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Jewish Practices & Rituals:
Animal Sacrifices and the Messianic Period

by Richard Schwartz, Ph.D.


Practices & Rituals: Table of Contents | Death & Mourning | Kashrut


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1. If God wanted us to have vegetarian diets and not harm animals, why were the Biblical sacrificial services established?

During the time of Moses, it was the general practice among all nations to worship by means of sacrifice. There were many associated idolatrous practices. The great Jewish philosopher Maimonides stated that God did not command the Israelites to give up and discontinue all these manners of service because "to obey such a commandment would have been contrary to the nature of man, who generally cleaves to that to which he is used," For this reason, God allowed Jews to make sacrifices, but "He transferred to His service that which had served as a worship of created beings and of things imaginary and unreal." All elements of idolatry were removed. Maimonides concluded:

By this divine plan it was effected that the traces of idolatry were blotted out, and the truly great principle of our Faith, the Existence and Unity of God, was firmly established; this result was thus obtained without deterring or confusing the minds of the people by the abolition of the service to which they were accustomed and which alone was familiar to them.

The Jewish philosopher Abarbanel reinforced Maimonides'argument. He cited a Midrash that indicated that the Jews had become accustomed to sacrifices in Egypt. To wean them from these idolatrous practices, God tolerated the sacrifices but commanded that they be offered in one central sanctuary:

Thereupon the Holy One, blessed be He, said "Let them at all times offer their sacrifices before Me in the Tabernacle, and they will be weaned from idolatry, and thus be saved." (Rabbi J. H. Hertz, The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, p. 562)

Rabbi J. H. Hertz, the late chief rabbi of England, stated that if Moses had not instituted sacrifices, which were admitted by all to have been the universal expression of religious homage, his mission would have failed and Judaism would have disappeared. With the destruction of the Temple, the rabbis state that prayer and good deeds took the place of sacrifice.

Rashi indicated that God did not want the Israelites to bring sacrifices; it was their choice. He bases this on the haphtorah (portion from the Prophets) read on the Sabbath when the book of Leviticus which discusses sacrifices is read:

I have not burdened thee with a meal-offering, Nor wearied thee with frankincense. (Isaiah 43:23)

Biblical commentator David Kimhi (1160-1235) also stated that the sacrifices were voluntary. He ascertained this from the words of Jeremiah:

For I spoke not unto your fathers, nor commanded them on the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt-offerings or sacrifices; but this thing I commanded them, saying, "Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and ye shall be my people; and walk ye in all the ways that I have commanded you, that it may be well unto you. (Jeremiah 7:22-23)

David Kimchi, notes that nowhere in the Ten Commandments is there any reference to sacrifice, and even when sacrifices are first mentioned (Lev. 1:2) the expression used is "when any man of you bringeth an offering," the first Hebrew we ki being literally "if", implying that it was a voluntary act.

Many Jewish scholars such as Rabbi Kook believe that animal sacrifices will not be reinstated in messianic times, even with the reestablishment of the Temple. They believe that at that time human conduct will have advanced to such high standards that there will no longer be need for animal sacrifices to atone for sins. Only nonanimal sacrifices (grains, for example) to express gratitude to God would remain. There is a Midrash (rabbinic teaching based on Jewish values and tradition) that states: "In the Messianic era, all offerings will cease except the thanksgiving offering, which will continue forever. This seems consistent with the belief of Rabbi Kook and others, based on the prophecy of Isaiah (11:6-9), that people and animals will be vegetarian in that time, and "none shall hurt nor destroy in all My Holy mountain."

Sacrifices, especially animal sacrifices, were not the primary concern of God. As a matter of fact, they could be an abomination to Him if not carried out together with deeds of loving kindness and justice. Consider these words of the prophets, the spokesmen of God:

What I want is mercy, not sacrifice. (Hos. 6:6)

To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me?" sayeth the Lord. "I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs or of he-goats...bring no more vain oblations.... Your new moon and your appointed feasts my soul hateth;...and when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you; yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear; your hands are full of blood. (Isa. 1:11-16)

I hate, I despise your feasts, and I will take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Yea, though you offer me burnt-offerings and your meal offerings, I will not accept them neither will I regard the peace-offerings of your fat beasts. Take thou away from me the noise of thy song; and let Me not hear the melody of thy psalteries. But let justice well up as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream. (Amos 5:21-4)

Deeds of compassion and kindness toward all creation are of greater significance to God than sacrifices: "To do charity and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice" (Prov. 21: 3).

Perhaps a different type of sacrifice is required of us today. When Rabbi Shesheth kept a fast for Yom Kippur, he used to conclude with these words:

Sovereign of the Universe, Thou knowest full well that in the time of the Temple when a man sinned he used to bring a sacrifice, and though all that was offered of it was fat and blood, atonement was made for him. Now I have kept a fast and my fat and blood have diminished. May it be Thy will to account my fat and blood which have been diminished as if I have offered they before thee on the altar, and do Thou favor me. (Berachot 17a)

2. When the Temple in Jerusalem is rebuilt, won't the sacrificial services be restored and won't people have to eat meat?

As indicated previously, Rav Kook and others believe that in the Messianic epoch, human conduct will have improved to such a degree that animal sacrifices will not be necessary to atone for sins. There will only be non-animal sacrifices to express thanks to God.

As also indicated, based on the prophecy of Isaiah (11:6-9), Rav Kook and others believe that the Messianic period will be vegetarian.

While most Jewish scholars assume that all Jews ate meat during the time that the Temple stood, it is significant that some (Tosafot, Yoma 3a, and Rabbenu Nissim, Sukkah 42b) assert that even during the Temple period it was not an absolute requirement to eat meat! Rabbenu Nissim characterizes the "requirement" to eat the meat of festival offerings as mitsvah min ha-muvhar, that is the optimum way of fulfilling the mitzvah of rejoicing on the festival, but not an absolute requirement. Moshe Halevi Steinberg, in the responsa previously mentioned points out that vegetarianism for health reasons did not conflict with halacha even in Temple times. He indicates that one could be a vegetarian the whole year, and by eating a kazayit (olive-size portion which, due to its size, would not damage his health) of meat, he would fulfill the mitzva of eating the meat of sacrifices. Even a kohen (priest) could be vegetarian except when his turn came to eat of the sacrifices during his period of duty (about 2 weeks), when he, too, could eat just a kazayit. He actually could eat even less according to the Hatani Sofer, since many kohanim could join together to eat the required amount, so that the vegetarian kohen could eat even less than a kazayit.

R. Steinberg notes that among the things listed as disqualifying a kohen from service in the Temple, vegetarianism is not included, since he could arrange the problem of the eating of the sacrifices in one of the ways listed above. However, R. Steinberg adds, a kohen who became a vegetarian because his soul recoiled against eating meat would not have been allowed to serve in the sanctuary since if he forced himself to swallow a kazayit of meat, it would not fulfill the halachic definition of "eating".

3. Doesn't the Torah mandates that we eat korban Pesach (the Passover sacrifice) and other korbanos (sacrifices)?

Without the Temple, these requirements are not applicable today. And, as indicated, Rav Kook felt, based on the prophecy of Isaiah, that there will only be sacrifices involving vegetarian foods during the Messianic Period.

4. In Jewish literature, it is stated that with the advent of the Messiah a banquet will be given by God to the righteous which the flesh of the giant fish, leviathan, will be served. Isn't this inconsistent with the idea that the Messianic period will be vegetarian?

These legends concerning the leviathan are interpreted as allegories by most commentators. According to Maimonides, the banquet is an allusion to the spiritual enjoyment of the intellect. Abarbanel and others consider the expressions about the leviathan to be allusions to the destruction of the powers that are hostile to the Jews.


Sources: The Schwartz Collection on Judaism, Vegetarianism, and Animal Rights

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