Vayikra: Gifts to the Giver

March 23, 2012 at 9:58 am | Posted in Bereishit, Passover/Pesach, Shavuot, Vayikra | 1 Comment

Imagine you own nothing.  You are homeless, penniless, hungry.  Then someone gives you a farm with good soil, crops in the ground, and seeds.  All you have to do is work the farm and trade your harvest for everything else you need. The farm still belongs to your benefactor, but he or she lends it to you rent-free for your lifetime, and you can even pass it on to your children.

As soon as begin to feel secure, you are moved to thank the farm’s actual owner.  So you send your benefactor a nice selection of its produce.  Maybe you also include a loaf baked from the wheat you have grown.  It’s the best you can do to express your gratitude, and perhaps your humility.

This is how I imagine ancient peoples felt when they made sacrifices to their gods.  They knew their lives depended on the gifts of rain, sun, and soil, as well as the plants and animals that were already in the world before humans came along.  People wanted to recognize this by making a formal expression of humble gratitude, a gift to pay homage.  But how could they deliver their gift?  Some cultures made idols for their gods to inhabit, and set their gifts in front of the idols.  But the ancient Israelites shunned idols.  Until they built the sanctuary for God to dwell in, the only address they knew for God was “the heavens”.  So they built altars, laid offerings on them, and burned them, sending the smoke up to the sky.  It was the best they could do.

The first offering to God in the Torah is Cain’s.

And it happened, at the end of a period of time, that Cain brought from the fruit of the ground a minchah for God.  And Abel, he also brought, from the firstborns of his his flock and from their fat …  (Genesis/Bereishit 4:3-4)

minchah = gift to a superior, homage, tribute, offering to a god

The Torah does not say whether Cain and Abel built altars and burned their offerings.  But it is clear that the first offering to God is Cain’s minchah, consisting of the fruits of his harvest.  Abel follows his brother’s lead by offering animals from his flock to God, and the Torah also calls this offering a minchah.

The rest of the offerings mentioned in the first two books of the Torah, Genesis/Bereishit and Exodus/Shemot, all appear to be animals, and none of them is called a minchah. That word is used again a few times in Genesis, but only for gifts from one human to another.  Jacob gives a minchah to his estranged brother Esau to butter him up, and Joseph’s brothers bring a minchah to him when he is the viceroy of Egypt, for the same purpose.  The Torah uses other Hebrew words for animal offerings.  The standard procedure in Genesis, starting with Noah, seems to be building an altar out of stones, laying firewood on it, slaughtering the animal, and burning it.

In the book of Exodus, the instructions for offerings to inaugurate the sanctuary include the word minchah three times, and all three refer to an offering that is neither an animal sacrifice nor a libation.  Are we returning to Cain’s vegetable offering?  The first Torah portion in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra answers with a technical definition of the proper types of minchah:

And a soul who would bring near an offering of minchah (homage) to God, his offering shall be wheat flour; and he shall pour oil over it and place frankincense upon it. And he shall bring it to the sons of Aaron, the priests, and one shall scoop from it … a memorial portion on the altar, a fire-offering, a fragrant aroma for God.   (Leviticus/Vayikra 2:1-2)

The Torah then describes four ways the minchah can be cooked before it is offered.  The mixture of flour and oil can be baked into loaves of unleavened bread, or into flat bread wafers.  It can be fried on a griddle, or cooked as soft dough in a pot.  But it must always be sprinkled with frankincense, and then salt, before a piece of it is burned up into smoke. Furthermore, the bread of the minchah must never be left to rise, and it must never include fruit syrup:

Any minchah that you bring near for God you shall not make leavened, for you must not make any sourdough or any syrup go up in smoke with a fire-offering for God.  You shall bring them near to God as an offering of first-fruits, but they shall not be upon the altar, nor go up as a fragrant aroma.  (Leviticus 2:11-12)

Later the Torah describes the annual offering of first-fruits on Shavuot, which also includes an offering of two loaves of leavened bread from each pilgrim.  These offerings are presented to the priests at the sanctuary, but no part of them is burned on the altar.

Why does a minchah have to be unleavened and unsweetened, while offerings for Shavuot, the Day of First-Fruits, include both leaven and fruit syrup?

There may be a connection between the observance of Passover, when no leaven may be eaten, and the observance of Shavuot exactly seven weeks later, when the bread brought to the priests must be allowed to rise.  Yet the Torah describes Passover as a remembrance of the exodus from Egypt, and Shavuot as a harvest festival.  (Shavuot was not associated with the revelation at Mount Sinai until much later, after the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 C.E.)

I believe the key difference is that a portion of every offering of unleavened, unsweetened bread is burned on the altar to make smoke for God, while leaven and syrup are given to the priests with a ritual recitation instead of burning.  (See my blog “Ki Tavo:  The Perishing Aramean”.)

Plain flour and oil, whether cooked or not, represents basic subsistence.  This makes an unleavened flour or matzah offering an expression of humility and gratitude that God makes life possible at all.  Sourdough loaves and fruit syrups are examples of foods that go beyond basic subsistence, providing the luxury of pleasant tastes. As offerings, these foods express gratitude for a richness of life beyond what is strictly necessary to survive.

The offering of gratitude for the bare fact of life is turned into smoke.  Perhaps the smoke is not only a metaphorical fragrance for God to enjoy, but also a sign of the evanescence of life.  We are lucky to have life at all — and all too soon, we fade away.  But we are grateful for every moment of life.

The offering of gratitude for luxuries and extras is not turned into smoke.  It is a way of rejoicing that the early harvest is going well, that life is going well, with surpluses to enjoy.  We can rejoice out of the fullness of our hearts, without any grim reminders of death.  But we only indulge in this kind of gratitude once a year, as spring turns to summer.  The rest of the year, we still need the reminder of the smoke.

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  1. […] idea of giving God an offering from his vegetables as an expression of gratitude.  (See my post Vayikra: Gifts to the Giver.)  His younger brother Abel, the shepherd, imitates him with an offering from his flock.  When […]

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