Parashat Tzav

When Eating Meat was a Sacrifice

It is time for the Jewish community to reconsider its diet.

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"And that which is left thereof [from the meal-offering] shall Aaron and his sons eat; it shall be eaten without leaven in a holy place; in the tent of meeting they shall eat it…it is most holy as the sin-offering and the guilt-offering (Leviticus 6:9-10)."  

When the Jewish people were in the wilderness before they entered the land of Israel, the consumption of meat was associated with holiness. Every piece of meat consumed came from an animal sacrificed in the Mishkan (Sanctuary), an act meant to bring the worshiper closer to God. The word korban (sacrifice) is related to le-karev, to come close. Through the sacrifice, worshipers felt they were giving themselves vicariously to God.

If an animal sacrifice was slaughtered in a place other than the altar of the Sanctuary, it was deemed unlawful, and the perpetrator was deserving of Divine punishment (Leviticus 17:3-4). Once the Jewish people entered the land of Israel, eating meat outside holy spaces was permitted (Deuteronomy 12:20).

In the Wilderness

In the times of the Mishkan the consumption of meat was not something taken for granted, as it generally is today. Each sacrifice had a definite purpose: to offer thanksgiving, to atone for a sin, to commemorate a holy day (such as the Korban Pesach, or Paschal Lamb), or to make one feel closer to God.

Those offering a sacrifice felt that they were giving up something from their prized possessions. People owned animals as sources of labor or food, as well as a form of capital; hence slaughtering them in connection with the Temple rites was a sacrifice of a precious source of income and food.

The animal was not considered just a distant commodity as is generally the case in today's world of corporate agriculture; rather, it was a creature that the owner raised and saw on a daily basis, and whose needs were a matter of personal responsibility and even concern. Since a mother animal and its offspring could not be slaughtered on the same day (Leviticus 22:26-28), those who offered sacrifices needed to be aware of familial relationships among animals to be offered as sacrifices.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Chief Rabbi of Efrat, points out that worshipers were very much involved in the sacrificial process. For sin offerings, they were required to lean their hands on the animal, and make a confession prior to the act of slaughter.

Rabbi Riskin explains that the emotional result on the one who brought the sacrifice and watched it being killed was to contemplate that because of their sin they deserved to be the ones on the altar. Thus they would experience feelings of teshuvah (repentance) and become transformed, worthy of a renewed lease on life.

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Dr. Richard H. Schwartz

Richard Schwartz, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Staten Island, in New York City and the author of Judaism and Vegetarianism.