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What is the significance of animal sacrifices?

  

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Rabbi Freeman: Thanks for stopping by! What's on your mind?

Jus'wondering: Please explain all this business about animal sacrifices in the Temple. Are you really planning to re-initiate this at some point?

Rabbi Freeman: Cain and Abel made vegetable and animal sacrifices. Noah made animal sacrifices. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—all highly spiritually 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.

Jus'wondering: 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?

Rabbi Freeman: 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.

Jus'wondering: It all looks like just a holdover from pagan rites.

Rabbi Freeman: 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.

Rabbi Freeman: There were some other major distinctions: The Temple was considered the property of the people, and communal sacrifices daily 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 generally slaughtered in a humane fashion. All in all, it must have seemed a very strange place for the average Joe Ancient. Definitely a sublime relief to ancient standards.

Jus'wondering: 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? Or maybe we can just have a central place for prayer and meditation, with the Menorah, the incense, the tablets that Moses brought…but why the butcher shop?

Rabbi Freeman: 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.

Jus'wondering: In what way?

Rabbi Freeman: Well, for one thing, when a person brought a sacrifice, his mental focus was crucial. If his mind was not focussed on the correct meaning and intent of the sacrifice, the whole thing could be deemed useless, or worse.

Jus'wondering: What sort of meanings?

Rabbi Freeman: Well, if it was being brought to atone for some inadvertent sin, he had to have in mind that he regretted that this had happened. But more than that, the priests focussed their minds on the higher spiritual spheres according to esoteric traditions handed down to them. That explains why they had the Levites singing and musicians playing—after all, if it was all just a grand barbecue, what need is there for inspirational music. Rather, it was a deep spiritual experience for all involved. You went away truly elevated.

All names, places, and identifying information have been changed or deleted in order to protect the privacy of the questioners. In order to preserve authenticity, the chat sessions have been posted with a minimum of editing. Please excuse typographical errors, missing punctuation, and/or grammatical mistakes which naturally occur in the course of informal chat sessions.

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History » The Holy Temples » Holy Temple Mitzvot
History » The Holy Temples » About

Mitzvah
(pl. Mitzvot). A commandment from G-d. Mitzvah also means a connection, for a Jew connects with G–d through fulfilling His commandments.
Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Talmud
Usually referring to the Babylonian edition, it is a compilation of Rabbinic law, commentary and analysis compiled over a 600 year period (200 BCE - 427 CE). Talmudic verse serves as the bedrock of all classic and modern-day Torah-Jewish literature.
Maimonides
Moses son of Maimon, born in Spain in 1135, died in Egypt in 1204. Noted philosopher and authority on Jewish law. Also was an accomplished physician and was the personal doctor for members of the Egyptian royalty. Interred in Tiberius, Israel.
Chabad
Chabad, an acronym for Wisdom, Knowledge, and Understanding, is the name of a Chassidic Group founded in the 1770s. Two of the most fundamental teachings of Chabad are the intellectual pursuit of understanding the divine and the willingness to help every Jew who has a spiritual or material need.
Zohar
The most basic work of Jewish mysticism. Authored by Rabbi Shimeon bar Yochai in the 2nd century.
Kabbalah
Jewish mysticism. The word Kaballah means "reception," for we cannot physically perceive the Divine, we merely study the mystical truths which were transmitted to us by G-d Himself through His righteous servants.
Moses
[Hebrew pronunciation: Moshe] Greatest prophet to ever live. Led the Jews out of Egyptian bondage amidst awesome miracles; brought down the Tablets from Mount Sinai; and transmitted to us word-for-word the Torah he heard from G-d's mouth. Died in the year 1272 BCE.
Abraham
First Jew, and first of our three Patriarchs. Born into a pagan society in Mesepotamia in 1812 BCE, he discovered monethieism on his own. He was told by G-d to journey to the Land of Canaan where he and his wife Sarah would give birth to the Jewish People.
Jacob
Third of the three Patriarchs and father of the Twelve Tribes. Lived most his life in Canaan and died in Egypt in 1505 BCE. Also known by the name of "Israel."
Menorah
Candelabra. Usually a reference to the nine-branched candelabra kindled on the holiday of Chanukah.
Isaac
Second of the three Jewish Patriarchs, son of Abraham and Sarah. Lived in Canaan (Israel); b. 1712 BCE, d. 1532 BCE.
Abel
Second son of Adam and Eve, born on the Sixth day of Creation. Murdered by his older brother Cain.
Noah
Tenth generation from Adam. Of all humankind, only he and his family survived the Flood which destroyed all civilization in the year 2106 BCE.
Adam
The first man, created by G-d on the sixth day of creation. He was banished from the Garden of Eden after eating from the forbidden fruit of the forbidden knowledge. Died in 2830 BCE.
Cain
Eldest son of Adam and Eve, born on the sixth day of creation. When his brother Abel's sacrificial offering was accepted in place of his own, he killed him. He was exiled for this deed.
Jerusalem
Established by King David to be the eternal capital of Israel. Both Temples were built there, and the third Temple will be situated there when the Messiah comes.
Tabernacle
Mobile sanctuary which traveled with the Jews in the desert, containing the Ark with the Tablets, and the sacrificial altars. When the Jews entered Israel, it was erected in the city of Shiloh where it remained for more than 300 years. It was buried when the permanent Holy Temple was erected in Jerusalem.
Temple
1. Usually a reference to the Holy Temple which was/will be situated in Jerusalem. 1st Temple was built in 825 BCE and was destroyed in 423 BCE. The 2nd Temple was built in 350 BCE and was destroyed in 70 CE. The 3rd Temple will be built by the Messiah. 2. A synagogue.
Arizal
Rabbi Isaac Luria, the 15th Century founder of Modern Kabbalah.
G-d
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.