Blood for Thought: The Reinvention of Sacrifice in Early Rabbinic Literature

Blood for Thought: The Reinvention of Sacrifice in Early Rabbinic Literature

by Mira Balberg

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Blood for Thought delves into a relatively unexplored area of rabbinic literature: the vast corpus of laws, regulations, and instructions pertaining to sacrificial rituals. Mira Balberg traces and analyzes the ways in which the early rabbis interpreted and conceived of biblical sacrifices, reinventing them as a site through which to negotiate intellectual, cultural, and religious trends and practices in their surrounding world. Rather than viewing the rabbinic project as an attempt to generate a nonsacrificial version of Judaism, she argues that the rabbis developed a new sacrificial Jewish tradition altogether, consisting of not merely substitutes to sacrifice but elaborate practical manuals that redefined the processes themselves, radically transforming the meanings of sacrifice, its efficacy, and its value.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520295926
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 09/26/2017
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Mira Balberg is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Northwestern University. She is the author of Purity, Body, and Self in Early Rabbinic Literature.

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Missing Persons

In biblical narrative, the practice of sacrifice is almost as old as humankind itself. The very first sacrificial acts in the Bible, those of Cain and Abel, who decided to share portions of their harvest and flocks with God, are described not only as self-initiated (rather than expected or required), but also as intuitive. For a human being who is in relationship with a deity, the story presupposes, the occasional offering of some of one's property to the deity is an integral part of the interaction, and the acceptance — or in Cain's case, rejection — of this property by the deity is what constitutes this interaction as mutual and reciprocal.

The story of Cain and Abel is commonly attributed to the Yahwist (J) source of the Pentateuch, which repeatedly depicts ancestral figures such as Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as spontaneously performing sacrifices at key moments during their life dramas. Other biblical sources and strata present somewhat different perspectives on sacrifice as a religious practice. The Deuteronomic Code (D) emphasizes the critical importance of performing sacrifices only in the one centralized shrine, "the place that the Lord will choose," thus constructing sacrifice as a public act that requires a preplanned pilgrimage rather than as a private and spontaneous act, but nonetheless continues to portray sacrifice as the ultimate way in which one communicates with the deity — whether communicating joy and gratitude or fear and supplication. Similarly, the books associated with the "Deuteronomistic History" (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings) describe kings, warriors, and laypeople as offering sacrifices both in times of crisis or distress and in times of victory and celebration, their sacrifices always accompanying words of prayer. The Priestly Code (P), by far the biblical source that engages most extensively with sacrificial practices, is concerned more with the appropriate procedures for the performance of sacrifice than with the religious experiences or mind-sets that it conveys, procedures that for this code include a specialized personnel and a wide array of ritual requirements. However, P is clear that different sacrifices are used as certified modes of approaching the deity and managing his presence among his people, either by enticing him to dwell among them or by staving off his anger and preventing his destructive departure. Finally, in the Psalms the experience of making an offering to God in his temple is related as almost ecstatic in nature, and is put forth as the activity that gives the Psalmic liturgy both meaning and efficacy.

Despite the fact that different biblical passages refer to different kinds of sacrifices, in different settings and for different purposes, one can safely generalize that the very enterprise of performing a sacrifice is portrayed in the Hebrew Bible as a form of interaction between the offerer and the deity. Baruch Levine succinctly summarized the role of sacrifice in Israelite society as follows: "Like other ancient Near Eastern cults, that of the Jerusalem temple and of other [cultic] centers represented a complex of dynamic acts aimed at securing certain responses from the deity relevant to vital concerns of current urgency." We may debate about how different biblical authors understood the manner in which sacrifices actually work to secure responses from the deity — whether they saw animal or grain offerings as physically pleasing and desirable to God or saw them primarily as symbolic expressions of subordination and humility — but it is evident that sacrifice is construed in the biblical corpus as functioning within a relationship. Regardless of the type, participants, mood, or circumstances of the sacrifice, the basic paradigm is identical: on one end an offerer (either an individual or a group), on the other end God, and in between — allowing for the communication or transformation that the offerer is seeking — a sacrificial substance (animal, vegetable, etc.) and an altar. This interactive paradigm is commonly viewed as the universal governing logic of sacrifice as a transcultural and transhistorical phenomenon, as put by Fritz Graf: "Man, located between animal below and god above, makes use of the animal that is subject to his will and ownership in order to communicate with the gods who are not at his free disposition."

The pertinence of both addresser (offerer) and addressee (deity) to the sacrificial process is so patent in the Hebrew Bible that it is hard to imagine how the definitive role of either of those parties can be undermined in a literature that relies so heavily on the biblical corpus, such as the Tannaitic literature. Nevertheless, in this chapter and the next I endeavor to show that the rabbis transformed the concept of sacrifice and the workings of the sacrificial process in a way that marginalized both the giver and the receiver to the point of inconsequentiality. This marginalization, to be clear, is never enacted through explicit statements on the essence or workings of sacrifices, but rather through dozens of small and seemingly technical rulings on the specifics of sacrificial processes, and through intricate rhetorical edifices in which some aspects of sacrifice are highlighted and others obfuscated. As a result, the rabbinic sacrificial paradigm is notably different from the biblical one insofar as its governing logic is not that of interaction, and the framework that gives it meaning is not that of a relationship: rather than appearing as a vector of communication between individual and deity, sacrifice in rabbinic texts is constructed as a self-contained transaction for which neither side is necessary. This chapter focuses on the marginalization of the individual offerer ("the owner" in rabbinic terms) in the Tannaitic construction of sacrifice, whereas the next chapter explores the rabbinic redefinition of the sacrificial process itself and the resultant marginalization of the "receiver" within the sacrificial picture.

It is important to stress at the outset that in their move away from the relational framework of sacrifice, and in their strong focus on the sacrificial procedure itself to the point of bracketing the procedure's presumed addresser and addressee, the rabbis unquestionably take their main cues from the biblical Priestly Code. The priestly model of sacrifice has been described already by Julius Wellhausen, one of the founding fathers of modern biblical criticism, as rigid, impersonal, and highly structured, a model that differs radically from the intimate and interactive forms of sacrifice described in earlier biblical sources. According to Wellhausen, the concentration of the cult in the time of King Josiah turned sacrifice from a spontaneous ritual that could be carried out anywhere and anytime to a standardized procedure performed by authorized priests, and thus severed it from the owners' natural course of life and effectively made them dispensable. Whereas Wellhausen identified this feature of the Priestly Code with the postexilic historical circumstances of its creation, Israel Knohl (following in the footsteps of Yehezkel Kaufman) described the Priestly Code in somewhat similar terms but attributed those traits to a specific theological agenda. According to Knohl, the authors of the Priestly Code eradicated from their accounts of sacrifice any indication of prayer, supplication, or expression of emotion on the side of the offerers, as well as any reference to the personal or communal circumstances in which sacrifices are offered. This eradication reflects the priestly authors' overarching view of God as existing beyond the reach and comprehension of human beings, as a transcendent entity that can never be approached directly. Both Wellhausen and Knohl somewhat overstated their cases, and chose to ignore or dismiss priestly rhetoric and imageries that do present sacrifice as a communicative and reciprocal process. But they were undoubtedly right that compared to other biblical sources the Priestly Code generally downplays the interactive dimension of sacrifice and shifts the focus from the individual offerer to the priests who perform the procedure. In this respect as well as in others, the rabbis' sacrificial legislation can be seen as a continuation of the priestly model of sacrifice rather than as a divergence from it.

Nevertheless, I argue that a closer look at rabbinic sacrificial legislation reveals that the rejection of the interactive model and the marginalization of the giver in this legislation is much more thorough and purposeful than it is in the Priestly Code. Furthermore, the rabbis' tendency to push the owner out of the sacrificial scene is most evident especially in the junctures in which the rabbis present innovations or departures from the Priestly Code — that is, in the moments in which they break from the biblical blueprint rather than follow it. One such juncture is the rabbis' incorporation of thoughts and intentions into the sacrificial process as critical elements in assessing the validity of sacrifices, a notion that has no precedent in the Priestly Code; another juncture is the rabbis' rulings regarding the stage of the sacrificial ritual in which the owner lays his hands on the animal's head, rulings that noticeably deviate from the biblical texts on which they build. It is on these two junctures that this chapter will focus.

In the first part of this chapter, I discuss the role of intention, will, and state of mind in the rabbinic sacrificial system, and argue that the subjective mind-set of the owner vis-à-vis the offering is of surprisingly little consequence when it comes to assessing the validity of the sacrificial process — that is, to determining whether the process is considered to have been successfully completed or needs to be repeated. The disregard for the owner's state of mind is noteworthy not only in light of the rabbis' greater tendency to see intention and will as crucial components in the fulfillment or transgression of commandments, but especially in light of the fact that the intentions and thoughts of the priests play a critical role in assessing the validity of sacrifices.

In the second part of the chapter, I argue that the rabbis significantly restrict not only the subjective agency of the offerer but also his objective agency, that is, his actual participation in the sacrificial process. The ritual in which the owner lays his hands on the sacrificial animal prior to its slaughter, which in the Priestly Code seems to be a critical and indispensable component of the sacrificial process, is regarded in rabbinic texts either as desirable but inconsequential or as downright eliminable, but never as instrumental to the sacrificial process. The dismissal of hand laying, which effectively makes the offerer's presence and participation in the sacrifice optional or even redundant, is the most manifest expression of what I identify as a broad rabbinic rejection of the interactive model I described above. By way of conclusion to this chapter, I venture to explain the conceptual and ideational frameworks that motivated the marginalization of the owner, and more broadly the rejection of the interactive model, in the rabbinic sacrificial system.


One of the unmistakable trademarks of rabbinic legislation, in almost every area, is unprecedented emphasis on state of mind and intention. While the distinction between transgressions committed deliberately and transgressions committed erroneously certainly has some biblical roots, the rabbis overwhelmingly present thoughts and plans as decisive and oftentimes determining factors in the assessment of legal and ritual situations. Thus we find in the Mishnah the notion that a commandment fulfilled without proper "direction of the heart" is not considered to be fulfilled, that a murderer is judged based on whom he intended to kill rather than on whom he actually killed, that a plan to use an object suffices to make it susceptible to impurity, and so forth. It only stands to reason that a ritual such as sacrifice, which is construed so unequivocally as an expression of piety, devotion, and reverence in biblical texts, would be portrayed in rabbinic legislation as a process in which the owner's state of mind is of crucial importance. Indeed, this expectation is reasonable not only in light of the biblical model, but also in light of the common sacrificial norms in the Graeco-Roman world more broadly: as Fred Naiden showed, the most critical component of sacrifice in ancient Greece, without which it would be seen not only as incomplete but as utterly worthless, was the prayer of the offerer at the commencement of the sacrifice, which had to be perceived by the gods as genuine. Contrary to what one could expect, however, Tannaitic texts make the point that the offerer's intentions and mind-set have no bearing on the validity of the sacrifice.

To preempt any confusion or misunderstanding, it is necessary to establish very clearly the terms of the discussion that follows: the question of the validity of a particular sacrifice, with which I am concerned here, is wholly disparate from the question of whether this sacrifice is worthwhile or accepted approvingly by the deity. When the rabbis determine that a sacrifice is valid (kasher) or invalid (pasul) they assess only whether or not the sacrifice was performed correctly, in accordance with the required protocol: this can be decided exclusively by examining the manner in which the sacrifice took place and not by recourse to the deity's presumed predilections and reactions, which can only be assumed but never known. Of course, one could make a leap and maintain that declaring a sacrifice "invalid" effectively means that the inappropriate performance of the sacrifice makes God repudiate it, but it is important to note that the rabbis themselves never present the categories of valid/invalid sacrifices in these terms. Rather, they present these categories in purely procedural terms, such that the questions guiding the categorization are simply (a) whether or not the offering may be consumed (by priests, the owners, or the fire on the altar) and (b) whether or not the sacrifice must be repeated.

There is, famously, a long-standing notion in biblical and post-biblical tradition that sacrifices offered by morally corrupt people, or performed without appropriate pious disposition, are undesirable and even repugnant to God. This idea surely resonated with the rabbis, and is indeed echoed in several Tannaitic passages that present obedience and reverence as what makes God approve of sacrifices: thus, for example, tractate Menahot of the Mishnah concludes with the proclamation that it does not matter whether one brings a substantial animal offering or a meager grain offering "as long as one directs one's heart to Heaven." However, divine approval is never conflated in rabbinic texts with validity: the latter is discussed in legal-ritual texts as a function of the sacrificial process itself and never as a function of the purpose of the sacrifice or the ethical standing of the offerer, whereas the former is presented in markedly moralistic or homiletic traditions that refer explicitly to the will and reactions of God. My argument, then, should not be understood as a wholesale assertion that "the rabbis don't care about the offerer's intentions"; rather, what I argue is that the rabbis do not assign importance to the offerer's intentions in assessing the ritual validity of sacrifices.

It is especially in light of the notion that sacrifices must be offered with a pure heart and out of genuine piety that the rabbis' disregard for the offerer's intention in considering the validity of sacrifices is all the more conspicuous. Not only do the rabbis have no qualms about presenting thoughts and intentions as constitutive of legal actions and situations in other ritual arenas, but they even assign crucial importance to intentions and thoughts in the sacrificial process itself — but not to the intentions and thoughts of the offerer (to whom they refer as "owner"). In what follows, I demonstrate and discuss three aspects of the inconsequentiality of the owner's intentions in rabbinic sacrificial legislation: the role (or lack thereof) of the owner's will in the sacrificial process, the mental designation of the offering for appropriate purposes, and the ability of wrongful thoughts and plans to disqualify the offering.


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Table of Contents


1. Missing Persons
2. Th e Work of Blood
3. Sacrifice as One
4. Th ree Hundred Passovers
5. Ordinary Miracles

Conclusion: The End of Sacrifice, Revisited
Subject Index
Source Index

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