Qorbanot: Sacrifices and Offerings
Qorbanot are not offered today because there is no Temple
Qorbanot are offered as a way of getting closer to G-d
Qorbanot served the same purposes as prayer today: praise, thanks, etc.
Some qorbanot were not animal sacrifices
Without qorbanot, forgiveness is obtained through repentance, prayer and good deeds
For a long time I was reluctant to write a page on the subject of qorbanot,
because it is a subject with little practical application today. However, I
felt I had to address these issues, because it is one of the two subjects I
receive the most questions about. Interestingly, the questions I receive on
this subject are invariably from non-Jews. Most Jews don't seem to have much
interest in ancient practices no longer observed.
I will begin by answering the questions I am most commonly asked on these
subjects, and then proceed to a more comprehensive discussion of the subject of
Frequently Asked Questions
- Do Jews offer sacrifices today?
- No. To my knowledge, no Jews today offer any kind of animal sacrifice or
offerings, nor have Jews offered sacrifices since the second century
C.E. I have occasionally heard rumors that there are
Orthodox rabbis in
Israel who practice the techniques of ritual
sacrifice, so that the knowledge will not be lost. I do not know if these
stories are reliable, but even if they are, this is not the same thing as
offering a sacrifice, because, among other things, the intention is not there.
- When did Jews stop offering sacrifices, and why?
- For the most part, the practice of sacrifice stopped in the year 70
C.E., when the Roman army destroyed the
Temple in Jerusalem, the place where sacrifices
were offered. The practice was briefly resumed during the Jewish War of 132-135
C.E., but was ended permanently after that war was lost. There were also a few
communities that continued sacrifices for a while after that time.
- We stopped offering sacrifices because we do not have a proper place to
offer them. The Torah specifically commands us not
to offer sacrifices wherever we feel like it; we are only permitted to offer
sacrifices in the place that G-d has chosen for that
purpose. Deut. 12:13-14. It would be a sin to offer sacrifices in any other
place, akin to stealing candles and wine to observe
- The last place appointed by G-d for this purpose was the Temple in
Jerusalem, but the Temple has been destroyed and a mosque has been erected in
the place where it stood. Until G-d provides us with another place, we cannot
offer sacrifices. There was at one time an opinion that in the absence of an
assigned place, we could offer sacrifices anywhere. Based on that opinion,
certain communities made their own sacrificial places. However, the majority
ultimately ruled against this practice, and all sacrifice ceased.
- Orthodox Jews believe that when the
messiah comes, a place will be provided for
- Do Jews want to resume sacrifices?
- Orthodox Jews do. There are several places
in our daily prayer services where we pray for
the restoration of the Temple and the resumption
of its rituals, including the rituals of sacrifice. The Orthodox
Yom Kippur service includes a lengthy
recollection of the Temple service, mourns its loss and longs for its
restoration. Other movements of Judaism have
removed these portions from the liturgy.
- Did the kohanim (priests) or anybody else eat the animals offered?
- Yes! Most types of offerings could be eaten. Certain types were eaten by
the kohanim only, or by a specific kohein. Other
types were eaten by the person offering the sacrifice and his family. The types
of offerings and who was permitted to eat them will be discussed further
- Isn't sacrifice cruelty to animals?
- Animal sacrifice is no more cruel than slaughtering animals for food. In
fact, the procedure for slaughtering livestock for sacrificial purposes is the
same as the procedure used for slaughtering animals for food, a procedure that
is designed to be as quick and painless as possible. See
Shechitah. Judaism is very concerned about the
proper treatment of animals, and would never
advocate a cruel procedure for animal sacrifice.
- How do Jews obtain forgiveness without sacrifices?
- Forgiveness is obtained through repentance,
tzedakah (charity or other
- In Jewish practice, prayer has taken the place of sacrifices. In accordance
with the words of Hosea, we render instead of bullocks the offering of our lips
(Hosea 14:3) (please note: the KJV translates this somewhat differently). While
dedicating the Temple, King Solomon also indicated that prayer can be used to
obtain forgiveness (I Kings 8:46-50). Our prayer
services are in many ways designed to parallel the sacrificial practices.
For example, we have an extra service on
Shabbat, to parallel the extra Shabbat offering.
For more information about this, see Jewish Liturgy.
As we shall see, the purposes for bringing sacrifice are very similar to the
purposes for prayer.
- It is important to note that in Judaism, sacrifice was never the exclusive
means of obtaining forgiveness, was not in and of itself sufficient to obtain
forgiveness, and in certain circumstances was not even effective to obtain
forgiveness. This will be discussed further below.
- But isn't a blood sacrifice required in order to obtain forgiveness?
- No. Although animal sacrifice is one means of obtaining forgiveness, there
are non-animal offerings as well, and there are other means for obtaining
forgiveness that do not involve sacrifices at all. The Biblical book of Jonah
tells of an entire community condemned to destruction that was forgiven when
they simply repented and fasted, without ever offering any sacrifice, blood or
otherwise. (Jonah 3)
- The passage that people ordinarily cite for the notion that blood is
required is Leviticus 17:11: "For the soul of the flesh is in the blood and I
have assigned it for you upon the altar to provide atonement for your souls;
for it is the blood that atones for the soul." But the passage that this verse
comes from is not about atonement; it is about
dietary laws, and the passage says only that
blood is used to obtain atonement; not that blood is the only means for
obtaining atonement. Leviticus 17:10-12 could be paraphrased as "Don't eat
blood, because blood is used in atonement rituals; therefore, don't eat blood."
- Were sacrifices a symbol of the savior to come?
- Not according to Judaism. Quite the contrary, some would say that the
original institution of sacrifice had more to do with the Judaism's past than
with its future. Rambam suggested that the entire
sacrificial cult in Judaism was ordained as an accommodation of man's primitive
- Sacrifice is an ancient and universal human expression of religion. Greeks
and Romans and Canaanites and Egyptians all offered sacrifices to their gods.
Sacrifice existed among the Hebrews long before the giving of the
Torah. Cain and Abel offered sacrifices; Noah and
his sons offered sacrifices, and so forth. When the laws of sacrifice were
given to the Children of Israel in the Torah, the pre-existence of a system of
sacrificial offering was understood, and sacrificial terminology was used
without any explanation. The Torah, rather than creating the institution of
sacrifice, carefully limited the practice, permitting it only in certain
places, at certain times, in certain manners, by certain people, and for
certain purposes. Rambam suggests that these limitations are designed to wean a
primitive people away from the debased rites of their idolatrous neighbors.
In ancient times, a major component of Jewish ritual was the offering of
qorbanot. An entire order of the Talmud
(Kodashim, that is, Holy Things) is devoted to the subject. More than 100 of
the 613 Commandments as enumerated by Rambam
specifically address issues related to qorbanot.
The word "qorbanot" is usually translated as "sacrifices" or "offerings";
however, both of these terms suggest a loss of something or a giving up of
something, and although that is certainly a part of the ritual, that is not at
all the literal meaning of the Hebrew word. The word qorbanot comes from the
root Qof-Reish-Beit, which means "to draw near,"
and indicates the primary purpose of offerings: to draw us near to
Parts of the rituals involved in the offering of qorbanot were performed
exclusively by the kohanim (priests). These
rituals were only performed in the Temple in
Jerusalem. The procedures could not be performed by anyone else, and could not
be performed in any other place. Because the Temple no longer exists, we can no
longer offer qorbanot.
There are three basic concepts underlying qorbanot: giving, substitution and
The first the aspect of giving. A qorban requires the renunciation of something
that belongs to the person making the offering. Thus, sacrifices are made from
domestic animals, not wild animals (because wild animals do not belong to
anyone). Likewise, offerings of food are ordinarily in the form of flour or
meal, which requires substantial work to prepare.
Another important concept is the element of substitution. The idea is that the
thing being offered is a substitute for the person making the offering, and the
things that are done to the offering are things that should have been done to
the person offering. The offering is in some sense "punished" in place of the
offerer. It is interesting to note that whenever the subject of qorbanot is
addressed in the Torah, the
name of G-d used is the four-letter name indicating
The third important concept is the idea coming closer. The essence of sacrifice
is to bring a person closer to G-d.
Purposes of Qorbanot
Contrary to popular belief, the purpose of qorbanot is not simply to obtain
forgiveness from sin. Although many qorbanot have the effect of expiating sins,
there are many other purposes for bringing qorbanot, and the expiatory effect
is often incidental, and is subject to significant limitations.
The purposes of qorbanot are much the same as the purposes of prayer: we bring
qorbanot to praise G-d, to become closer to Him, to
express thanks to G-d, love or gratitude. We bring qorbanot to celebrate
holidays and festivals. Others are used to cleanse a person of ritual impurity
(which does not necessarily have anything to do with sin: childbirth causes
such impurity, but is certainly not a sin). And yes, many qorbanot, like many
prayers, are brought for purposes of atonement.
The atoning aspect of qorbanot is limited. For the most part, qorbanot only
expiate unintentional sins, that is, sins committed because a person forgot
that this thing was a sin. No atonement is needed for violations committed
under duress or through lack of knowledge, and for the most part, qorbanot
cannot atone for a malicious, deliberate sin. In addition, qorbanot have no
expiating effect unless the person making the offering sincerely repents his or
her actions before making the offering, and makes restitution to any person who
was harmed by the violation.
Types of Qorbanot
There are many different types of qorbanot, and the laws related to them are
detailed and complicated. This section will merely introduce some of the major
types of qorbanot, their names and their characteristics. There are many
subtypes within these classifications, and some other types that do not fit
neatly into these categories.
Olah: Burnt Offering
Perhaps the best-known class of offerings is the burnt offering. It was the
oldest and commonest sacrifice, and represented submission to
G-d's will. The Hebrew word for burnt offering is
olah, from the root Ayin-Lamed-Hei, meaning
ascension. It is the same root as the word aliyah, which is used to describe
moving to Israel or ascending to the podium to
say a blessing over the
Torah. An olah is completely burnt on the outer
altar; no part of it is eaten by anyone. Because the offering represents
complete submission to G-d's will, the entire offering is given to G-d (i.e.,
it cannot be used after it is burnt). It expresses a desire to commune with
G-d, and expiates sins incidentally in the process (because how can you commune
with G-d if you are tainted with sins?). An olah could be made from cattle,
sheep, goats, or even birds, depending on the offerer's means.
Zebach Sh'lamim: Peace Offering
A peace offering is an offering expressing thanks or gratitude to
G-d for His bounties and mercies. The Hebrew term
for this type of offering is zebach sh'lamim (or sometimes just sh'lamim),
which is related to the word shalom, meaning "peace" or "whole." A
representative portion of the offering is burnt on the altar, a portion is
given to the kohanim, and the rest is eaten by
the offerer and his family; thus, everyone gets a part of this offering. This
category of offerings includes thanksgiving-offerings (in Hebrew, Todah, which
was obligatory for survivors of life-threatening crises), free will-offerings,
and offerings made after fulfillment of a vow. Note that this class of
offerings has nothing to do with sin; in fact, the
Talmud states that in the age of the
messiah (when there is no more sin), this will
be the only class of offering that is brought to the
Chatat: Sin Offering
A sin offering is an offering to atone for and purge a sin. It is an expression
of sorrow for the error and a desire to be reconciled with
G-d. The Hebrew term for this type of offering is
chatat, from the word chayt, meaning "missing the mark." A chatat could only be
offered for unintentional sins committed through carelessness, not for
intentional, malicious sins. The size of the offering varied according to the
nature of the sin and the financial means of the sinner. Some chatatot are
individual and some are communal. Communal offerings represent the
interdependence of the community, and the fact that we are all responsible for
each others' sins. A few special chatatot could not be eaten, but for the most
part, for the average person's personal sin, the chatat was eaten by the
Asham: Guilt Offering
A guilt offering is an offering to atone for sins of stealing things from the
altar, for when you are not sure whether you have committed a sin or what sin
you have committed, or for breach of trust. The Hebrew word for a guilt
offering is asham. When there was doubt as to whether a person committed a sin,
the person would make an asham, rather than a
chatat, because bringing a chatat would
constitute admission of the sin, and the person would have to be punished for
it. If a person brought an asham and later discovered that he had in fact
committed the sin, he would have to bring a chatat at that time. An asham was
eaten by the kohanim.
Food and Drink Offerings
A meal offering (minchah) represented the devotion of the fruits of man's work
to G-d, because it was not a natural product, but
something created through man's effort. A representative piece of the offering
was burnt on the fire of the altar, but the rest was eaten by the
There are also offerings of undiluted wine, referred to as nesekh.
Parah Adumah: The Red Heifer
Some time in 1997, a red heifer was born in
Israel. This birth received quite a bit of press
coverage, and I received many questions asking about the significance of it.
The ritual of the red heifer (in Hebrew, parah adumah) is part of one of the
most mysterious rituals described in the Torah.
The purpose of this ritual is to purify people from the defilement caused by
contact with the dead. The ritual is discussed in Numbers 19. If you find it
difficult to understand, don't feel bad; the sages
themselves described it as beyond human understanding. What is so interesting
about this ritual is that it purifies the impure, but it also renders the pure
impure (i.e., everybody who participates in the ritual becomes impure).
It is believed by many that this ritual will be performed by the
messiah when he comes, because we have all
suffered the defilement of contact with the dead. Thus, the existence of a red
heifer is a possible, but not definite, sign of the messiah. If the messiah
were coming, there would be a red heifer, but there could be a red heifer
without the messiah coming.
I have not heard any definitive word on whether the animal born in Israel
satisfied all the requirements of a parah adumah (e.g., that it be without
spot, without blemish, and that it has never been yoked). In any case, the
animal is long since dead, and the messiah has not yet come. Better luck next
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