Thoughts on the Korbanot (Sacrifices) and Rabbi Ishmael

Our sages taught that one of the most basic commandments, one that surpasses them all is the mitzvah of Talmud Torah, study of Torah. Its pre-eminence stems from their belief that the more one studies our tradition, the better one knows how to perform the other commandments and the more likely one is to follow through and observe them. Of course, not everyone has the leisure to devote themselves to Torah study all day long. Thus the sages decided to create opportunities within our daily prayers for study even if these are merely symbolic.

We saw this idea some time back when we looked at the prayers which introduce the morning service. There we found a series of blessings thanking God for the mitzvah of engaging in Torah study followed by three brief passages: a passage from the Torah (the priestly blessing in the book of Numbers), an excerpt from the Mishnah of Peah on those mitzvot that have no limit, and a brief passage from the Talmud in Kiddushin about mitzvot that have both a reward in this world, but whose main reward awaits in the world to come. These passages stress primarily our obligations toward other people as well as the importance of studying Torah. In the Ashkenazic tradition, this whole section precedes the introductory morning blessings and is supposed to be read by the individual worshiper before the service actually begins. In other traditions, this brief section is moved a little later in the Birchot HaShachar and it is followed immediately by a much longer selection which again follows the pattern of Torah, Mishnah, and Talmud. This second collection is known generically as “the korbanot,” sacrifices, for that is its focus. In Orthodox Ashkenazic prayerbooks the second section appears independently at the conclusion of the Birchot HaShachar.

In Temple days, the kohanim, the priests, offered an olah, a sacrificial offering burnt in its entirety on the altar, on behalf ot the people of Israel, each morning and every afternoon. These were known as olot tamid, the perpetual sacrifices. There was a detailed, precise procedure that was followed in offering these sacrifices and for various offerings for other purposes. In the absence of the Temple and in our inability to bring those two daily offerings, we substitute the Tefillah, the Amidah prayer, at Shacharit and again at Minchah. However, as we saw with the passage on the incense and again when we looked at the daily psalms, the sages felt that even when we cannot perform these rituals any more, studying them and reading about their laws can partially make up for their absence and be considered on high as if we actually offered these sacrifices on the altar. Thus by including these passages in the morning service we fulfill two goals. We study a bit of Torah and we remind ourselves of the sacrifices of old and thereby partially fulfill our obligation to bring these offerings.

This section then, in its basic form, contains first a selection from the Torah from Numbers 28, describing the daily sacrifice. This is followed by a whole chapter from the Mishnah of Zevachim, the tractate which teaches the laws of animal sacrifices: where they are to be offered on the altar, where to place their blood, and in the case of some sacrifices, who gets to eat their meat and where. The third passage is not actually from the Talmud, but rather is the introduction to the early halachic Midrash on Leviticus, known as Sifra, in which Rabbi Ishmael enumerates thirteen principles by which the rabbis derive laws from the Torah. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests that this selection was chosen because Leviticus emphasizes the sacrificial rites and it teaches how we move from the written law to the oral teachings of the sages.. The whole passage ends with a prayer for the restoration of the Temple and asks that God grant us our portion in the Torah.

Comparing different traditional prayerbooks, I discovered some variation in practice. My pocket edition of the Authorized Siddur of the United Kingdom, with commentary by the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, provides only these three sections. However in the standard full-size edition of the Koren prayerbook, also with Rabbi Sacks' commentary, and in the Art Scroll siddur, one finds quite a number of additional readings included. The Koren volume notes that customs vary as to which selections are read and that one should follow the custom of one's own synagogue. I may note that some Traditional congregations that I have visited skip over most of the korbanot section and read only the concluding passage attributed to Rabbi Ishmael, followed by the Kaddish d'Rabanan which we recite following the study of rabbinic texts. I served for a time in a congregation in Tulsa, OK, where the entire passage of korbanot was read each day, usually too fast for anyone to keep up with it.

The fuller version of this section of korbanot is quite formidable, but very interesting. It includes quotations from the Torah about the laver from which the kohanim washed their hands and feet prior to serving in the Temple, and the procedure for removing the ashes from the altar (terumat hadeshen) which also preceded the offering of the Tamid. Only then do we find the passage from Numbers 28 about the Tamid. This expanded version also includes after the verses on the Tamid, the passage from the Torah about compounding the incense as well as the selection from the Mishnah that we usually find after Ein Keloheinu, that gives details about the incense offering. There is also a whole section on the order of the priestly functions in the Temple. Between these sections one also finds some short prayers inserted. On Shabbat and on Rosh Chodesh, one also is to insert the biblical passages regarding the musaf offerings for those days before getting to the chapter from the Mishnah of Zevachim that I mentioned. It is easy to see why many Orthodox congregations opt either for the shorter version or simply skip to the passage from Sifra with Rabbi Ishmael's principles of interpretation. Even on Shabbat, few people want to spend that much time reading about ancient sacrificial rituals.

Conservative prayerbooks generally omit references to the sacrificial system throughout the service, especially prayers calling for its restoration. This is based on a teaching by Maimonides in his Guide of the Perplexed that sees animal sacrifice as a temporary measure for ancient people accustomed to this mode of worship, but now in our time replaced by prayer instead. Thus the old Rabbinical Assembly prayerbook known better as the “Silverman prayerbook” from 1945, omits the korbanot section except for the Rabbi Ishmael selection. The problem remaining even with this relatively short passage is that most congregants have little idea what Rabbi Ishmael is saying even in the English translation. Some of the thirteen principles are rather hard to understand even for many rabbis. So a number of people questioned why we should bother reading this section altogether since it so difficult to understand.

A solution was offered in the 1985 Siddur Sim Shalom. There, Rabbi Ishmael's principles have been eliminated and instead we find an introductory passage from Avot d'Rabbi Natan, an early expansion on Pirke Avot, that reads: “Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai was walking with his disciple Rabbi Joshua near Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple. Rabbi Joshua looked at the Temple ruins and said, 'Alas for us! The place which atoned for the sins of the people Israel through the ritual of animal sacrifice lies in ruins!' Then Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai spoke to him these words of comfort: 'Be not grieved, my son. There is another way of gaining atonement even though the Temple is destroyed. We must now gain atonement through deeds of loving-kindness.' For it is written, 'Loving-kindness I desire, not sacrifice (Hosea 6:6)”

The editors followed this introduction with four selections from rabbinic texts that speak about gemilut chesed, doing deeds of loving-kindness. One may select one or more of these passages to read in Hebrew or English. At the end, a new version of the closing prayer appears which reads, based on a the statement by Hillel in Pirke Avot, urging one to be a disciple of Aaron the High Priest: “May it be Your will, Lord our God and God of our ancestors, to grant our portion in Your Torah [this part was in the original version]. May we be disciples of Aaron the Kohen, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving our fellow creatures and drawing them near to the Torah.” This then is followed by the Kaddish d'Rabbanan.

Apparently, some rabbis and congregants missed Rabbi Ishmael's passage from Sifra, so it was included once more in the 1998 edition of Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals as an alternative option to the new section on loving-kindness. One may choose one or the other or read both. After these two passages, the editors provide a choice of closing prayers, both the new version from Sim Shalom 1985 and the old version from the traditional prayerbook calling for the restoration of the Temple worship. In a separate volume entitled Or Hadash, the text of this siddur is accompanied by a commentary by my late colleague Rabbi Reuven Hammer and in the introduction to the Siddur there are several pages explaining the thirteen principles of Rabbi Ishmael for those who wish to understand them better.

The second edition of Siddur Sim Shalom had a second volume for weekday services, which includes Rabbi Ishmael's principles as one option but instead of the passage about Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai and the readings about lovingkindness as the primary option, they provide a completely different selection of readings for Torah study. They begin with a quotation from Pirke Avot: “Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel taught: The world rests on three principles: on justice, on truth and on peace – as it is written: 'With truth, justice, and peace shall you judge in your gates.' (Zechariah 8:16)” This introduction is followed by selections from rabbinic texts on justice, truth, and peace. For each value, three or four texts are provided and one may read any or all of these as one's study for the day. Following this whole section and Rabbi Ishmael's principles, also an option, one finds the choice of the two closing prayers as in the Shabbat version.

The most recent Conservative prayerbook, Lev Shalem, has moved the short study session from the earlier place in the Birchot Hashachar to this location. We have the blessings for Torah study, followed by the usual passages from the Torah, Mishnah, and Talmud mentioned earlier. This is followed by a section entitled “Additional Passages of Study” which provides two selections. The first is a lengthy passage from the sixth chapter of Pirke Avot on the qualities that are desirable for the study of Torah and the second is our old friend, Rabbi Ishmael and his thirteen principles of interpreting the Torah. As throughout Lev Shalem, there are sidebars to help the reader understand the passages. At the conclusion of this section is a quotation from the Holiness Code in Leviticus 19 including the injunction to love your neighbor as yourself, followed by a choice of the two closing prayers we have noted before.

The Reform prayerbook, Mishkan Tefillah, also provides a short study section in the early portion of the morning service. It begins with the blessings for the study of Torah, followed by the text of the Mishnah from Peah that is in the traditional prayerbook. Following that passage are three “Study Texts,” the first by a venerable Reform rabbi, Herbert Bronstein, on the importance of studying and teaching Torah, the second the passage from Maimonides which lists the eight degrees of giving Tzedakah, and the last by the first woman to perform rabbinical duties in the United States in the 1950s, Paula Ackerman, urging lay people to become more Jewishly educated. From what I read about her, when her rabbi husband passed away, she stepped in to take his place in the congregation, setting an example for others to follow of lay people taking on responsibility for leading our worship.

Thus we see that over time, the Korbanot section of the morning service has developed, particularly in non-Orthodox circles, to emphasize the study component rather than the sacrifices themselves. Personally, I found the most clever refashioning of this section to be the introduction of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai's substitution of deeds of loving-kindness for sacrifices and then proceeding to study about loving-kindness in place of teachings about ancient sacrificial offerings. Mishkan Tefillah's addition was a reminder that we no longer are dependent on kohanim to represent us before God, but we all have the opportunity through study to become leaders in our communities.

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