A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Why do Jews no longer sacrifice animals?

April 17, 2003

Dear Straight Dope:

I don't really know who to ask this question, especially as I don't know any practicing Jews. My question is this: Why do the Jews no longer participate in animal sacrifice? Apart from the apparent barbarity of the matter, a quick reading of the Torah (at least the English version I have in my NIV Bible) reveals that this was the way they atoned for their sins and worshipped. How can they atone for their sins if they've left their only vehicle for doing so at the side of the road?

The short answer is that sacrifice was centralized in the Temple at Jerusalem, and when the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD by the Romans, sacrifice was no longer possible. Prayer replaced sacrifice as the form of worship.

But I can't just give a one-sentence answer. So here's the longer version. 

The rules for sacrifices in Judaism are very ancient, and set forth primarily in the book of Leviticus. The first seven chapters, in fact, are almost an instruction manual for how to do each of the sacrifices. Boring beyond belief to most modern readers, but of immense interest to biblical scholars and historians.

First, a basic feature of the Israelite sacrificial system, as with that of most ancient Near East cultures, was that most of the offerings were eaten by the priests, and sometimes by the donors of the sacrifice. Eating a ritual meal in the presence of God was considered important, and the sacrifice would not be complete without such a meal. It was not "barbaric," except in the sense that slaughter of animals for meat is barbaric.

Biblical historian Richard Friedman says, "Modern readers often think that sacrifice is the unnecessary taking of animal life, or that the person offering the sacrifice was giving up something to compensate for some sin or to win God's favor. But in the biblical world, the most common type of sacrifice was for meals. The apparent rationale was that if people wanted to eat meat, they must recognize that they were taking life. They could not regard this as an ordinary act of daily secular life. It was a sacred act, to be performance in a prescribed manner, by an appointed person (a priest), at an altar."

Second, sacrifices were not merely for forgiveness of sins. Worship and celebration and thanksgiving and petition were the far more important reasons for sacrifice. God is described in anthropomorphic terms as smelling the aromatic smoke and responding favorably to requests.

There were various types of sacrifices:

  • Burnt offerings ('olah) were certain animals or birds that were entirely burnt (except the hide). No portion was eaten.
  • Grain offerings (min-khah) could be raw or baked into unleavened bread. A token portion was burned on the altar, and the rest was given to the priests for a meal.
  • Peace offerings (zevakh shelamim) were a sacred meal, with sections of the sacrifice shared by the priest and donors. Only certain fatty portions of the animal were burned on the altar as God's share. The term is better translated as "gift of greetings" or "offering of well-being."
  • Expiatory sacrifices are what you're asking about. I was going to say that's the "meat of the matter" but thought better of it. They are primarily described in chapters 5 and 6 of Leviticus. The purpose of such sacrifice was to obtain atonement for one's sins and forgiveness from God. They were usually eaten by the priests.

Special sacrifices were offered in celebration, such as on national holidays. One such holiday, Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) was specifically aimed at expiation for all the sins of the individual or the community during the year.

It is important to say that expiatory sacrifices were only efficacious if the offenses were inadvertent or unwitting. Remember that there was no separation of church and state in those days--religious law was also the law of the land. In the case of crimes or deliberate acts, the law dealt directly with the offender, imposing real punishments and trying to prevent recurrences. The Hebrew prophets denounced the idea that ritual sacrifice could atone for intentional deeds.

Expiatory sacrifices were also required from the priests or leaders of the people who commit errors or offenses. There is considerable ritual involved, including the sprinkling of the blood and burning of aromatic incense.

Similar sin-offerings are required for sins of omission, as well as for active violations. There are guilt-offerings imposed on those who inadvertently misappropriate sacred property--in short, a complex set of rules and regulations. For example, if a person swore an oath to another person and then broke the oath, he had to compensate the injured party and also offer a sacrifice, since in breaking the oath he had vainly invoked God's name.

Once the priesthood was established, presumably by Aaron, brother of Moses, around 1250 BC, sacrifices could only be offered by the priests. The rituals, as described in Leviticus, were long and complicated. The sacrifice system was the way the community supported (read: fed) the priests.

In the earliest days of the Israelites, before the building of the Temple by King Solomon (around 950 BC, give or take a few decades), sacrifices could be offered at various local altars. For instance, there was a famous altar at Shiloh, cited several times in the Hebrew Bible. Any priest could offer a sacrifice at any "high place" (usually atop a sacred mountain).

Over time, however, sacrifice became centralized at the Temple in Jerusalem. Exactly when and how this happened is unclear. The Bible describes various kings and high priests being more or less insistent upon centralized worship. Certainly King Hezekiah, who ruled Judah from about 715 to 687 BC, enacted religious and political reforms (according to the books of Isaiah, 2 Kings, and 2 Chronicles) that included the elimination of the "high places" of local sacrifices and the centralization of sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem.

With centralization of worship, the priests of Jerusalem gained enormous political power, and the priests outside of Jerusalem lost power. There was jealousy and rivalry and politics. Over the centuries, centralized worship sometimes led to corruption on the part of the priests who controlled the system (this is no surprise to anyone who has dealt with any organized, centralized religion). On the other hand, centralized worship created unity and national identity, whereas regionalization would likely have meant extinction.

One splinter sect, the Samaritans, never accepted centralization in Jerusalem. (We discussed them in an earlier Staff Report, "What's the origin of 'Good Samaritan'?") Their worship was centralized around Mount Gerizim, near Nablus in the West Bank.

The first real challenge to the sacrifice system came from the Prophets during the period from 800 to 580 BC). Max Dimont writes, "What they said was remarkable for their time: that ritual and cult in themselves were of no value to God. Humanity, justice, and morality were superior to any cult. They said God did not want rituals; He wanted higher moral standards from mankind. They said that God abhorred sacrifice [without heartfelt repentance], that it was no sin not to offer sacrifice, that the sin was corruption and the perversion of justice. These were fantastic and daring notions in those days when sacrifice and ritual were religion itself."

This new doctrine of the prophets slowly but surely paved the transition from sacrifice to prayer, and led to replacing the priest as a performer of ritual with the rabbi as a teacher.

The second blow to the sacrifice system was the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BC. With the Temple gone and the Jewish people exiled to Babylon far from Jerusalem, centralized sacrifice was no longer possible, and prayer and study began to take its place. Studying about sacrifices was deemed equivalent to sacrifice. Prayer began to replace sacrifice as a form of worship, not merely for atonement, but for celebration and thanksgiving and petition as well. Prayers of repentance came into being. The prophet Hosea quotes God as saying, "I do not want from you sacrifices and offerings, but words [of contrition], as it is said, 'Take with you words and turn to the Lord'" (Hosea 14:2, Exodus 38:4).

As a reminder, mere sacrifice or prayer cannot expiate a sin that involved loss to others. The loss must be made whole.

The Babylonian exile ended after about 70 years, the Jews returned to their homeland, and the second Temple was built under the direction of Ezra and Nehemiah, around 450-400 BC. The sacrificial cult was reinstated, centralized at the new Temple in Jerusalem. The country was independent for about 200 years, then came under Greek rule for about 200 years, then under Roman rule. During all that time, worship was centralized around the Temple and sacrifices.

Under Greek and later Roman rule, there were two political factions among the Jews. The Sadducees stood for temple, priest and sacrifice--the pre-Prophetic concept of Judaism. They were the party of the aristocrats and priests. They were religious conservatives but cultural liberals, with a liberal, enlightened political viewpoint. They accepted Hellenistic cultural influence.

The Pharisees, on the other hand, were religious liberals but cultural conservatives. They stood for synagogue, rabbi, and prayer--the post-Prophetic concept of Judaism. They were the party of the common people, rejecting Hellenism.

The second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. The city of Jerusalem was paganized in the second century AD, which led to a sense of despair that the temple could be rebuilt. There was a grave religious and psychological crisis, to say nothing of the physical crisis that scattered the Jews throughout the Roman Empire.  The foundation of a religion based on centralized worship and sacrifice in the Temple had been obliterated.

Different elements within the Jewish community responded in different ways:

  • The Sadducees disappeared. Their religion had been tied to the Temple in Jerusalem and to the sacrifice system, which no longer existed. Their dogma had become inflexible and they could not adapt to the changes that Rome imposed.
  • Samaritans adhered to their old ways. They maintained the practices of sacrifice outside Jerusalem. To this day, each year on Passover Eve, the Samaritans climb to the summit of Mount Gerizim and re-enact the Passover sacrifice that preceded the Exodus from Egypt. They pitch tents and sacrifice seven lambs, whose meat they roast over an open fire, exactly as prescribed in the Bible--a tradition roughly 3,500 years old.

What was to become modern Judaism took a different approach, and found a new way to stay on the old path. The rabbis extended the pharisaic concept that the experience of God was not contingent on the Temple.

The seeds had been sown by the prophets 500 years earlier and now came to fruition. The religion did not disappear, even though its center was gone. Prayer replaced sacrifice, and the local synagogue replaced the centralized Temple.

The decisions of the rabbis in the Mishnah and the Talmud were final. Sacrifice was permitted only in the Temple in Jerusalem. With the destruction of the Temple, sacrifice was no longer possible.

It was an interesting ruling. Another response might have been to go back to pre-Temple days when sacrifice was allowed in many locations. But they rejected that path. Partly they may have recognized that the religion had evolved beyond the need for sacrifice. And partly they understood that sacrifice was common in the Roman (pagan) world, and they led Judaism on a different route.

The rabbis drew upon the prophets to "work through" (in modern trauma terminology) the devastation of 70 AD, to find a new basis for religious life. So sacrifice was prohibited, until the Temple was rebuilt and the priestly cult re-established, which presumably won't happen until Messianic Days.

(An aside of contemporary political interest: Israel gained control of the site of the ancient Temple after the 1967 war. An ancient mosque, the Dome of the Rock, stands on the site of the old Temple. This is a holy site for Islam, from which Muhammed is said to have ascended directly to heaven. One reason behind the mistrust and violence in the Middle East is that many Muslims believe the Jews want to destroy the mosque to rebuild the Temple. Almost all Jews reject that idea--the third Temple will be built in the Messianic Era and not before. Rebuilding the Temple would require restoring the sacrifice system, and almost all Conservative and Reform Jews, and many Orthodox Jews, would not welcome the return of what you've called "barbaric." However, those who want to stir up trouble between Jews and Muslims often distort the situation horribly, and shriek that some proposed sewage system, for instance, is an Israeli plot to destroy the Dome of the Rock.)

OK, back to the main story. Clearly, prayer was not new. The earliest parts of the Hebrew Bible give examples of prayer. Eliezer, the servant of Abraham, prays for success before starting on a mission, and offers thanksgiving when he is successful. The Israelites enslaved in Egypt cried out, "and their cry came up to God by reason of their bondage."

What was new was the formalization of prayer by rabbis and the recognition that sacrifice was no longer needed. To some extent this had begun to occur before the loss of the Temple but it accelerated after 70 AD, with prayer services and study replacing specific sacrifice services. The times of prayer corresponded to the times of sacrifice in the Temple, and the prayer service was named for the sacrifice. (The afternoon service is min-khah, named directly for the grain offering.) Many prayers, in fact, are simply descriptions of the sacrifices that used to be offered in the Temple.

At about the same time, Christianity was in its formative stages. The early Christians were trying to separate themselves from Judaism. Early Christian writers such as Origen and Justin asked the same question you did: Without sacrifice, how could the Jews worship? Christian thinkers concluded that God's physical covenant with Israel could not be eternal. The Letter to Hebrews, for instance, explains away the Temple cult as being inherently inferior and therefore to be transcended. The Christians concluded, therefore, that the destruction of the Temple and the loss of sacrifice were irrelevant--Jesus's ultimate sacrifice had supplanted all others, so that future sacrifices were unnecessary. Expiation of sins came from simply believing in Jesus.

The rabbis' response was that the covenant was indeed eternal, and that they would neither give up Judaism nor deny the real-world changes to their religion. They found numerous precedents for practices outside the Temple, and they recast and supplemented the prophetic heritage. They continued the well-tried old ways, adapted to the new setting.

By the way, traditional Muslims do still offer sacrifice. The Feast of Sacrifice (Idu-l-adha) comes two months and ten days after the end of Ramadan. The ritual sacrifice is usually a sheep or goat, although a cow or camel is possible. The meat is eaten at the feast. There are a number of complex rules about the procedure. The celebration is in honor of Abraham, spiritual father of Muslims (and Jews and Christians, by the way) who was willing to submit (islam) to God's will and was ready to sacrifice his son. Muslims in many western countries face legal difficulties because only government-approved butchers are allowed to slaughter, not private persons in their homes. Most of the meat is to be given to the family; the remainder is given to relatives and friends who are unable to have their own sacrifice, and especially to the poor, including strangers (who need not be Muslim). The main purpose of the feast is to demonstrate submission to God's will and a willingness to sacrifice, as well as to show charitable feelings by letting others share.

Now to your second question--how does a Jew obtain atonement or forgiveness from God?

According to the Hebrew Bible, atonement may be accomplished in several ways. It may come through suffering or death, through sacrifice, or through repentance. Repentance is not merely prayer, although prayer is an important element; there must also be a change of conduct.  If a wrong was done to another, the wrongdoer must seek that person's forgiveness. .

For the modern Jew, atonement comes from prayer and repentance. One special day, Yom Kippur, is set aside for fasting and prayer, and turning towards better ways.

A Christian looking into a Jewish prayer book might be puzzled at various prayers that recall the sacrificial rituals of the Temple. To the Christian mind, these are not "prayers."  To the Jewish mind, prayers take many forms--aside from prayers of thanksgiving, praise, petition, and atonement, there are prayers of remembrance of the past, usually tied (explicitly or implicitly) to a vision of future redemption, when "nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they know war any more." May it come to pass speedily and in our days.

SOURCES:

Levine, Baruch A., The JPS Torah Commentaries: Leviticus, the Jewish Publication Society, 1989

Friedman, Richard Elliot, Who Wrote the Bible? Simon & Schuster, 1987

Dimont, Max I., Jews, God, and History, Simon & Schuster, 1962

Bokser, Baruch M., The Origins of the Seder, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1984.

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