to be compared with the ultimate end and does not equal it, being but preparations made for the sake of this end.” (MN3:54)

As we will see in upcoming posts, Korbanot are a paradigm for all Mitzvot, demonstrating very succinctly this idea of Mitzvot. That is why the Rambam in his Pirush on the second Mishna in Avot –

הוא היה אומר, על שלושה דברים העולם עומד--על התורה, ועל העבודה, ועל גמילות החסדים.
ב] יאמר, שבחכמה, והיא התורה, ובמעלות המידות, והן גמילות חסדים, ובקיום ציוויי התורה, והן הקרבנות - התמדת תיקון העולם, וסידור מציאותו על האופן השלם ביותר.

The word Avodah refers to Mitzvot and the paradigm for them is Korbanot. The Mishna is telling us that the physical world owes its continuity and existence – de facto and not in a mystical way – on three things:

Torah – which includes ALL knowledge including the sciences namely Chochma.

Gemilut Chassadim – which represent all the social laws, being they are reciprocal.

Avodah – refers to all the ritualistic laws that are represented by Korbanot.

They all have as purpose to bring us to search for the existential meaning of our existence and the goal and responsibilities we have as part of HKBH’s world. It is only then that we can act responsibly and insure continuity -- התמדת תיקון העולם, וסידור מציאותו על האופן השלם ביותר .

To be continued.


  1. Do you have access to the Narbonni on the Moreh? He addresses and answers this question. The Abarbanel attacks this answer. I discuss this machloqes and suggest the Narbonni meant something slightly different than what the Abarbanel attacks in the first essay in Mesukim MiDevash on Vayiqra. But my variant, while a possible way of viewing qorbanos and the Rambam's approach to ta'amei hamitzvos in general (similar to what R' Meir Treibitz taught in his podcast a few years later -- in particular, shiur #11), does not fit the word of the Moreh with respect to qorbanos in particular. (My assessment, I think RMT would say it does.)

    In a later blog entry I add to that post, but more about the Rambam vs. the Ramban and the Meshekh Chokhmah's synthesis approach than on understanding the Rambam himself.


  2. R. Micha,

    I have seen the Narboni and your article is excellent. I am going in a little different direction.