Sacrifice in Judaism

sacrifice: from Latin sacrificare; sacer sacred, holy + facere to make.

1. To make an offering of; to consecrate or present to a divinity by way of expiation or propitiation, or as a token acknowledgment or thanksgiving; to immolate on the altar of God, in order to atone for sin, to procure favor, or to express thankfulness;

2. Hence, to destroy, surrender, or suffer to be lost, for the sake of obtaining something; to give up in favor of a higher or more imperative object or duty; to devote, with loss or suffering.

3. To destroy; to kill.

4. To sell at a price less than the cost or actual value.

Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, 1996


Temple sacrifices Prayer and Torah Study Passover symbols


The Synagogue service

Many kinds of sacrifices are mandated in the Hebrew Bible, of which one type is animal sacrifice. The Hebrew term usually translated "sacrifice" is korban. Korban literally means "drawing near". Just as in the Latin term, then, sacrifices of all kinds are linked with an approach to divinity.

The particular conditions of animal sacrifice are mandated in the Hebrew Bible:

"For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have assigned it to you for making expiation for your lives upon the altar; it is the blood, as life, that effects expiation. Therefore, I say to the Israelite people: no person among you shall partake of blood." --Leviticus 17:11-12 (JPS translation)

By the sixth century B.C.E. sacrifices were primarily performed by priests in the Temple. According to Bernhard Anderson, "in the priestly tradition sacrifice was not understood as a means of appeasing divine wrath or of cajoling God to show favors. Rather, the sacrifices described in Leviticus 1-7 are means of atonement, of healing the breach in the covenant relationship and reuniting the people in communion with God. Sacrifice was believed to be efficacious in restoring a broken relationship, not because blood had magical power in itself, but because God had provided the symbolic means . . . by which guilt was pardoned. . . The Priestly tradition emphasized that no sacrificial rite was effective in the case of deliberate sin ('with a high hand')." (Anderson, 413)

Thus, one key concept of "making sacredness" or "drawing near" involved the shedding of blood, which represented life and thus was an aspect of divine sacrality available to humans under certain prescribed conditions. As Anderson notes, the concept that the gods require human or animal blood for food is not overtly present in the Hebrew Bible (and the requirement of human blood is denied altogether in the story of Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac, Genesis 22, see figure at right). Note also that blood is one means of atonement, but not the only method. For a further discussion of sacrifice click here.

With the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. animal sacrifices ceased to be performed. The emerging rabbinic community declared that Torah study, prayer, and acts of loving-kindness would replace sacrifices. In modern Judaism, the only rite that requires the shedding of blood is the circumcision of newborn males.

Blood is symbolically invoked during modern Passover rituals, which commemorate the Exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt. A roasted lamb shank represents the lamb whose blood was smeared on Hebrew doorposts so that the Angel of Death would spare those homes but slay all Egyptian first-born children. Participants, both male and female, also dip their fingers in wine and splash droplets on their plates in remembrance of all the plagues which struck the Egyptians prior to the Exodus. The repudiation of blood sacrifice in the modern Passover Seder and the simultaneous preservation of symbolic elements of it are explored in an essay by Zvi Howard Adelman.

Because prayer and Torah study have become the modern replacement for korbanot or sacrifices in modern Judaism, it is important to realize

1) these activities are now the primary means of "drawing near" to God.

2) these activities, conversely, represent the power of sacrifice. According the the Gemara, a commentary on the Torah, "Whoever is busy with [learning] Torah need not bring an Olah, Chatas, Mincha, or Oshom (types of sacrifices)." As one interpreter explains, "Therefore, we understand that since everything begins and emanates from Torah, studying the Torah brings atonement and is considered even better than the Korban. . ." --Parshas Tzav

3) the times of daily synagogue services developed as a conscious replacement for animal sacrifices offered in the Temple. The Torah scroll is decorated with crowns, kept in a cabinet called an Ark, and lit with an eternal light.

What were the gender consequences of this shift from actual physical offerings to prayer and Torah study? It is important to realize that women were priests in the ancient temple, and likewise they did not become rabbis. Until the nineteenth century women were denied access to the central aspects of the synagogue: the bimah (podium) and the Torah scroll. Moreover, in Orthodox Judaism, women sit in a special section curtained off from the rest of the sanctuary. When the Torah is paraded throughout the synagogue it is not carried into this section. Jewish law also exempts women from daily prayer obligations. Until the mid-twentieth century there were no women rabbis. Conservative and Reform Judaism have abolished these gender distinctions. For more discussion on the Torah and power, go to Torah.

Women still are not allowed to carry Torah scrolls and read from them at the one remaining part of the ancient Temple, the Western Wall, no matter what branch of Judaism they belong to or if they are rabbinic scholars.

Both Orthodox and liberal Judaism have expanded the idea of sacrifice to include Torah learning and ethical actions. For example, an Orthodox interpretation of the laws of Leviticus explains that: "by following the instructions for life, the Torah, a person is able to bring himself and his environment closer to G-d." A Reform commentary on Yom Kippur, circumcision, and the meaning of sacrifice calls for a Jewish understanding of sacrifice that "draws us (men and women) closer to God, raising our lives to higher purpose". This notion of "drawing near" by a)giving up something important and b)"drawing near" to divinity as revealed in the Torah is at the heart of contemporary Jewish understandings of sacrifice.