I want to ask a question about something that has been disturbing me since I learned of it; namely, ritual animal sacrifice in Judaism. I find the whole notion of burnt offerings and animal sacrifice, mentioned throughout the bible, repugnant. We (the Jews) often talk about paganism, yet the concept of animal sacrifice in our bible is, in my opinion, a pagan practice. I realize that there are many passages in the Bible that cite means of atonement for sins other than animal sacrifice; but, I find the very mention of this practice, and the fact that it is even considered, to be a flaw in our religion and the antithesis of what a merciful Gd should ask. Please help me with this as it really bothers me.
One thing I think is important to note is that most types of sacrifices brought in the Temple were not 'burnt offerings,' but were actually eaten by the kohanim and by the people who brought the sacrifice. Only a relatively small portion of the animal - some of the fats - were actually burned on the altar.
In other words, let's say a person recovers from a life-threatening illness and wants to make a big celebration, inviting all his family and friends. In the Temple days, the right way to do it was to 'invite' G-d as well. That is, instead of serving normal, everyday meat, he goes to the Temple and offers a 'thanks-giving' sacrifice. Part of the meat is given to the kohanim, certain of the fats are burned on the altar and the rest is served at the thanks-giving celebration.
The Torah is telling us that everything we do can be imbued with holiness. Not only things like giving charity or fasting on Yom Kippur. Even activities like eating meat can be invested with holiness if we remember to share with others (giving to the kohanim) and include thoughts of thanks to Gd (offering some of the fat). This idea - elevating the mundane - can then be put into play during all our daily activities.
Sacrifices also served to nullify belief in idol worship. Maimonides notes that all species used for sacrifices were animals worshipped by pagans. By sacrificing them we declare: "Don't worship these animals! Use them in the service of Hashem!" For example, the Egyptian's believed in a ramgod; hence, the Passover sacrifice is a lamb, which is then eaten at the Passover 'seder' celebration.
'Sin offerings' produced a powerful psychological effect on people, and helped them act righteously in the future. A person bringing a sin offering would think: "What's happening to that animal should really be happening to me!" These, too, were eaten by the kohanim.
By helping humans live more righteously, share with others, feel thankful and repentant, and fulfill the commandments, an animal's existence gains an eternal meaning.
- Moreh Nevuchim III
- Herodotus 2:31
- Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 1995, p. 61
- Ramban 1:9