Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 1

My teeth clench every year when I start to read the book of Leviticus/Vayikra.

The first two Torah portions, Vayikra (“And [God] Called”), and Tzav (“Command”) consist of rules for various kinds of offerings, or sacrifices, at the altar.  The Torah refers to these offerings or sacrifices as a korbanim (קָרְבָּנִים) = things brought near.1  Since God now inhabits the tent-sanctuary behind the altar, at least part time,2 bringing something to the altar means bringing it close to God—i.e., presenting it to God as a gift.

Five of the six offeerings God requests in the Torah portions Vayikra and Tzav include animals slaughtered on the spot.

The book of Leviticus opens when God calls to Moses from the new Tent of Meeting and begins giving instructions for korbanim:

Leaning hands on a bull in an ordination offering

“… you shall offer your offerings (korbanim) from the animals from the herd or the flock.  If someone offers an olah from the [cattle] herd, he shall offer an unblemished male at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.  He shall offer it out of his own desire in front of God.  And he shall lean his hand on the head of the olah, and it will be accepted for him, to atone for him.  And he shall slaughter the young bull in front of God.  Then the descendants of Aaron, the priests, shall offer the blood and splash the blood against the altar all around … (Leviticus/Vayikra 1:2-5)

olah (עֹלָה) = rising-offering.  (From the root verb alah (עלה) = go up.)  In an olah the entire slaughtered animal is burned up, so olah is often translated as “burnt offering” or even “holocaust offering”.

The same procedure applies to every animal offered at the altar: the donor leans his hand on the animal’s head, then slices its throat.  A priest splashes its blood on the altar, then butchers it.  For an olah, the entire animal is burned up on the altar; for other types of animal offerings, the priest waves around various pieces of the animal, then burns the fatty parts on the altar to make smoke rise up to God.  The breast and right thigh are for the priest and his family to eat.  The remaining meat is eaten by the donor and his guests.

This is difficult reading for someone who stopped eating mammals and birds 24 years ago because they are too much like human beings.3

The Torah’s instructions emphasize the affinity between livestock animals and humans be requiring the donor to lean or lay a hand on the animal’s head just before slaughtering it.  This act transfers the donor’s identity to the animal, so that killing and offering it is the equivalent of sacrificing one’s own life to God.4

Smoke from the altar, “Treasures of the Bible”, Northrup 1894

Live, healthy cows, sheep, and goats were valuable items among the ancient Israelites, suitable as bribes, gifts, or payments to chieftains and prophets.  Dead animals were only good for hospitality, as part of a festive  meal.

What use would God have for a dead animal?

In the book of Leviticus, the fatty parts of the animal offerings are burned up into smoke, which ascends to the heavens, and the scent of that smoke pleases God.  The Torah does not specify whether an anthropomorphic God loves the smell of burning fat, or loves the smell that means humans are sacrificing valuable assets as gifts.

I can understand the desire to present God with a gift—out of sheer gratitude for our lives in the world, or out of a desire to return to harmony with the divine after we have strayed.  But I am grateful that Jews have moved beyond killing animals at an altar.

So what we can give to God instead?  The usual answer is that prayer has replaced animal offerings, and the passion of sincere prayer replaces the fire on the altar.

The first two Torah portions of Leviticus describe six types of fire-offerings.  In Part 2 of this post I will suggest alternatives for each type.  But first, let us look at fire-offerings in general.


One thing that all six types of offerings have in common is that part of the offering is placed on the altar fire, and it goes up in smoke.  Even the minchah offering, which consists only of grain products, requires oil and frankincense on each item put on the altar.

When this week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, describes the first type of offering, the olah or rising-offering, it establishes that fire-offerings make God relax.

…and the priest shall bring all of it and make it go up in smoke on the altar; it is an olah, an isheh of restful fragrance for God. (Leviticus/Vayikra 1:13)

isheh (אִשֵּׁה) = fire-offering; offering burned on the altar. (From the word eish (אֵשׁ) = fire.)

Yet fire often evokes the emotion of anger the Torah; Biblical Hebrew, like English, uses words meaning “burning” and “inflamed” to indicate rage, especially God’s rage.  When the anthropomorphic God-character in the Torah gets a “hot nose”, a plague or another disaster kills thousands of Israelites, the innocent with the guilty.5

It is not the fire that that God finds restful, but the fragrance of the smoke.6

Today, some people claim that it is good to feel outrage at politicians, at authority figures who oppress the poor, and even at people who vote the “wrong” way, because outrage motivates people to take action.  Yet political action is more effective, as well as more ethical, when it comes from compassion tempered by reason.  Anger is an overwhelming emotion that carries us away, leading us to do things that our better selves regret later.

Anger is also a selfish emotion.  When we say or think “How dare they!” the underlying assumption is that “they” are threatening our power.  Both the child abuser and the rioter use what power they have to express an anger that does not respect other human beings.

Can we turn the fire of our natural selfish anger into smoke that rises up to the level of the divine?

Pillar of Fire, by Paul Hardy, 1896

To soothe an angry impulse we might make an isheh, a fire-offering, by praying, chanting, or meditating on our anger.  (I find that walking while I do this helps to release the physical energy of anger.)  If we are easily inflamed by controversies, or by the behaviors of other people, we might imagine offering our passionate anger on the altar to burn itself down.  We might visualize the smoke rising into a clear, calm sky.  After a while we might reach a state in which our original outrage is tempered both by rational considerations and by empathy for people who at first appeared to be enemies.

If we are anxious or afraid of the anger expressed by another person or group, we might sing prayers while imagining the majesty of God’s pillar of fire leading the way through the wilderness.  Eventually we, too, can move forward into the unknown with courage and calm strength.


Next week I will look at the six types of fire-offerings described in the Torah portions Vayikra and Tzav, and how we might address the impulse behind each one today—without slaughtering animals.

(I published an earlier version of this essay in March 2014.)

  1. From the hifil form of the verb karav (קָרַב) = come near.
  2. Exodus 29:42-45.  See my post Terumah & Psalm 74: Second Home.
  3. When I posted my first version of this essay in 2014, it was 18 years.
  4. Samakh (סָמַךְ) = he leaned (or lay) a hand (or hands) on.  When Moses lays his hands on Joshua, he transfers some of his authority and spirit to his successor as the leader of the Israelites (Numbers 27:18-23, Deuteronomy 34:9).  When the Levites are ordained, the Israelites lay hands on them to make them the people’s substitutes for service in the sanctuary (Numbers 8:10).  The word samakh is also used for the ritual before an animal sacrifice.  The word smikha (סְמִיכָה), from the root samakh, refers to the ordination of rabbis and other Jewish religious functionaries to this day.  See my post Tzav: Oil and Blood.
  5. For example, Exodus 32:10, Numbers 11:1-35, and Numbers 17:7-10.
  6. See my post Pinchas: Aromatherapy.

Vayikra: Sour, Sweet, and Salt

Humans tend to bring gifts to their gods. They have done it all over the world, from the beginning of history. In the Torah, the first human to offer a gift to God is Cain, the oldest son of Adam and Eve … and God rejects his offering. Religions help people to avoid the fear of being rejected by their gods by spelling out what gifts are and are not acceptable.

The first part of the book of Leviticus/Vayikra (And It Called) is devoted to instructions about offerings for the altar. What kinds of animal and grain offerings will be acceptable to God? The first Torah portion begins by considering animals for burned offerings.

If one brings an olah from the herd, he shall bring an unblemished male; he shall bring it to the opening of the Tent of  Meeting, liretzono before God. And he shall lean his hand upon the head of the olah, and it will be nirtzah for him, to atone for him. (Leviticus/Vayikra 1:3-4)

olah = an offering that is completely burned, so its smoke will rise to the heavens

liretzono = to be accepted for him

nirtzah = favorably received, acceptable, counted as good (from the same root as liretzonoרצה)

After an initial review of animal offerings, the Torah gives particulars about the minchah offering: a gift of homage to God, made from grain. (See my blog post “Vayikra: Gifts to the Giver”.) Embedded in the minchah instructions is a ban on any leavening or sweetener in a burned offering:

Every homage that you bring to God you shall make without chameitz; for you shall not bring any sourdough or any devash into an offering by fire to God. (Leviticus 2:11)

chameitz = leavened bread, fermented food

devash = syrup, bee honey, fruit nectar

Leavened loaves of bread can only be brought to the sanctuary for the priests and their families to eat; they must not be burned on the altar. Fruit syrup or jam can only be brought at the annual festival of first fruits, Shavuot, and the fruit preserves were also eaten by the priests.

Why are leavened bread and syrup are banned from burned offerings?  Philo of Alexandria, who lived 2,000 years ago, began a long line of Jewish commentatary comparing bread rising to a human puffing up with self-importance—the opposite of the humility needed to pay homage to God. Another view stresses the instruction in the book of Exodus/Shemot to eat unleavened matzah on Passover/Pesach in order to remember that the Israelites did not have time to let their dough leaven before escaping Egypt. Since matzah is “the bread of our affliction”, the Israelites presumably did not have time to watch bread rise during their years of slavery, either. According to 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphel Hirsch, leavened bread therefore represents political independence, which the Israelites achieved not by their own efforts, but only by following God’s Torah. Fruit syrup represents ownership of land where dates and other fruit trees grow naturally—another gift from God. Hirsch argued that an acceptable offering to God could only be something that the Israelites had acquired by their own efforts. (Presumably the Israelites put a lot of their own labor into making flour and tending their animals.)

I am not persuaded by either Philo or Hirsch. I suspect that the key lies in the way the ancient Israelites viewed leavening. For modern Americans, leavened bread is sweet and yeasty, and sourdough bread is an interesting variation. But the ancient Israelites had only sourdough leavening, and their word for leavened bread, chameitz, comes from the same root as the word for vinegar, chometz. In Biblical Hebrew, when something leavens or ferments itself, yitchameitz, it turns sour and sharp, whether it is flour becoming sourdough bread or grape juice becoming vinegar.

An offering that is going to straight up to God in smoke should not be sour. If we give ourselves to God in a sour mood, our offering will not be accepted.

Nor should an offering sent straight to God be sweetened, as if the donor wanted to make it more palatable to God. If we try to sweet-talk our way into God’s favor, or to adopt a sweetness that we do not feel inside, our offering will not be accepted.

After banning leaven and syrup in burned offerings, the Torah says that all offerings to God must be salted:

Every offering of your homage you shall salt with salt; you may not omit the melach of the brit of your God from your homage. You shall put melach on every offering of yours. (Leviticus/Vayikra 2:13)

melach = salt

brit = covenant, pact, alliance

Why is salt required for acceptance? Salt was not a rare commodity in Canaan; the Israelites used to quarry rock salt near the Dead Sea, which the Hebrew Bible calls the Sea of Salt. The salt quarries between that sea and the city of Sodom may be the “Valley of Salt”, the site of at least two battles in the Hebrew Bible. When God annahilates Sodom and Gomorrah in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, Lot’s wife looks back at Sodom and becomes a pillar of salt (one of many strange salt formations left by the evaporation of the Dead Sea). In Deuteronomy/Devarim Moses warns that when the Israelites worship idols in the future, God will destroy their land, and visitors will compare its barrenness to burning with sulfur and salt.

Yet the proper care of a newborn infant included bathing it in water and rubbing it with salt, according to the book of Ezekiel/Yechezkeil; and the prophet Elisha “heals” a contaminated spring with a dish of salt in 2 Kings/Melakhim. Salt is both a preservative and a condiment for food. Thus the Hebrew Bible associates salt with both death and life.

This week’s Torah portion refers to salt as a form of covenant. A covenant of salt also shows up in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar. After disposing of Korach’s threat to the rights of priests, God tells the high priest Aaron:

All holy upraised offerings that the children of Israel raise up to God, I give to you and to your sons and to your daughters with you, as a decree forever; it will be a brit melach forever; it is before God for you and your offspring with you. (Numbers/Bemidbar 18:19)

And in the second book of Chronicles, Aviyah, king of Judah, says:

Listen to me, Yaravam and all Israel! Don’t you know that God, the god of Israel, gave kingship to David over Israel forever, to him and to his sons, a brit melach? (2 Chronicles/2 Divrei Hayamim 13:4-5)

Salt apparently makes a covenant especially unbreakable and long-lasting. Many commentators attribute this to the fact that salt was the main preservative used by the Israelites. But salt was also their universal seasoning, set on the table for every meal. Eating a man’s salt was an idiom for being either his friend or his dependent. So a covenant of salt might imply not only durability, but also dependence or even friendship.

Now that we reach out to God by praying instead of by burning animals and matzah, we can apply the ideas in Leviticus about leaven, syrup, and salt in a more subtle way. All too often, when we stand before other people, we have to paste on a sweet smile. But when we stand before God, we need to abandon any false sweetness, as well as the pride and the sourness implied by leavening. And we need to be serious about life and death, offering our whole selves, and acknowledging that we all eat our salt at God’s table.

Vayikra: Fat Belongs to God

(This blog was first posted on March 14, 2010.)

And the priest will make them go up in smoke, a food offering by fire, for a soothing fragrance.  All fat belongs to God.  A law for all time for your generations: You will not eat any fat, nor any blood, in any of your settlements.  (Leviticus 3:16-17–Vayikra)

chalev = fat, especially abdominal fat

dam = blood

The blood and the abdominal fat of livestock are reserved for God in chapter 3 of the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, which provides instructions for making zevach shelamim, the animal sacrifices that are offered by an individual for the sake of shaleim,  “wholeness”.  This type of offering is made to express gratitude to God, or to confirm peace with the people invited to share the feast afterward.

In brief, a man brings an unblemished cow, sheep, or goat to the altar, leans his hand against the animal’s head, and then slaughters it.  The priests splash the animal’s blood against all four sides of the altar.  The priests burn the fat covering the entrails, liver, and kidneys.  The fragrance of the smoke from the burning fat is the donor’s gift to God.  Then the donor and his guests eat the meat in celebration (and according to Leviticus 7:31-35, the priests are given the breast and the right thigh to eat).

Splashing blood is certainly a dramatic ritual, and fat burns well.  But fat and blood are not merely reserved for the ritual at the altar.  The Torah prohibits the people from eating any abdominal fat, or any blood, anywhere.  Even far away from the altar, even in a time when there is no temple, abdominal fat and blood are reserved for God.  Why?

A reason for not consuming blood is given in Leviticus 17:14: “You may not consume the blood of any flesh, because the nefesh (soul, animating force) of all flesh is its blood.” Genesis 9:5-6 also links blood with the nefesh of a human or animal, and forbids humans to eat flesh with the blood still in it.  Ramban (13th-century rabbi  Moshe ben Nachman) wrote that someone who eats an animal’s blood dilutes his own nefesh and becomes less spiritual, more animal.

So blood is equated with the nefesh, the animating force that makes a creature alive.  What does abdominal fat stand for?

Rabbi R.S. Hirsch wrote in the 19th century that the blood of an animal is its essence, while the fat is what it produces for its own needs.  The essence of an animal must never become a human being’s essence, and the needs of an animal must never become a human being’s needs.  Human nature must not be equated with animal nature.

I would add that abdominal fat is stored up as a reserve calorie supply against a hungrier time.  It’s like a pot of silver buried against hard times; in modern terms, it’s like a stock portfolio.  Stockpiling resources can be a good strategy.  But we must not become so attached to our stock portfolios that we despair when the market plunges.  We cannot really control our savings, so in a way they do not really belong to us.  The fat belongs to God.

Similarly, it’s good to tend to our health, to enjoy each day of life, to “choose life” for ourselves and others.  But my life, my nefesh, ultimately belongs to God.