Revisiting the Fire Offerings of Israel

Modern commentary and interpretation may ease some discomfort surrounding ancient liturgy.

Commentary on Parashat Tzav, Leviticus 6:1-8:36; Numbers 19:1-22

In a session not long ago with Seminary students on religious services, I was asked about the restoration of a phrase from the siddur (prayerbook) that the Conservative movement had dropped as early as the 1940’s. By way of orientation, I should preface the incident by saying that services at the Seminary are wholly conducted by students, with a modest degree of oversight by the administration. Our synagogue serves students as a training ground for mastering the intricacies of Jewish prayer.

Like learning to play a musical instrument or tennis, praying in Judaism is a skill acquired only through practice. To study the language and history of the liturgy is necessary but not sufficient. Each year a number of students step forward to function as a staff of gabbaim (managers) to recruit and assist their classmates in carrying out the multiple roles that make the drama of a synagogue service. Overall, the responsibility inculcates a sense of self-confidence vital for good leadership, even as it accentuates the participatory character of the Jewish way of worship.

The Fire Offerings of Israel

The question asked of me pertained to the uncommon phrase v’ishei yisrael, usually translated as “the fire offerings of Israel.” It appears in every amidah (silent devotion) in the first of the final three benedictions (berakhot), beginning with the word retzeh. The petition pleads for a restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem along with its sacrificial cult.

The literal translation of the full berakhah (benediction) reads as follows:

O Lord our God, favor Your people Israel and their prayers. Restore the sacrificial cult to Your sanctuary and lovingly accept the fire offerings and their prayers with graciousness. May the worship of Your people Israel be ever acceptable to You. May our eyes witness Your compassionate return to Zion. Praised are You, O Lord, who brings back His presence to Zion.

The editors of the movement’s prayerbook in 1946 omitted the words “v’ishei yisrael” from this berakhah because of their revulsion at the prospect of a return to animal sacrifices. By the 1970s the movement, for the sake of consistency, also eliminated the final petition of the amidah which intoned a plea for the reconstruction of the Temple in our lifetime.

I admit the proposition to reappropriate the phrase put me on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, I am an avowed anti-messianist. Israel suffers from a surfeit of messianism today that has already made too much non-negotiable. Messianists have turned the Temple Mount into a powder keg with enough force to hurl us into the maelstrom of a religious crusade.

Ancient Texts in Prayers

On the other hand, I have a strong preference for retaining the ancient text of our prayers. I love the carefully wrought compression of their classical Hebrew, whose antiquity exudes with holiness and whose uniformity gives expression to Jewish unity. It is the power of creative interpretation that needs to take us beyond the straightjacket of literalism. Words that bear but a single meaning are hard to repeat on a daily basis. Praying in a language not our own helps us transform the words into vessels that carry aloft whatever sentiments and thoughts we care to impute to them.

The question reflects a trend among the current generation of students at JTS [The Jewish Theological Seminary]: an openness to restoring texts and practices dispensed with long ago. In their hunger for the holy, they find spirituality in that which was once discarded because it gave offense or seemed inconvenient. The length of a service is not determined by what we cut, but by how proficiently we can chant what we agree to say. Instead, many a Conservative worship service has been lengthened through cutting! Thus I welcomed the thrust of the question, if not its specificity.

On the spot with a measure of discomfort, I responded that I could live with the reintroduction of the phrase of “v’ishei yisrael”. Back in the 1940’s, it had been removed because of its concreteness. The image of “fire offerings” is not readily transmutable. But that, in fact, is not the meaning of the term. The word ishei is drawn from last week’s parashah [portion], where it appears often: Leviticus 1:9, 13, 17; 2:2, 3, 11, as well as from this week’s: 6:10, 11.

Unexpectedly, scholarship has come to my rescue. Since my meeting with the students, I have learned from Prof. Jacob Milgrom’s endlessly fascinating commentary on Leviticus (The Anchor Bible) that the term has nothing to do with the Hebrew word for fire, esh. It is that derivation that yielded the translation “fire offering”, that is a sacrifice burned by the altar’s fire. Rather, Milgrom argues that “esh” in this cultic context is to be understood as deriving from either a Ugaritic or Arabic cognate and is best translated as “food gift” (I, 161-2). The Semitic root stresses the ownership of the sacrifice by the worshipper and not what happens to it on the altar. It is the self-deprivation that makes the sacrifice pleasing to God. Hence, the notion of gift.

So what of my messianic compunctions? The berakhah is obviously too central to the amidah to tamper with, which is why the movement never considered dropping it. Nor need we from the perspective of content. The language is malleable enough to temper the messianic thrust. The term devir which in Solomon’s Temple designated the Holy of Holies is redefined by the Talmud to mean book, thus signifying the momentous shift from sacred space to sacred book that Judaism effected after the destruction of the Temple (Babylonian Talmud Avodah Zarah 24b ).

By understanding avodah as “worship” in general and ishei as “gifts of the heart”, we arrive at a vocabulary that serves to describe current practice as well as that hoped for in the future. The key point is that God’s presence should inspirit and ennoble our worship whatever form it may take. Or as the Mishnah puts it: of importance is not whether one offers a bull or a bird or a cereal offering. Scripture speaks of them equally “as a food gift of pleasing aroma to the Lord.” What counts is the purity of our intention, rather than the size of our gift (Menahot 13:11).

Provided by the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative rabbinical seminary and university of Jewish studies.

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