Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 2

The first two Torah portions in the book of Leviticus/ Vayikra mention repeatedly that God enjoys the smell of smoke, especially the smell of burning animal fat.1

Six types of offerings at the altar appear in the portions Vayikra (“and [God] called”) and Tzav (“Command”).  For five out of six, the donor must bring an animal, lean a hand on its head, and slaughter it.  Then the donor watches a priest butcher the animal, splash its blood around the altar, and burn all or part of it to generate smoke.  (The other offering is made out of grain, and is sprinkled with oil and frankincense before it goes on the fire, so the smoke will smell good to God.)

Killing and burning animals was the usual technology for worship in the Ancient Near East, and the ancient Israelites probably found fire-offerings spiritually moving.  Today some people view the slaughter of animals as an unfortunate necessity, and others find it unethical to kill animals for human food.  Can we apply the Torah’s six categories of offerings to a more ethically refined set of procedures?

Last week I suggested a new way of interpreting fire-offerings in general.  This week I propose six kinds of practices to replace the six kinds of fire offerings.


In the order of their appearance in the Torah portions Vayikra and Tzav, the six types of fire-offerings are:

1) olah (עֹלָה) = rising-offering.

(From the root verb alah (עלה) = go up.)

Altar, “Treasures of the Bible”, Northrup 1894


This is the instruction of the olah: It is the olah which burns on the altar all night until the morning …  (Leviticus/Vayikra 6:2)

In an olah the entire slaughtered animal is burned up, so olah is often translated as “burnt offering” or even “holocaust offering”.  The olah is the only offering which stays on the altar fire all night, until it is completely burned up into smoke.  An olah is required twice a day as a matter of routine, perhaps to keep a sustaining level of smoke rising to the heavens.

And the fire on the altar shall burn on it; it shall not go out.  The priest shall kindle wood on it every morning and arrange the olah upon it …  A continual fire shall burn on the altar; it must not go out.  (Leviticus 6:5-6)

A holy day calls for an extra olah.  This type of offering is also prescribed for individuals who have been isolated and need to return to a normal relationship with God and their community.2  Perhaps a normal relationship includes continuous, unflagging dedication to serving God, day and night.


For a physical, animal body, fat serves as a reserve source of energy in lean times.  But accumulating too much fat is physically unhealthy, just as accumulating too much wealth is spiritually unhealthy.  How can we burn up the excess fat in our lives?  How can we avoid selfish hoarding? How can we keep our souls directed toward making our own best contributions in a world full of other individuals?

The Jewish practice of mussar calls for a daily review of our actions before bedtime.  We record every time we succumbed to an undesirable character trait (such as hoarding) and every time we practiced a good trait we want to acquire (such as generosity).  It takes continual self-examination to change a habit.

During our isolation due to the coronavirus pandemic, we could start a journal noting when we acted selfishly, and when we acted generously.  We can think about what we will do differently next time.  Then when we come out of social isolation, may we offer the olah of a pledge to pay extra attention to our own behavior to make sure we do not lapse back into selfishness.

2) minchah (מִנחָה) = allegiance-offering; a gift to a king as a sign of homage or respect; tribute.

Frankincense (Boswellia sacra tree resin)


The Torah prescribes an offering of grain, loose or baked, as a minchah to God.

A person who offers a minchah to God, he shall offer fine flour, and he shall pour oil over it and place frankincense upon it … and the priest shall make a memorial portion go up in smoke on the altar, a fire-offering of soothing fragrance for God.  (Leviticus 2:1-2)


When I burn my toast, it only sets off the smoke alarm.  But before I eat my toast, or any other food, I say a blessing to give thanks for it.  My blessing is my gift of allegiance to the source of all life.

During the pandemic, may we express gratitude and allegiance not only to God, but to all human beings who are keeping the world fed.

3) shelamim (שְׁלָמִים) = wholeness-offering.

(From the same root as shaleim (שָׁלֵם) = complete, safe and sound, at peace; and shalom (שָׁלוֹם) = peace.)


And if his offering is a shelamim, if he offers it from the herd, whether male or female, he shall offer it unblemished in front of God.  And he shall lean his hand on the head of the offering …  (Leviticus 3:1-2)

The Torah gives three reasons for offering a shelamim:

(Electronic handshakes only during the pandemic please.)

todah (תוֹדָה) =  thanks,

neder (נֶדֶר) = fulfilling a pledge to make that offering if all goes well, or

nedavah (נְדָבָה) = donating out of generosity.

And this is the instruction for the shelamim offering that he shall offer to God.  If he brings an offering of todah, then he shall offer, along with the todah slaughter-offering, unleavened loaves mixed with oil and unleavened crackers anointed with oil and fine flour loaves mixed with oil.  Along with loaves of leavened bread, he shall offering his offering along with his shelamim slaughter-offering.  (Leviticus 7:11-13) 

The same assortment of grain products accompany neder and nedavah animal offerings.  The slaughtered animal and the unleavened loaves are divided into three portions: one to be turned into smoke for God, one for the officiating priest to eat, and one for the donor and his guests to eat in God’s presence (i.e. in the courtyard in front of the altar).  None of the leavened bread is burned for God; it is all eaten by the priest and the donor’s party.

The difference between a shelamim for a todah and and a shelamim for a neder or nedavah is the time limit for eating the meat and bread.  The donor and his family and guests have one day to eat the meat and bread from a todah.  They have two days to eat the meat and bread from a neder or nedavah.3  One theory is that these time limits ensure that the donor invites more guests to share the feast.  This increases his generosity.


Today we can say blessings to thank God for our lives and for everything else in the world.  (Even though the world includes things we consider bad, I am grateful that there is a world with people in it, and so much beauty and wonder.)

But it is also important to show our appreciation to the human groups and individuals that improve life on earth.  We can give individuals thank-you gifts, and give groups our pledges and donations.  The more often we do so, the more we add to the world’s supply of generosity—and that brings more wholeness (shaleim), and holiness into the world.

During the pandemic, consider leaving a gift on someone’s doorstep.  Pledge or donate to a good cause to help our battered world recover.

4) chattat (חַטָּאת) = lapse-offering.

(From the root verb chata (חָטָא) = miss the mark, commit an offense against God; make amends for doing wrong.)


If one soul from among the people of the land should chata unintentionally, by doing one of the [negative] commandments of God, [doing something] that should not be done, and he incurs guilt—  If the offense that he committed becomes known to him, then he shall bring his offering: an unblemished female goat for his chatat that he chata …  (Leviticus 4:27-28)

A different animal must be offered according to the person or group who unintentionally violated one of God’s rules: priests, leaders, the whole community, and individuals.  All the animals are offered in the usual way for fire-offerings, from leaning a hand on the living animal’s head to burning up the fatty parts on the altar to give soothing smoke to God.

And the priest shall make atonement for him and he shall be forgiven.  (Leviticus 4:31) 


What can we do today when we realize after the fact that we violated a moral or religious rule we want to live by?

If I bite into what I thought was a vegetarian omelet and taste bacon in my mouth, I push the plate aside and say a short prayer for discernment in the future.  Both actions help me to accept that I made a mistake, and forgive myself.

But if I realize I did something that hurt another person, I need to find reconciliation not only with my conscience, but also with the person I wronged.  I find what I hope is a calm time to talk with the person, then say what I think I did wrong and apologize.  (Finding the right time may call for extra sensitivity during a period of social isolation during a pandemic.)

Next I give the other person a chance to say how the offense looked to them.  If I need to explain anything, I try to do it humbly, without defending my ego.  Then I ask what I can do to make up for the wrong I did.  If there is something concrete and reasonable, I do it.  Only then can I be forgiven by both the other person and myself.

5) asham (אָשָׁם) = guilt-offering.

(From the root asham (אָשַׁם) = incur guilt.)


If a soul who does wrong commits treachery against God and lies to his fellow about a pledge, or a loan, or a theft, or fraud; or he finds a lost item and lies about it, and he swears falsely … he shall return the stolen item that he stole or the fraud that he committed or the pledge that was left with him or the lost item he found … and he shall pay back the principal and add a fifth …  And he shall bring his asham to God: an unblemished ram …  And the priest shall make reconciliation for him before God, and he shall be forgiven for everything that he did to become guilty.  (Leviticus 5:21-26)

Pinocchio, by Enrico Mazzanti, 1883

In a case of theft or fraud, the Torah requires both reparations to the person who was wronged, and an offering to God for atonement.  Someone who has stolen or cheated and then lied about it bears extra guilt, so that person must give the victim extra compensation and offer an asham to God.


When we have made reparations for our original misdeed, but we still feel guilty about the way we did it, what can we do to clear ourselves?  For some people, the answer is to give a large donation to charity, in money or labor.  For others, the answer might be a period of saying prayers from the Yom Kippur repentance liturgy.  Words make a difference, even when we speak them only to ourselves and our God.

6) milu-im (מִלֻּאִים) = ordination-offering.

(From the root mala (מָלַא) = fill, fulfill.  Filling someone’s hands is the Biblical Hebrew idiom for ordaining that person as a priest.)4


And God spoke to Moses, saying:  Take Aaron and his sons with him, and the garments, and the anointing oil, and the chataat bull, and the two rams, and the basket of unleavened bread, and assemble the whole community at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.  (Leviticus 8:1-3)

Leaning hands on a bull in an ordination ritual

Moses washes the five men who are being ordained as priests, dresses them in their official vestments, and anoints them and the sanctuary and its altar.  Then come the fire-offerings: first a chataat with a bull, to atone for anything the new priests might have done wrong inadvertently; then an olah with a ram.

Then [Moses] offered the second ram, the ram of milu-im, and Aaron and his sons leaned their hands on the head of the ram.  And Moses slaughtered it, and took some of its blood and placed it on the edge of Aaron’s right ear and on the thumb of his right hand and on the big toe of his right foot. (Leviticus 8:22-23)

The ritual continues with both the altar and the five new priests being anointed with blood as well as oil, the fatty parts of the ram burned into smoke to please God, and the meat of the ram roasted for Aaron and his sons to eat in the holy place at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.


If our goal is to become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6), then we need to give milu-im, ordination-offerings, whenever our hands are filled—i.e. whenever we receive authority to act in the public sphere.

What can we give today in return for the grant of authority?  Humble service, regular prayers or meditations on becoming worthy, and the sacrifice of stepping down again at the right time.

When we have opportunities to elect people to positions of authority, may we choose leaders who will serve with humility, act for the good of everyone, and give a higher priority to the well-being of their people than to re-election.


Ancient Israelites who wanted to give God fire-offerings, offerings of the heart, could come to the altar and follow the established rituals.  They knew what to do; and the death, blood, and smoke made the rituals more impressive.

Today we have to think harder about our practices.  Yet we can still give six kinds of offerings to the divine, with the fire of our hearts.  We can practice rising above selfishness (olah), give allegiance (minchah), cultivate wholeness through thanks and generosity (shelamim), repair mistakes (chataat), undo guilt (asham), and turn our positions of authority into holy ordinations (milu-im).

Let’s keep on giving our own offerings!  And may the whole world someday become a holy nation.

  1. See my posts Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 1 and Pinchas: Aromatherapy.
  2. An individual must bring an olah at the end of a period of social isolation because of seclusion following childbirth (Leviticus 12:1-8), because of the skin disease tza-arat (Leviticus 14:1-11 and 9-20), because of genital discharges that require staying away from the sanctuary (Leviticus 15:13-15 and 28-30), and because of a nazirite vow (Numbers 6:9-14).  A new priest brings an olah for his ordination (Leviticus 8:18-21).
  3. Leviticus 7:15-17.
  4. For more details about the ordination of the first priests, see my posts Tzav: Oil and Blood and  Tzav: Seven Days of Filling Up.

4 thoughts on “Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 2

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