VA’YIKRA: Replacing sacrifice with prayer

VA’YIKRA: Replacing sacrifice with prayer


By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

“The people I formed for Myself

Shall declare My praise!”  

(Isaiah 43:21, Haftarah for Va’yikra) [1]

“I am the first and I am the last,

And there is no god but Me.”

(Isaiah 44:6, Haftarah for Va’yikra) [2]

With the call of God [Va’yikra] to Moses, the book of Leviticus begins. This is the Priestly book, an enunciation of the Holiness Code, ascribed by biblical scholars to P (along ago compilation by priestly scholars). As religious rites, as acts of contrition, forgiveness, thanksgiving, and joy, sacrifices were universal to all ancient religions, asserts Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut in his excellent book, The Torah: A Modern Commentary. His lengthy essay on Leviticus is well worth reading.

“Leviticus is a still, deep pool. Here, at the end of Exodus, the Israelites remain cramped in the Sinai wilderness, where they worked together to construct a portable sanctuary (“Tabernacle or Tent of Meeting.”) Nearly all of Leviticus presents itself as taking place at that sanctuary – where God spoke to Moses, giving instructions to be conveyed to the people of Israel.”[3]

It is to their credit that ancient Israelites, surrounded by pagan religions in which child sacrifice was a common practice, forbade sacrifice of that kind. Instead, for more than a thousand years, they substituted animal sacrifice, as we learned in the early biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. However, animal sacrifice was conducted according to strictly defined, humane rules, which also provided for sacrifices of meal (grains) rather than animals and for a portion reserved for their priests. What you were required to sacrifice depended on what you could afford – and in accordance with your sense of guilt.

Vayikra offers insight into early Israelite sacrifice practices by explaining in great detail – so much detail, in fact, that for people in this century, it is rather repellent to read about it — the five types of sacrifices allowed. The first three are voluntary, the last two obligatory.

  1.  A burnt offering (Olah). Very holy. Completely burnt; no one eats it.
  2.  A Meal Offering (Minchah). Made of flour and oil and cooked in various ways with frankincense put on top so it will smell nice.
  3.  A Sacrifice of Well-Being (Zevah Sh’Lamim). Concludes with a joyful meal with the donor’s guests.
  4.  A mandatory Purgation Offering (Chatat) can be individual or communal and involves ritual sprinkling of the sacrificial animal’s blood on the altar. The carcass of the obligatory animal (bull, sheep, goat, or fowl, or even meal) is burned outside the camp.
  5. A Reparation Offering (Asham) of a ram is mandatory.  The person or persons must restore what has been taken (usually property) plus a penalty of 20 percent. [4] 

The Hebrew concept of sacrifice also provided for inviting friends and family to partake in the feast of a well-being sacrifice (after the priests were allotted their share). So it did provide for a communal meal amid much thanksgiving and joy. The sacrificial food had to be completely consumed. It could not be left over for the next day.  Not exactly our modern, celebratory barbecue in the garden on happy occasions, but it came close.

Notably, the Book of Deuteronomy, usually regarded as a summary of the previous four books of the Torah, makes no mention of the rules for sacrifice.[5] By the time the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem (then the central and  only place in Israel where animal sacrifice was permitted) in 70 A.D., the Jewish synagogue system had already taken hold to some degree in Israel. The rabbis in their wisdom discontinued animal sacrifice and, instead, substituted prayers. It was no longer necessary to show contrition through animal sacrifice. Prayer was the answer. Now one could atone for sins committed and ask for forgiveness through prayer. Making restitution, if possible, was also required. Only when the person or persons did not repeat wrong-doing when faced with the same situation(s) was forgiveness complete. So began the tradition of Tikkun Olam, healing the world, which is central to modern concepts of Judaism.


God’s Presence to suffuse our spirits,

God’s will to prevail in our lives.

Prayer may not bring water to parched fields,

nor mend a broken bridge,

nor rebuild a ruined city.

But prayer can water an arid soul,

mend a broken heart,

rebuild a weakened will.” [6]

[1] Michael Fishbane, The JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2002) 149

[2] Ibid., 152.

[3] The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Ed. (New York: Union for Reform Judaism Press, 2006) 658.

[4] Ibid.,659.

[5] Ibid., 644.

[6] Rabbi Elyse D. Friedman, Ed., Mishkan Tefillah: A Reform Siddur (New York: CCAR, 2007) 75.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.