Home>Jewish Living

Torah Sparks

March 27, 2004 - 5 Nisan 5764

Annual: Leviticus 1:1 - 5:26 (Etz Hayim, p. 585; Hertz p. 410)
Triennial Cycle: Leviticus 4:27 - 5:26 (Etz Hayim p. 599; Hertz p. 419)
Haftarah: Isaiah 43:21 - 44:23 (Etz Hayim p. 606; Hertz p. 424)

Prepared by Rabbi Jodie Futornick
McHenry County Jewish Congregation, Crystal Lake, IL

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director


This portion contains the rules for the different types of sacrifices (Karbanot) that God required of the Israelites under a variety of circumstances. After the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., the sacrificial system of worship ceased to exist for our ancestors. The implications of this change were many. Animal sacrifice, also known as Avodah (Divine service) was abandoned in favor of prayer (designated by the rabbis as Avodah she'b'lev -- Service of the Heart) as the means to worship God. The Kohanim, the priests whom God had appointed as the religious functionaries of the community, no longer had an official role. Even though the karbanot no longer exist, however, it is still instructive to read about the different categories of offerings. A thorough study of this parshah helps us better to understand how the Torah characterizes human behaviors and motivations.

Triennial I: Leviticus 1:1 - 2:16

1:1-17 - The Olah: Commonly translated as "burnt offering," the Olah was a sacrifice consumed in its entirety on the altar, with no meat left over for the kohanim and others to eat. The root of the Hebrew word Olah means ascension, going up, because the entire sacrifice went up in the fire. Individuals brought the Olah as a voluntary offering for a variety of circumstances; the Torah provides no specific reason for it. People brought the best Olah they could afford. The wealthiest worshippers brought the finest bulls from their flocks, while less affluent people brought sheep, fowl, or even grain, according to their means. This is the Biblical precedent for "sliding-scale" payment based on the economic circumstances of the donor!

2:1-16 - The Minhah: This was a grain offering prepared with flour and oil and topped with aromatic frankincense. The Minhah was also brought as a voluntary offering. A piece of the dough was offered as a sacrifice, and the rest was eaten by the kohanim.

Triennial II: Leviticus 3:1 - 4:26

3:1-17 - The Zevah Shlamim: This "sacrifice of well-being" was brought by an individual as an act of gratitude in celebration of a happy occasion. It differs from the Olah, which provides no leftover food for anyone, and the Minhah, of which only the kohanim may partake, in that both the kohanim and the worshipers may share the residual meat after the sacrifice.

4:1-25 - The Hatat: This was the "sin offering" required of a person who unintentionally had committed a wrongdoing. (It was not intended to absolve someone who had sinned intentionally, believing he could later make amends by bringing a sacrifice.) The fat parts are burned on the altar, and the meat is eaten by the kohanim.

Triennial III: Leviticus 4:27 - 5:26

4:27-35 - More laws for the Hatat.

5:1-13 - A delineation of four unique circumstances that require a Hatat. These are: 1) Withholding testimony from the court in legal matters, 2) touching something ritually impure (tamei), 3) touching a person in a state of ritual impurity, and 4) uttering an oath.

5:14-26 - The Asham: This "guilt offering" was required for a person who had misappropriated property. It differs from the Hatat in two significant ways: 1) The Asham must be a ram (ayil), while the Hatat may be any of the other kosher species (bull, sheep, goat, fowl, or even grain, according to what the individual could afford. 2) In addition to bringing the sacrifice, the person offering an Asham was also required to restore what he had taken and pay a 20% penalty in order to ensure forgiveness.

Topic 1: Wronging Our Neighbor is an Affront to God

When a person commits a trespass, being unwittingly remiss about any of the Lord's sacred things, he shall bring as his penalty to the Lord a ram without blemish from the flock, convertible into payment in silver by the sanctuary weight, as a reparation offering. He shall make restitution for that wherein he was remiss about the sacred things, and he shall add a fifth part to it and give it to the kohayn. The kohayn shall make expiation on his behalf with the ram of the reparation offering, and he shall be forgiven. (Leviticus 5: 15-16)

  1. When the nations of the world heard this law, they said, "According to our laws, one who takes so much as a hook belonging to Caesar is to be lacerated with a plowshare, but this God is placated by a simple act of restitution. Moreover, God is more lenient about the misappropriation on what is God's [designating this as an "trespass" in verse 15] than about robbing a human being. (Pesikta Rabbati 23, p. 121a)
  2. God is more concerned about the wrong done by man to his fellow man than about offenses directed at God alone. (Sifra, Midrash on the Book of Leviticus)
  3. Let no person say, "I will go and do ugly and immoral things. Then I will bring a bull with much meat and offer it as a sacrifice on the altar, and God will forgive me." God will not have mercy on such a person." (Leviticus Rabbah, 2:12)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. In a similar vein, the rabbis taught that "Yom Kippur does not atone for sins one has committed against other human beings." When we have wronged another person, we need to make direct amends to him or her. Divine forgiveness cannot take place until human beings have made things right among themselves. These Midrashim take this teaching a step farther, however, asserting that God actually cares more about sins that people commit against each otherthansins committed directly against God. What does this teach us about the Rabbinic conception of God, and especially about the emphasis on ethical interpersonal conduct in the Jewish tradition? How is hurting another person more offensive to God than is sinning against God directly through ritual impropriety?

Topic 2: Teaching Us to Avoid Unintentional Wrongdoing

And when a person, without knowing it, sins in regard to any of God's commandments about things not to be done, and then realizes his guilt, he shall be subject to punishment. He shall bring to the kohayn a ram without blemish from the flock, or the equivalent, as a reparation offering. The kohayn shall make expiation on his behalf for the error that he committed unwillingly, and he shall be forgiven. It is a reparation offering; he has incurred guilt before the Lord. (Leviticus 5: 17-19)

  1. Why should the "doubtful asham," brought when possibly no offense has been committed, be the expensive ram, while for a certain transgression, one may offer a ewe or even fowl or bags of flour? Because, a person might not take seriously the mere possibility of having sinned, if the Torah had not thus shown the seriousness of the matter. (Ramban, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, also known as Nachmanides, in "Perushai HaTorah")
  2. The sinner through error is one who sins from carelessness. In other words, at the moment of omission, that person did not take full care, with whole heart and soul, that the act be in keeping with the Torah and commandments, because the person was not, in the words of the prophet Isaiah (66:2), "concerned about My word." (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, pioneer of Modern Orthodoxy, in The Pentateuch, as presented by Rabbi Harvey Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Times, Vol. 2, p. 102)
  3. We may note that it is no excuse that the sinner had no evil intention and that it was merely forgetfulness, just carelessness on his part. And since the greater the person, the greater his responsibility, each negligence, each slip of the mind, borders on willful transgression. (Nehama Liebowitz, Studies in Vayikra, pp. 28-29)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. The commentaries over the centuries have noticed that the penalties for unintended wrongs are stiffer than those for known acts of sin, a condition that seems counter-intuitive. Why is the Torah so concerned that people take responsibility for unintentional mistakes? Can you think of instances where you have hurt or been hurt by another person as a result of careless words or behavior? Picking up on Nehama Liebowitz's teaching, is it right and fair that we hold our leaders and teachers to a higher standard of conduct than we do others? And, is it true that the unintentional slight or slip on the part of an authority figure causes greater harm than the careless mistakes of others? How have we seen this played out in American public life in recent years?

Find a Kehilla USY Conservative Yeshiva Donate Careers Contact us
Copyright © 2017
United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
All rights reserved.
120 Broadway, Suite 1540
New York, NY 10271-0016