Leviticus

Sometimes seen as inaccessible, Leviticus nevertheless contains important material about holiness.

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At crucial times, it is important for us to know that we are "doing it right." There is power in the knowledge that we are doing what generations of people before us have done in similar situations, something that other people in other places are doing at the same time and in the same way.

And rituals, including prescribed prayers, tell us what to do and say at times where we cannot rely on our own powers of inspiration to know what to do or say. "Ritual is way of giving voice to ultimate values. Each of us needs a sense of holiness to navigate the relentless secularity of our lives" (Ismar Schorsch, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary). For the Israelites of biblical times, it must have been gratifying to know what to do when they wanted to approach God at crucial moments of their lives, in need or in gratitude.

Animal Sacrifice and Modern Sensibilities 

Discomfort with sacrificing animals as way of worshiping God is hardly a modern phenomenon. The biblical prophets criticized the sacrificial system for its tendency to deteriorate into form without feeling. The Midrash envisions God saying "Better that they bring their offerings to My table than that they bring them before idols" (Leviticus Rabbah 22:8). All religions of biblical time were based on sacrificial worship, and the Israelites could not conceive of religion without it.

…It may well be that animal offerings were an instinctive gesture on the part of human beings to express gratitude, reverence, or regret. The Bible pictures Cain, Abel, and Noah offering sacrifices without being commanded to do so. People must have felt that their prayers of gratitude or petition would seem more sincerely offered if they gave up something of their own in the process.

Presumably, this is why game and fish were unacceptable as offerings. "I cannot sacrifice to the LORD my God burnt offerings that have cost me nothing" (2 Samuel 24:24). The offerings of first fruit, the firstborn of the flocks, and the symbolic redemption of the firstborn son may have been ways of recognizing that these gifts ultimately came from God, ways of conveying the faith that more blessings would be forthcoming so that these could be given up.

A Child's Education Began with Leviticus

Why did young children begin their Jewish studies with Leviticus? "Children are pure; therefore let them study laws of purity" (Leviticus Rabbah 7:3). It also has been suggested that Jewish learning began here to teach from the outset that life involves sacrifice. One contemporary writer suggests, "In sacrifice, we could for a fleeting moment imagine our own death and yet go on living... No other form of worship can so effectively liberate a person from the fear of living in the shadow of death."

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Baruch A. Levine

Baruch A. Levine is Skirball Professor Emeritus of Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies, Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University.? He is the author of many books on biblical topics, including The Anchor Bible Commentary: Numbers 1-20.