Thinking about Third Temple Sacrifices

Parshat Vayikra 5772
Earlier in the week I asked a number of questions to stimulate thinking about the difficult topic of animal sacrifices (offerings) in the Temple.

In this post I will focus on four questions:

  • Why lean on the animal’s head?
  • What is the purpose of animal sacrifices?
  • Is there Judaism without animal sacrifices?
  • Will there be animal sacrifices in the Third Temple?

The Verses to Study

Here are the first few verses from Vayikra / Leviticus (Judaica Press translation):

Leviticus Chapter 1
1 And He called to Moses, and the Lord spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying,
2 Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: When a man from [among] you brings a sacrifice to the Lord; from animals, from cattle or from the flock you shall bring your sacrifice.
3 If his sacrifice is a burnt offering from cattle, an unblemished male he shall bring it. He shall bring it willingly to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, before the Lord.
4 And he shall lean his hand [forcefully] upon the head of the burnt offering, and it will be accepted for him to atone for him. …

9 And its innards and its legs, he shall wash with water. Then, the kohen shall cause to [go up in] smoke all [of the animal] on the altar, as a burnt offering, a fire offering, [with] a pleasing fragrance to the Lord.

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Why lean on the animal’s head (verse 1:4)?

As an additional question, the verse uses the word “yado – his hand” in the singular. Is the leaning only done with one hand?

Both Ibn Ezra and Ramban explain that every time a person needs to lean on an animal it is done with two hands. The Sages derived this fact from a verse (chapter 16:21) about Yom Kippur.

If so, why is only one hand mentioned here?

The Gemara Chagigah derives from verse 1:4 that it is necessary for a person to lean on the animal will all his strength. Strength is the concept alluded to by the word hand.

The reason for leaning on the animal is so that the owner will identify with the animal that is about to be sacrificed. The confession of sins that is required when bringing a sacrifice is done while leaning on the animal’s head.

What is the purpose of animal sacrifices?

Both Rambam and Ramban address this question.

God told the Jewish people to offer as sacrifices cows, sheep, and goats. Rambam writes that the nations that the Jews lived amongst worshiped these animals. The Jews were commanded to bring them as offerings to teach that these animals are not divine. On the contrary, a person may use them to serve God.

Ramban strongly disagrees with this approach. He counters that the earliest recorded animal offering in the Chumash is Hevel (Abel) who brought an offering from his flock. Also, Noach brought offerings from these animals. These events were happened long before these other nations existed.

Ramban explains that the purpose of an animal offering is to be a substitute and atonement for a person who sinned. The person leans on the animal to identify with it and should be grateful that God accepts the animal’s blood on the altar in place of his own blood.

Is there Judaism without animal sacrifices?

Based on the Ramban, it seems that animal sacrifices are absolutely necessary. If that is so, how can Judaism be properly practiced without animal offerings?

Rambam writes in Hilchot Teshuva (Laws of Repentance) about the role of animal offerings. Then he points out that even without the ability to bring a sacrifice there still exists teshuva.

The essential elements of teshuva are

  • abandoning the sin,
  • regret for the sin,
  • confession,
  • restitution and compensation for damage (if applicable).

All of these elements existed when a person could bring a sacrifice and are certainly applicable today.

In fact, bringing an animal sacrifice to the Temple was not some sort of “get out of jail free” card. Without proper teshuva the offering was of little or no value.

Will there be animal sacrifices in the Third Temple?

The book of Ezekiel has detailed prophecies that are understood to refer to the Third Temple. Here are two verses from Chapter 40:

42 And four tables for the burnt offering, of hewn stone, one cubit and a half long, one cubit and a half wide and one cubit high; upon them they would lay the implements with which they slaughtered the burnt offering and [other] sacrifices. …

47 And he measured the Court; its length one hundred cubits and its width one hundred cubits, square, and the altar before the Temple.

Note the mention of an altar and animal sacrifices. So it seems like the answer is Yes.

However, if we accept Rambam’s explanation for animal offerings, then they may not be needed in the Third Temple. He said that offerings were necessary because of the existence of nations that worshiped certain animals as gods.

In our world, that is much less prevalent. Rambam might argue that due to the spread of monotheism throughout the world, animal sacrifices will not be needed in the Third Temple. He could explain the above prophecy as making provision for sacrifices if they would be needed.

Why I don’t think it matters

I don’t think it matters whether or not there will be animal sacrifices in the Third Temple.

Rambam at the very end of the Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Melachim chapters 11 and 12) discusses the times of moshiach.

He concludes with a warning: “And all of these things and those similar to them, a person will not know how they will be until they come to pass. These are closed / hidden matters to the prophets and to the sages.”

Eventually, we will know what the Third Temple will be like. At the proper time, we will be taught if animal offerings should be brought. Until then, everything we say is mere speculation and of little benefit.

A modest suggestion

Until these matters are clarified, we should study about the offerings that were brought in First and Second Temples. Our study should lead us to fulfill the ideals represented by the offerings: praising God, thanking God, and striving to live in a way that minimizes our need for atonement.

Your Turn

Please share your suggested answers in the comments.

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A Note on the Translations
The translation of Bible verses is based on the Judaica Press Tanach.
The translation of Gemara is based on the Soncino Talmud.
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