Sermons and Parsha'iot                   Parshat Vayikra: Leviticus 1:1-5:26                                   


This Shabbat we begin reading the third book of the Torah, Leviticus. Leviticus contains many of the laws and precepts of Judaism. It also contains a description of the system of sacrifices which was, for the Israelite community of the time, the primary way of worshiping God. In Hebrew, this book and its first portion are called Vayikra meaning, "And God called …" The parasha opens with God's calling to Moses and explaining the various sacrifices. The Hebrew word for sacrifice is korban. It is based on the three-letter Hebrew root quf-resh-bet, which means to "draw near." Making a sacrifice was the way an Israelite could draw near or come close to God. Specific sacrifices demonstrated specific feelings, and the Torah lists five different types of sacrifice: the burnt offering – olah; the cereal offering – minkhah; the sacrifice of well-being – zevakh shelamim; the sin offering – chatat; and the guilt offering – asham.

Olah means "that which goes up." The olah had to be male animal without blemish. It could be a bull, a sheep, a goat or a pair of birds, depending on how much a person could afford. In an olah, the animals were slaughtered; their blood was sprinkled around and on the altar; the sacrifice was skinned and cut into pieces; and the entire animal except for the hide was burned on the altar. (Olah offerings of birds were killed and prepared differently, but they were also burnt completely on the altar.) The purpose of the olah was to demonstrate one's belief in God and submission to God's commandments.

The minkhah was an offering of unleavened flour in the form of cakes or wafers. Part of it was burned on the altar and the rest given to the priests.

The next kind of sacrifice was the zevakh shelamim, the "full peace offering." Its mood was one of thanksgiving. Like the olah, this offering was also an animal, but it could be either a male or female. Unlike the olah, only part of the zevakh shelamim (mainly the fat) was dedicated to God and burned on the altar. Certain of the other cuts were given to the priest, and the rest of the meat provided a festive meal for the person who brought the sacrifice and his or her guests. (This may well have been the only time when the majority of people in ancient Israel got to eat meat.)

The olahminkhah, and zevakh shelamim were voluntary sacrifices. Not so the chatat and the asham.

The chatat offering was brought by an individual or a community which had unknowingly sinned regarding one of the commandments. These sins included: failure to testify, touching an unclean animal or carcass, coming in contact with human uncleanness, or the failure to fulfill an oath. The animal brought for sacrifice depended on the place in society an individual occupied. If the offering was made because the whole community had sinned, or because a priest had sinned, they had to sacrifice a bull. A leader of the people had to sacrifice a male goat. An ordinary Israelite could bring a female goat or sheep instead.

The asham sacrifice was brought by a person who had sinned by committing robbery or fraud. The guilty person had to give back the stolen item plus an additional one fifth of its value and then sacrifice an animal or give the equivalent in money. Depending on the financial means and social status of the individual, female sheep or goat, birds or choice flour could also be sacrificed. An asham for one of the leaders of the people consisted of a male kid or lamb. When an animal was sacrificed, the blood would be daubed on the horns of the burnt offering altar.


  • The asham sacrifice raised concerns among the prophets who thought a person might commit a deliberate wrong and then offer a sacrifice to square the account. They felt that this kind of offering was superficial and did not lead the people to change their behavior or to be close to God. Both Isaiah and Jeremiah condemned the people for offering sacrifices while continuing to behave wickedly.

  • Robbery, deceit and fraud are most often premeditated acts, but finding a lost item and not returning it contains an element of the accidental. Yet the Torah considers this last this action as a similar offense to the other three. Jewish law has dealt extensively with the return of a lost article. According to the Mishnah, when a person found a lost item, he or she would announce it during each of the three festivals and for another seven days following the last festival. The seven days were understood as three days to allow the owner of the article to go home, another three days to allow him to return to Jerusalem, and another day to claim ownership. The Mishnah also teaches that in Jerusalem there was a so-called "Stone of Losses." A person who lost an article went there as well as anyone who had found something that belonged to someone else. The finder stood up and announced the find and its owner stood up and called out the identifying marks and had the article restored to him.

Some Thoughts and Questions

  1. It is customary to wash our hands before saying ha-motzi – the blessing over bread – because the priests were commanded to do this before bringing a sacrifice. After reciting the motzi, it is traditional to salt the bread because the priests were told to salt every sacrifice. What does this tell us about the motzi?

  2. What does offering an animal do to atone for our sins? Some liberal Jews think these portions about sacrifices should be skipped. What do you think and why?

  3. The sacrifices expressed religious devotion and the people's love for God. How do you show your devotion and connection to Judaism? In what ways do you show your love for God? How does this make you like our ancestors? In what ways do modern Jewish rituals express the things our ancestors tried to express through the various sacrificial offerings? In what ways do our modern rituals distinguish us from our ancestors?

  4. Our ancestors encountered many difficulties in order to fulfill the commandment to go to Jerusalem to bring sacrifices. The trip was long and the cost of arranging the appropriate sacrifice was significant. What kinds of sacrifices does Judaism require of us today? In what ways is practicing Judaism difficult? In what ways is it easier than at the time described in the Torah portion?

  5. After the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, the rabbis decreed that prayer, Torah study and acts of loving kindness replace sacrifices. When have you participated in prayer? In Torah Study? In acts of loving kindness? How do these things move you closer to God?

  6. Leviticus 5:23 reads "When one has thus sinned and, realizing his guilt, would restore that which he got through robbery or fraud, or the deposit that was entrusted to him, or the lost thing that he found." What would make a person "realize his guilt"? What role does God play? … people in positions of authority? … law enforcement? … conscience? When you have done something wrong, how do you feel? Who helps you "realize" your guilt? How do you make amends? When a person was guilty of one of these offenses described in the Torah what actions was he or she required to take? Why do you think the person was instructed to first return the stolen property and then make a guilt offering to God? What is the significance of the order of activities?