What was the purpose of sacrificial offerings in the Ancient Hebrew Temple?
Answer: Cain and Abel made vegetable and animal sacrifices. Noah made animal sacrifices. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob -- all highly enlightened people -- made animal sacrifices. And the Torah prescribes a whole slew of sacrifices to be made in the Tabernacle in the desert, and then later in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. And guess what? In our prayers, for the past 2,000 years, we’ve been asking for G-d to let us rebuild that Temple so that we can start doing those sacrifices, just like He asked us to. So there’s got to be something deep going on here, more than meets the eye.
Q: But the whole thing doesn’t make sense! Charity, prayer, study…all those I can understand. But why on earth would G-d want us to burn animals on an altar?
A: Now, don’t get the idea that you’re the first one to have difficulty with this. It puzzled the students of Maimonides in the 12th century. It puzzled the students of the rabbis of the Talmud. In the Zohar it’s written that “the secret of the sacrifices reaches to the secret of the infinite.” It’s one of those things that if it doesn’t puzzle you, you just haven’t gotten the facts straight. I think we need to look at this from a very different perspective to make sense of it.
Q: It all looks like just a holdover from pagan rites.
A: It’s clear there are some major distinctions between the sacrificial order of the Torah and your typical ancient-world pagan rites. For one thing, the rules and regulations were spelled out right there for all to read. In fact, every Jew has an obligation to study the details of the Temple rites. Even little children are supposed to learn everything those priests are to be doing. That’s a far cry from the cult of secrecy that empowered the priestly class of other nations.
There were some other major distinctions: The Temple was considered the property of the people, and daily communal sacrifices reinforced that fact. There were no male or female prostitutes wandering around the courtyards, no orgies or drunken revelry -- or self-mutilation. The priests wore modest, standardized clothes and were held accountable by a people’s court that sat right there at the edge of the Temple complex. Most of the meat was eaten -- a lot less waste than what goes on at Safeway or Stop N’ Shop. And animals were slaughtered in a humane fashion. Definitely a sublime relief to ancient standards. All in all, it must have seemed a very strange place for the average Joe Ancient.
Q: But not to our standards today. If the whole point was to wean the people off sacrificial cultism, then it was good for then. But why should we be praying for it to return? Sure it’s cool to have a central place for prayer and meditation, with the Menorah, the incense, the tablets that Moses brought…but why the butcher shop?
A: The main act of a sacrifice was not the physical act of slaughtering an animal. You understand that the sacrificial service was principally a spiritual one.
Q: In what way?
A: Well, for one thing, when a person brought a sacrifice, his mental focus was crucial. If his mind was not focused on the correct meaning and intent of the sacrifice, the whole thing could be deemed useless, or worse.
Q: What sort of meanings?
A: Well, if it was being brought to atone for some inadvertent sin, he had to have in mind some remorse over what had happened. But it went far beyond that: The priests would focus their minds on the higher spiritual spheres according to esoteric traditions. That explains why they had the Levites singing and musicians playing. After all, if it was all just a grand barbecue, what need was there for inspirational music? Rather, it was a deep spiritual experience for all involved. You went away truly elevated.
Q: Okay, I can see the experiential quality of it all -- an ancient temple with heavenly music and mystical song, priests in flowing robes deep in meditation, mesmerizing, choreographed ritual. It’s an image I hadn’t realized before.
A: Most people don’t.
Q: But I think we could get the elevation without the blood and guts.
A: Well, in fact, today our prayers are in place of the sacrifices. So the principal aspect of the sacrifices was never terminated. Just the outer aspects that the Torah also demands, those are temporarily suspended.
Q: So, if we can have the spiritual experience without dicing meat on the altar, why go back to it?
A: So we need to come to a deeper understanding of what the sacrifices and the Temple are all about.
Q: If you have an explanation, I’m open.
A: Well, perhaps our problem is that we are looking at it from a flat perspective.
A: I mean like trying to understand a multidimensional process from only one dimension.
A: Here’s an analogy: Let’s say you never heard of a telephone, and you’re watching someone walking along the street in an intense conversation. Except there doesn’t appear to be any second party to this conversation. In fact, he appears to be deeply engaged in an argument with… his wrist.
Q: Because his hand is cupped to his ear?
A: Yes. And he’s nodding his head, waving his other arm. Then shouting. Then quiet. Then laughing and suddenly quiet again…
Q: Looks totally nuts.
A: But people do it all the time.
Q: Okay, but it makes sense because we know there’s someone else on the other end.
A: The other end of what?
Q: The phone.
A: That looks even more preposterous. Where exactly is that someone hanging from?
Q: You know what I mean. There’s a mobile phone network. There are signals traveling through the air.
Q: We can’t see all those things, but it connects people over large distances. It’s only our ignorance of those signals and that network and all the sophisticated technology behind it that makes this guy look silly.
A: Exactly. And that’s the same problem we have with sacrifices: We have to realize there’s a whole other dimension here that we don’t see. From that dimension, everything makes sense.
Q: Whose dimension is that?
A: Well, there are higher planes of reality than our own. Spiritual realms. And beyond. There’s a whole chain of worlds working down from the plane of the infinite light until arriving at us and our little physical cosmos down here.
Q: Kabbalah stuff.
A: It’s in the Talmud, too -- lots of details in tractate Chaggigah about the seven heavens, etc.
Q: So, with sacrifices…
A: Rabbi Isaac Luria, the Arizal, explains that the sacrifices were a way of elevating the matter and vitality of this world up to a higher plane.
Q: You know, I read a story about some tzaddik who would meditate and carry his consciousness up to higher places.
A: Actually, anytime someone meditates and prays with focus, s/he is doing that to some small degree.
Q: So we’re back to square one: Who needs the BBQ?
A: Because that only elevates human soul. The human soul has many layers. The G-dly, The rational. The animal within. The sacrifices in the Temple elevated that plus a whole real animal. It touched not just the spirit, but the body as well.
Q: So the animal became holy?
A: Thereby having a general effect on all the animals in the world -- plus the flour and wine that was used with it, which pulled along all the vegetable world, plus the salt and water, which pulled the inanimate realm along with it…
Q: Let me get this straight: You’re saying that what prayer accomplishes on a spiritual level, the sacrifices accomplished with the physical world? You’re saying that the Temple was a sort of transformer, to beam up physical stuff into the spiritual realms?
A: You’re getting it. That’s why the space of the Temple was so important. You know there is a tradition that the place where the altar of the Temple stood, that was the place from which Adam was formed. Cain and Abel made their sacrifices there. Noah made his sacrifices there after the flood. The Binding of Isaac took place there…
Q: So why did they all have to use that spot? What’s so special…
A: It’s the spot where Jacob had his dream about the ladder and the angels going up and down. He said, “This is the gateway to heaven!”
Q: Hmmm. You mean like what we call in Net jargon a “portal”.
A: Right. Or a transformer. The interface between the physical and the spiritual. That’s what the rabbis mean when they say that when G-d went about creating this world, the place he started from was the place of the Temple Mount. So you’ll say, there was no space when G-d started creating the world. But what they mean is that this is the first link from the higher worlds to this world. That’s where above stops and below begins. Heaven to Earth. And so, that’s where the transmission line between the two is situated. The portal.
Q: What happens when all this meat and wine gets up there?
A: Obviously it’s no longer a chewy steak when it’s in a spiritual domain. But we are physical beings, so we can’t really imagine what spiritual roast beef looks like. But there are conscious beings that have no physical bodies, and they are on the receiving end of all this.
Q: You mean angels?
A: That’s what they’re called in English.
Q: I find it hard to relate to the angel thing. I know there are plenty of references to them in the Bible and rabbinical literature…
A: The Ramban (Nachmanides) says that our souls are more closely related to the angels than to the animals. After all, human beings live principally in a world of ideas and abstractions, more than in the visceral, tangible world.
Q: Depends who you’re speaking about, rabbi.
A: At any rate, there is no reason not to believe that there is consciousness that is not associated with a physical body. And if we would ask one of those conscious beings whether the Temple sacrifices make sense to him/her/it, it/she/he would likely exclaim that it is one of the few things human beings do that make any sense at all! And I bet they’re real peeved that it’s been stopped all these years.
Q: What do they get out of it?
A: According to the Kabbalah, returning energy.
Q: You mean like energy bouncing back? What do they need that for? Don’t they get enough when it's on its way down?
A: Because the energy they get is only direct energy, filtered down through many steps. We get the final, most condensed creative energy to sustain our existence in this world. But, since we are the final stop, we also have the essence of that energy. That’s something they can get only when we elevate matters of our world up to theirs.
Q: You’re telling me those angels have a real interest in our sacrifices?
A: They have a real interest in anything good we do. Any mitzvah we do elevates some aspect of the material world -- perhaps not to such an extent as the sacrifices. But the sacrifices provide a paradigm to understand what all mitzvahs are really about.
Q: So are these bodiless conscious beings involved in that as well?
A: Without them, not a single mitzvah would ever get done. The Talmud says that whenever a person does a mitzvah, it is only after the Holy One sends His angels to set everything up for him to do it. And they complete the job as well. Often, our entire input is no more than making the conscious decision, that, yes, I want to do this mitzvah.
Q: So really, all of our mitzvahs happen within this larger, multidimensional context.
A: Which is why so many of them are so hard to understand. Like trying to make sense of a single instrument playing its part out of a whole symphony. That’s what each of our mitzvahs is like. Because we only see the material plane.