Sacrifices and Offerings (Karbanot)
In ancient times, a major component of Jewish ritual was the offering of Karbanot. An entire order of the Talmud is devoted to the subject.
- Purposes of Karbanot
- Types of Karbanot
The word "Karbanot" is usually translated as "sacrifices" or "offerings";
however, both of these terms suggest a loss of something or a giving up of
something, and although that is certainly a part of the ritual, that is not
at all the literal meaning of the Hebrew word. The word Karbanot comes from
the root Qof-Resh-Bet, which means "to draw near,"
and indicates the primary purpose of offerings: to draw us near to G-d.
Parts of the rituals involved in the offering of Karbanot were performed
exclusively by the kohanim (priests). These
rituals were only performed in the Temple in
Jerusalem. The procedures could not be performed by anyone else, and could
not be performed in any other place. Because the Temple no longer exists,
we can no longer offer Karbanot.
There are three basic concepts underlying Karbanot. The first the aspect
of giving. A korban requires the renunciation of something that belongs to
the person making the offering. Thus, sacrifices are made from domestic animals,
not wild animals (because wild animals do not belong to anyone). Likewise,
offerings of food are ordinarily in the form of flour or meal, which requires
substantial work to prepare.
Another important concept is the element of substitution. The idea is that
the thing being offered is a substitute for the person making the offering,
and the things that are done to the offering are things that should have
been done to the person offering. The offering is in some sense "punished"
in place of the offerer. It is interesting to note that whenever the subject
of Karbanot is addressed in the Torah, the name of G-d used is the four-letter name indicating
The third important concept is the idea coming closer. The essence of sacrifice
is to bring a person closer to G-d.
For the most part, the practice of sacrifice
stopped in the year 70 C.E., when the Roman
army destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem, the
place where sacrifices were offered. The practice was briefly resumed during
the Jewish War of 132-135 C.E., but was ended permanently after that war
was lost. There were also a few communities that continued sacrifices for
a while after that time.
Sacrifices were stopped after the Temple's destruction because the Torah specifically commands Jews not to offer sacrifices just anywhere;
they are only permitted in the place that G-d has chosen for that purpose. It would be a sin to offer sacrifices in any other location.
Contrary to popular belief, the purpose of Karbanot is not simply to obtain
forgiveness from sin. Although many Karbanot have the effect of expiating
sins, there are many other purposes for bringing Karbanot, and the expiatory
effect is often incidental, and is subject to significant limitations.
Certain Karbanot are brought purely for the purpose of communing with G-d and becoming closer to Him. Others are
brought for the purpose of expressing thanks to G-d, love or gratitude. Others
are used to cleanse a person of ritual impurity (which does not necessarily
have anything to do with sin). And yes, many Karbanot are brought for purposes
The atoning aspect of Karbanot is carefully circumscribed. For the most part, Karbanot only expiate unintentional sins, that is, sins committed because
a person forgot that this thing was a sin. No atonement is needed for violations
committed under duress or through lack of knowledge, and for the most part, Karbanot cannot atone for a malicious, deliberate sin. In addition, Karbanot have no expiating effect unless the person making the offering sincerely
repents his or her actions before making the offering, and makes restitution
to any person who was harmed by the violation.
There are many different types of Karbanot, and the laws related to them
are detailed and complicated. This section introduces some of
the major types of Karbanot - there
are many subtypes within these classifications and other types that
do not fit into these categories.
Olah: Burnt Offering
Perhaps the best-known class of offerings is the burnt offering. It was the
oldest and commonest sacrifice, and represented submission to G-d's will. The Hebrew word for burnt offering
is olah, from the root Ayin-Lamed-Heh, meaning ascension.
It is the same root as the word aliyah, which is used to describe moving
to Israel or ascending to the podium to say a blessing over the Torah. An olah is completely burnt on the outer altar;
no part of it is eaten by anyone. Because the offering represents complete
submission to G-d's will, the entire offering is given to G-d (i.e., it cannot
be used after it is burnt). It expresses a desire to commune with G-d, and
expiates sins incidentally in the process (because how can you commune with
G-d if you are tainted with sins?). An olah could be made from cattle, sheep,
goats, or even birds, depending on the offerer's means.
Zevach Sh'lamim: Peace Offering
A peace offering is an offering expressing thanks or gratitude to
G-d for His bounties and mercies. The Hebrew
term for this type of offering is zebach sh'lamim (or sometimes just sh'lamim),
which is related to the word shalom, meaning "peace" or "whole." A representative
portion of the offering is burnt on the altar, a portion is given to the kohanim, and the rest is eaten by the offerer
and his family; thus, everyone gets a part of this offering. This category
of offerings includes thanksgiving-offerings (in Hebrew, Todah, which was
obligatory for survivors of life-threatening crises), free will-offerings,
and offerings made after fulfillment of a vow.
Chatat: Sin Offering
A sin offering is an offering to atone for and purge a sin. It is an expression
of sorrow for the error and a desire to be reconciled with
G-d. The Hebrew term for this type of offering
is chatat, from the word chayt, meaning "missing the mark." A chatat could
only be offered for unintentional sins committed through carelessness, not
for intentional, malicious sins. The size of the offering varied according
to the nature of the sin and the financial means of the sinner. Some chatatot are individual and some are communal. Communal offerings represent the
interdependence of the community, and the fact that we are all responsible
for each others' sins. A few special chatatot could not be eaten, but for
the most part, for the average person's personal sin, the chatat was eaten
by the kohanim.
Asham: Guilt Offering
A guilt offering is an offering to atone for sins of stealing things from
the altar, for when you are not sure whether you have committed a sin or
what sin you have committed, or for breach of trust. The Hebrew word for
a guilt offering is asham. When there was doubt as to whether a person committed
a sin, the person would make an asham, rather than a chatat, because bringing a chatat would constitute
admission of the sin, and the person would have to be punished for it. If
a person brought an asham and later discovered that he had in fact committed
the sin, he would have to bring a chatat at that time. An asham was eaten
by the kohanim.
Food and Drink Offerings
A meal offering (minchah) represented the devotion of the fruits of man's
work to G-d, because it was not a natural
product, but something created through man's effort. A representative piece
of the offering was burnt on the fire of the altar, but the rest was eaten
by the kohanim.
There are also offerings of undiluted wine, referred to as nesekh.
Parah Adumah: The Red Heifer
The ritual of the red heifer (in Hebrew, parah adumah) is part of one of the most mysterious rituals described in the Torah.
The purpose of this ritual is to purify people from the defilement caused
by contact with the dead. The ritual is discussed in Numbers 19. If you find
it difficult to understand, don't feel bad; the sages
themselves described it as beyond human understanding. What is so interesting
about this ritual is that it purifies the impure, but it also renders the
pure impure (i.e., everybody who participates in the ritual becomes impure).
It is believed by many that this ritual will be performed by the messiah
when he comes, because we have all suffered the defilement of contact with
the dead. Thus, the existence of a red heifer is a possible, but not definite,
sign of the messiah. If the messiah were coming, there would be a red heifer,
but there could be a red heifer without the messiah coming.
Sources: Judaism 101