June 2, 2024
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Animal Sacrifice Forever: Bava Metzia Daf 91

Avraham said before the Holy One Blessed be He, “Perhaps Israel will sin before You and then you will do unto them as You did to the generation of the Great Flood?”

“That will not happen,” God replied.

“How may I know that I shall inherit it?” asked Avraham.

And God said to him, “Take unto Me a heifer three years old, and a goat three years old, and a ram three years old, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon. The sacrifices will guarantee your eternal inheritance.”

Avraham said: “This surety will be effective when the Temple is in existence. What will become of my children when the Temple is destroyed?”

Hashem replied, “I have already established for them the Order of the Sacrifices. Whenever they read it, I shall consider it as though they offered a physical sacrifice before Me, and I shall forgive their sins.”

This exchange is the basis of our daily recitation of the Seder Korbanos—the Order of the Sacrifices—at the beginning of our prayer services. But how can uttering mere words fulfill our duty to offer tangible animal sacrifices?


The Torah forbids muzzling an animal while it is threshing or pairing two different species of animals to thresh together. Today’s daf examines whether the prohibition applies only to physical muzzling and animal pairing or even verbal cues that effectively muzzle or pair the animals, such as hollering at them to compel them to act in  a certain way.

Evidence for the efficacy of verbal cues is cited from Temurah, the tractate that deals with the transgression of substituting one sacrificial animal for another: An individual prepares an offering and subsequently decides that he was not ready to part with that particular animal. So, he picks a different one of his cattle to be sacrificed instead. The law states that both animals are now holy and must be offered as sacrifices. The tractate’s inaugural mishna states, “Anyone can substitute, both men and women.” The mishna then proceeds to clarify its statement: “That does not imply that it is permitted for a person to substitute. Rather, it means that if one did substitute, it is an effective substitution. And the transgressor incurs forty lashes.”

Substitution is a verbal activity that requires no tangible engagement. The mishna thus appears to establish that verbal cues are sufficiently potent to constitute a transgression.

אִיתְּמַר חֲסָמָהּ בְּקוֹל וְהִנְהִיגָהּ בְּקוֹל רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן אָמַר חַיָּיב רֵישׁ לָקִישׁ אָמַר פָּטוּר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן אָמַר חַיָּיב עֲקִימַת פִּיו הָוְיָא מַעֲשֶׂה רֵישׁ לָקִישׁ אָמַר פָּטוּר קָלָא לָא הָוֵי מַעֲשֶׂה אֵיתִיבֵיהּ רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן לְרֵישׁ לָקִישׁ
לֹא שֶׁאָדָם רַשַּׁאי לְהָמִיר אֶלָּא שֶׁאִם הֵמִיר מוּמָר וְסוֹפֵג אֶת הָאַרְבָּעִים אֲמַר לֵיהּ הָא מַנִּי רַבִּי יְהוּדָה הִיא דְּאָמַר לָאו שֶׁאֵין בּוֹ מַעֲשֶׂה לוֹקִין עָלָיו

If one muzzled an animal with his voice, or if he led different species using his voice, Rabbi Yochanan says he is liable; Reish Lakish says he is exempt. Rabbi Yochanan says he is liable because flexing one’s mouth is an action. Reish Lakish says he is exempt because merely using one’s voice is not an action. Rabbi Yochanan challenged Reish Lakish: “That does not imply that it is permitted for a person to substitute. Rather, it means that if one did substitute, it is an effective substitution. And the transgressor incurs forty lashes.” He responded: “Who is the author of this mishnah? Rabbi Yehuda, who maintains that lashes are warranted even for an actionless prohibition.”


Based on our Gemara, the Shelah explains the power of the daily Order of the Sacrifices to be presented in lieu of offering the physical animal. Rabbi Yochanan does not say that muttering is an action. He maintains that “flexing one’s mouth” constitutes physical activity. This implies something much more forceful than simply mouthing words. When a person is engaged in prayer and bewails his inability to offer animal sacrifices given the absence of the Holy Temple, he has the power to draw down into the world the same Divine energy as a sacrificial offering would.

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin was once visited by a group of Korean clergymen. At the conclusion of the synagogue tour, they turned to him, perplexed.

“Where is the altar?” they inquired. “In order to achieve atonement for sin, does the Bible not instruct the Children of Israel to sacrifice to God upon an altar?”

“That was only in the Holy Temple,” was Rabbi Goldin’s response.

“So, how do you achieve atonement now?” they asked him.

Of course, we know the answer to that question: We recite korbanos, and in the supernal cosmos our prayers achieve the same results as sacrificing an animal. But what was the premise of their question? Why could they not imagine atonement without sacrifice? And if sacrifice is so important, where is the altar in their churches?

Let’s discuss the nature of sacrifice. Unfortunately, even many Jews have warped views of the mechanism of sacrificial atonement, due to the prevalent gentile understanding. What does the idea of sacrifice conjure up in your mind? If you’re like most people, you would respond that the animal is offered upon the altar instead of the sinner. That interpretation, however, has crept into our minds from the notion that the “sacrifice” of Christianity’s founder is said to atone for his followers’ sins. After his death, they claim, there is no need to offer up animals on the altar because his sacrifice serves as a substitute and exchange for human sin.

But that concept is anathema to Judaism. So resolute is our rejection of sacrificial exchange that the Torah demands both the original and the substitution be designated offerings! There’s simply no such thing as spiritual substitution. That’s totally not the meaning of sacrifice. One need only look so far as the medieval Rashba’s critique of the “pagan” practice of kaparos. Waving a chicken and declaring, “This is my substitute, this is my exchange” may be normative Jewish practice today—and a tradition I cherish—but its origins are fairly recent.

In his explanation of the Temple sacrifices, Ramban presents Ibn Ezra’s idea that the animal serves as a redemption for the soul. While he emphasizes that the true meaning of the holy sacrifices transcends such conceptions, Ramban acknowledges that seeing the animal slaughtered and offered should awaken feelings of teshuva inside a person, as he contemplates, “What if I had to endure such an experience?” Nevertheless, there’s a significant difference between animal sacrifice as motivator vs. animal sacrifice as substitute.

What does the word korban mean? Its root is karov, meaning close or near. In Aramaic, the term korbana means a gift, and the connection between these ideas is that when you give someone a gift, you strengthen your relationship and grow closer to one another. God doesn’t need our animal offerings. However, He performs a tremendous kindness by allowing us to give Him a gift, thereby feeling closer to Him. That’s the meaning.  It has nothing to do whatsoever with exchange or substitution .

So, does that mean we shouldn’t translate korban as “sacrifice,” since it has nothing to do with giving up something for a greater need? Well, believe it or not, the word “sacrifice” doesn’t mean that either! In its original conception, the word simply means “sacred gift.” It was the Christian view of “sacrifice” that gradually associated the word with substitution and exchange. But that’s not what the word means, neither in Hebrew nor in English!

Nowadays, the “sacred gifts” we give Hashem come in the way of the recitation of the Order of the Sacrifices each day, along with all the physical mitzvos that we perform. It’s an incredible blessing that God affords us this opportunity, and most Torah-observant Jews seem to appreciate the unbelievable power of mitzvos. For some strange reason, however, they’re uncomfortable with an eventual return to animal sacrifice. Why do we need to kill an animal to give a gift to God?

Paradoxically, very few people have issues slaughtering a cow, beating the hide into leather straps, creating black boxes, and then wrapping them around our arms and head. And yet, they struggle when they read the section in the Torah that speaks of the relationship that we forge with God when we bring Him an animal gift. The difference is that we put on tefillin every day, while sacrifices feel so distant from our practice of Judaism. That’s why the daily recitation of the Order of Sacrifices is essential. Taking a few moments each day to ponder and learn about the meaning behind the sacrifices ensures the practice doesn’t feel so outlandish.

Don’t skip over the animal sacrifice portion of the prayer service. Don’t just mutter it, for that achieves precious little. May you flex your mouth and bend your mind each day until we merit the restoration of these vital mitzvos speedily in our days!

Rabbi Dr. Daniel Friedman is the author of The Transformative Daf book series. He teaches at Touro University’s Lander Colleges and his Center for Torah Values combats Christian anti-Zionism.

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