Since the destruction of the Temples, Jews have struggled with the enduring meaning and legacy of the sacrificial rites.

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Nahmanides cannot accept such a facile view and Maimonides himself, in his Code, records all the laws of sacrifices and prayers for their restoration, which hardly suggests that the sacrifices were, for him, no more than an emergency measure.

For Ibn Ezra and Nahmanides the sacrifices are symbolic. When a man offered a guilt-offering, for example, the killing of the animal and the offering of its blood and fat on the altar were a symbolic way of saying that this should have been the fate of the sinner were it not for God's mercy.

A further reason advanced for the system is that the meat of the sacrifices was to be eaten in a holy place, the Temple for some sacrifices, anywhere in Jerusalem for others, and this turned the very act of eating into a sacred act by which man is brought nearer to God.

In the Kabbalah, animal sacrifices provided the link between the animal world and human beings and between the world of human beings and the higher realms of the Sefirot as the smoke on the altar ascended.

Restoring the Sacrifices?

Although, in the nineteenth century, suggestions were put forward for the Temple to be rebuilt and sacrifices offered there once again, these were not taken seriously since, among other objections, the actual site of the altar is now unknown; corpse contamination cannot now be removed in the absence of the red heifer; and there are no means of establishing the claim of the priests that they really are such.

Thus the restoration of the sacrificial system was left to the Messiah. There was even an opinion in the Middle Ages, quoted by Rashi, that the Third Temple would drop ready-made from heaven. 

The Orthodox position today is that the offering of sacrifices will be carried out only when the Messianic age dawns and their restoration is not a matter of practical concern in the here and now, although there is a Yeshivah in Jerusalem in which the Order of Kodashim is studied assiduously so that scholars will be able to advise on how the sacrifices are to be offered when the Messiah does come.

Sacrifices in Jewish Liturgy

After the destruction of the Temple the verse 'we will render the bullocks of our lips (Hosea 14:3)' was understood to mean that the repetition of the details of the sacrificial cult in prayer and the prayers for its restoration are accounted as if the sacrifices were actually offered in the Temple. But the prayers were not seen as a mere formality to make up for the loss.

The belief remains strong in Orthodoxy that these prayers will be answered by God and the sacrifices restored. Prayers for the restoration of the sacrifices are scattered through the traditional liturgy. Especially in the Additional service, Musaf, on Sabbaths and festivals, the prayer is recited for Israel to be restored to its homeland, the Temple to be rebuilt, and the sacrifices offered.

Reform Judaism, in the last century, reinterpreted the Messianic hope in universalistic terms and rejected not only prayers for the restoration of sacrifices but the whole idea of Israel's return to its homeland.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.