Seder Kodashim (Holy Things)

The rabbis restored the religious meaning of the sacrificial cult even though the Temple itself had been destroyed.

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The fifth order (seder) of the Mishnah, Kodashim, or "Holy Things," deals with rules of the Temple worship, and, in particular, the rules for the various kinds of offerings sacrificed in the Temple. Although the Mishnah's description probably reflects some aspects of the way the actual Temple functioned, most of Seder Kodashim was developed after the destruction of the Temple. With one notable exception, most of Seder Kodashim was seen by later generations to have little practical application; there is no Palestinian Talmud on any of Kodashim, and the Babylonian Talmud on this seder is briefer than on others. 

The Themes of Seder Kodashim

Seder Kodashim primarily deals with various kinds of sacrifices of animals, birds, and grain. The first two (and longest tractates) deal with the preparation and actual offering of the sacrifices. The first tractate, Zevachim, "Animal Sacrifices"--which the Talmud also calls Shechitat Kodashim, "The Slaughter of Consecrated Animals" (Bava Metzia 109b)--discusses various rules concerning the slaughtering of the animals, the receiving of the blood, and the sprinkling of the blood on the altar. It also describes, at great length, the various ways in which the sacrifice may become invalid and whether the priests receive a portion of the sacrifice.  The second tractate, Menachot, "Grain-offerings," addresses the ingredients of the grain-offering, the different amounts to be placed upon the altar, as well as the showbread and drink offerings.

lambs for sacrificeSeder Kodashim also covers the rules for providing for the maintenance of the sacrificial system. This includes providing animals for sacrifices, whether they are first-born animals (Tractate Bekhorot, "Firstborns"), or from guilt or sin offerings (Tractate Keritot, "Excisions"); it also includes offering pigeons (Tractate Kinnim, "Birds Nests") by women after giving birth or by the poor. This also includes paying vows for the upkeep of the sanctuary (Tractate Arakhin, "Evaluations"), substitutions for different kinds of offerings (Tractate Temurah, "Exchange"), and the inappropriate use of consecrated items (Tractate Me'ilah, "Embezzlement").

Details about the Temple

Related to these topics are two tractates dealing with the function and nature of the Temple. Tractate Tamid, the "Daily Offering," describes the organization of the priests in the temple and their official duties, including cleaning the altar and the incense offering. It also describes the liturgy recited by the priests, including the priestly blessing. Tractate Middot, "Measures," describes the dimensions of the Temple and its furnishings, including the Temple mount, the gates, the courts and the chamber of hewn stone.

"Regular," Non-sacrificial Eating of Meat

The most widely studied material in Seder Kodashim, however, is only loosely related to the larger themes of the order. Tractate Hullin, "Unconsecrated [Meat]," addresses the laws of how animals are to be slaughtered for food, who may do it and when it may be done. Hullin includes discussions about which animals may and may not be eaten, and the prohibited combination of meat and milk. It also discusses the first fruits of sheep-shearing, and the laws concerning sending away the mother bird before taking the chicks and not slaughtering the mother animal with offspring on the same day. 

The Role of Intention

In addition to these clusters of topics, Seder Kodashim also seems to be working out a larger set of questions concerning the nature of intention as a legal category. Long sections of Zevachim and Menachot address whether one's intention to eat of the sacrifice in the wrong place or at the wrong time can invalidate the sacrifice.

An interesting example concerns the consecration of the first-born animal.  The firstling may not be shorn or put to work; it is a gift for the priest for sacrifice if it is without blemish, or just slaughtered if it has a defect which would render it an inappropriate sacrifice. It is, however, prohibited to inflict a blemish on a first-born animal. The Mishnah, however, reports an interesting case:

"Once children were playing in the field, tying the tails of sheep to one another. The tale of a firstling tore off and the sages permitted it. When the children saw that, they went and tied the tails of other firstlings together, and the sages forbade it" (Bekhorot 5:3).

This theme of the legal force of intention is worked out in many of the other tractates. Arakhin deals with how one's intention in making a vow affects its valuation, and Me'ilah determines the role of intention in whether one has made illegal use of Temple property.

Tractate Menachot summarizes the importance of intention by drawing a comparison between the burnt offering of an animal, of a bird, and of a meal offering; each of these are described by Scriptures as "an offering by fire, a smell of sweet savor" (Leviticus 1:9, 1:17, 2:7). The tractate concludes from this comparison that this parallel usage is

"to teach that one who offers much and one who offers a little are the same, as long as one directs one's intention to heaven" (Menachot 13:11).

Seder Kodashim and the Bible

The topics that provide the biblical background for Seder Kodashim are largely, but not exclusively, found in Leviticus. The laws of animal sacrifices (Zevachim) are in Leviticus 1; meal offerings (Menachot) are in Leviticus 2; birds (Kinnim) in Leviticus 5 and 12; and firstlings, evaluations, and exchanges (Bekhorot, Arakhin, and Temurah, respectively) are in Leviticus 27. The basic information for much of the tractate derives directly from the Torah.

The larger theme of intention, however, seems to derive from a different part of the Bible. Many passages in the prophetic literature criticize the Temple cult as unacceptable unless it demonstrates a commitment to doing God's will. God wants "goodness, not sacrifice, obedience to god, rather than burnt offerings" (Hosea 6:6), and God claims, "If you offer Me burnt-offerings-I will not accept them…rather, let justice well up like water, righteousness like an unfailing stream" (Amos 5:22, 24).

The rabbis whose traditions are recorded in Seder Kodashim have heard and responded to these critiques. By infusing every act of the sacrificial process with the need for proper intention, the act of sacrifice, at least as imagined by these rabbis, becomes an act of spirituality.

Suggestions for Study

Kodashim is not easy material. Nevertheless, some interesting and fairly accessible chapters include:

Hullin, chapter eight, on prohibited combinations of meat and milk, based on Exodus 23:19 and Deuteronomy 12:21.

Hullin, chapter twelve, on the law of letting the mother bird go from the nest when taking the offspring, based on Deuteronomy 22:6-7.

Arakhin, chapter three, which is introduced by the idea that the law of valuations is sometimes applied leniently and sometimes applied stringently. The remainder of the laws in the chapter are grouped together by that same formal principle; the examples illuminate some basic rabbinic conceptions of equity.

Unless one is avidly looking forward to the rebuilding of the Temple, it can be difficult to really get absorbed by the details of this order of the Mishnah. Nevertheless, it is hard to say that one has a good understanding of the Mishnah as a whole without taking a good look at Seder Kodashim.

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.