On today’s daf, the Talmud is deep in the weeds of a discussion about what happens if a person purchases a variety of animals designated for different sacrifices, and then can’t remember which animal was designated for which sacrifice. We learn in a mishnah:
If a paschal lamb that was intermingled with other offerings (such as guilt-offerings and burnt-offerings, and it is not known which animal was designated as which offering) all of them are left to graze until they develop a blemish and become unfit; and they are then sold, and with the proceeds of the choicest of them he must bring this type of sacrifice, and with the proceeds of the choicest of them he must bring this other type of sacrifice. And he loses the difference from his own pocket.
Intention, as always, matters for the rabbis. When you designate an animal to be a peace offering, you cannot then offer it as a paschal offering even if, in theory, it would have made a valid paschal offering.
Rather than risk offering the wrong animal as a sacrifice, all the animals are put out to pasture until they develop blemishes and can no longer be sacrificed. Now they can be sold and the money used to purchase replacement sacrifices that are each equal in value to the most valuable among the lot (because, of course, the person does not know which sacrifice had the greatest value to begin with). This ends up costing the person a bit more money but in this way God gets the animals that are due and no mistakes are made.
Obviously, with the Temple now gone for nearly 2,000 years, Jews don’t put this into practice anymore. The rabbis of the Talmud didn’t either, and famously said that study and prayer are equally valid ways to serve God. And sometimes, they encourage us to study and pray specifically on sacrifice.
The traditional daily morning liturgy contains a series of biblical and talmudic references to the ancient sacrifices — a sort of combination of both study and prayer that meditates directly on the sacrificial cult in the Temple. But for those of us who are quite happy that prayer has entirely replaced sacrifice, the idea of even studying or praying with the sacrificial system in any fashion may disturb or make us uncomfortable.
At the end of the Amidah, the thrice-daily standing prayer, there is a personal meditation that traditionally concludes with a prayer for the rebuilding of the Temple — speedily and in our days. There we will offer the sacrifices as of old and in ancient days. We pray for this. And yet, do we really want it?
The rabbis of the Talmud were living during a profoundly liminal moment in Jewish history. The trauma of the Temple’s destruction and the loss of the religious life that pulsed throughout it was still fresh. Yet the desire remained strong to retain what they could and remake tradition so that it would endure. How blessed we are to be heirs of their genius. As the rabbis embraced a new way of being and doing Jewish, which we today call rabbinic Judaism, they were careful not to erase the old. We may not wish to return to animal sacrifice (I don’t, anyway) but it is a blessing to have deep knowledge of where we have come from.