Zevachim 38: Do it Right

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

One of the first innovations of the Reform movement was the removal from the siddur of all references to Zion and the Temple. The emerging democracies of Europe, which had begun to treat the Jews as equal citizens, were to be our home[1]. The idea of yearning for the return to Jerusalem was a relic of a bygone era[2] and the notion of sacrifices in modernity viewed as absurd. Judaism, they argued, had moved beyond that stage in its development. Unlike the Reform movement[3], Conservative Judaism, well aware of the central role korbanot had played in our tradition, retained tefillat mussaf – which has as its primary theme the prayer for the return of the sacrifices. Yet, uncomfortable with their actual return, they changed the tense from future to past, such that Mussaf was no longer a prayer for the restoration of sacrifices in the future but a statement of their importance in the past. Needless to say, Orthodox Jews continue to pray for the return of the sacrificial order three times a day (though I imagine that there are those who don’t say that prayer with all that much kavanah). 

Unable to bring sacrifices in practice, our prayer became the substitute vehicle for coming closer to G-d: “We render instead of bullocks the offering of our lips” (Hoshea 14:3).

Yet prayer and sacrifice could not be more different. One may – at least on a Biblical level – pray when one wants, as often as one wants, where one wants and how one wants. We can say as much or as little as our hearts desire, and do so in the language of our choice. Nothing could be more different from the laws of sacrifice. There is no area of halacha that has greater regulation and regimentation than that of sacrifice. These laws are time and space specific, with every last detail set in stone. How to and who may sprinkle the blood; what one may wear; what animals one may offer and when; who can and can’t eat from which sacrifice; and on and on it goes[4]. One wrong move, and you could be looking at a penalty of karet, excision from the people of Israel. 

What unites tefillah and korbanot is not the outward manifestation of each rite, but the internal kavanah needed to render them effective. Tefillah is avodah shebalev, worship of the heart, with the words we say (meant to be) the external manifestation of our inner feelings, of our desire to communicate with G-d. Without proper kavanah, prayer is rendered almost meaningless. In theory, one who knows they will be unable to focus properly on the prayer at hand should not pray. The only reason we do so is because if we waited until we had proper kavanah, we might never end up praying. 

That our internal thoughts matter most is doubly true when it comes to korbanot. This is most readily seen in the laws of pigul, where one is liable for karet, excision, for eating a korban outside its allotted time if, and only if, one entertained such thoughts upon bringing the korban. Proper intent is the theme of the prophets who, time and time again, warn against the offering of sacrifices unaccompanied by the desire to improve one’s actions and sensitivity towards others. Even more than prayer, better not to bring a korban than to bring it improperly. And “improperly” casts a wide net. 

This idea can be seen in a rather obscure law regarding the sprinkling of the blood of a korban chatat, a sin offering. While one is supposed to sprinkle blood on all four corners of the altar, the korban is still valid provided one sprinkled blood on at least one corner. Once one does so, atonement can be granted and the other three sprinklings are no longer necessary. While they may not be necessary, if they are to be done, they must be done properly. “Rav Yochanan said: The three [additional] sprinklings cannot be done at night…and one who sprinkles the blood outside of the Temple is liable [for karet]” (Zevachim 38b). 

Korbanot, reflecting joy and hope for the future, must be brought in the daytime only: “The blood is invalidated with sunset”. And this applies to any and all blood. More significantly, one who offers this blood as an extension of the korban outside of the Temple – once built, the only place sacrifices were allowed – is liable for karet. One need not sprinkle the blood, but if one is to do so, better do so properly.

While the above may have little practical relevance, there is a corollary in the laws of prayer. One who forgets Yaaleh v’Yavo on Rosh Chodesh must, having missed the essence of the day, repeat the Shemoneh Esrei. However, such is only true regarding Shacharit and Mincha. If one forgets at Maariv, one need not repeat the Shemoneh Esrei as “we do not sanctify the moon at night”. A new moon can be declared only by day – hence, even if it might retroactively become Rosh Chodesh when one davens Maariv, by definition it cannot yet be Rosh Chodesh.

The Talmud could have given a simpler reason for not repeating Shemoneh Esrei, namely that the entire institution of Maariv is (or at least was at one time) voluntary. With no real obligation to daven, it should matter little if we left out Yaaleh v’Yavo. While we may not be fully obligated to daven Maariv, if we are going to daven, we must do so correctly. Saying something is optional allows one not to do it, but does not allow one to do so with half a heart. Better not to do it at all. 

This is not easy and is the reason the Talmud, rather counterintuitively, concludes that “greater is the one who is obligated and does the mitzvah than the one who is not obligated and does the mitzvah” (Kiddushin 31a). It is most difficult for a volunteer to do something with the same commitment as one obligated to do so[5]. This is why Judaism has so many obligations; left to our own devices, we are likely to come up short. 

 

[1] That our countries of residence are to be viewed as our second homes, and that we must pray for their welfare, dates back to Yirmiyahu’s instructions to the Babylonian exiles (see Yirmiyahu 29:7). Jews have taken this admonition very seriously, even in circumstances that we freedom-enjoying Jews find rather shocking. For example, 19th century Russian siddurim included prayers for the Czar, and the Rodelheim Siddur (the Koren/Artscroll of its day), as late as its 1938 printing, includes a prayer for the German government (sic). 

[2] This all changed with the Holocaust. While the Reform movement does not (yet?) yearn for a return of the sacrificial order, they are very much Zionist. All Reform prayer books since 1940 have included a prayer for the people (and later the State) of Israel. Moreover, the current siddur of the Reform movement, Mishkan T’filah, (the fact that it is in Hebrew is quite revealing, even revolutionary) published in 2007, even includes the phrase reisheet tzmichat geulateinu.  

[3] In another example of how the Reform movement has (thankfully) become much more traditional, when what is today the largest Reform congregation in Israel was being established, its members voted to daven (a modified) Mussaf. This despite the recommendation of the rabbi not to (personal conversation with the rabbi of the congregation, who happens to be my first cousin). Of course, all their tefillot are in Hebrew, undoing one of the major controversial early innovations of the Reform movement.  

[4] See the introduction to the Koren Siddur for an explanation of how these two very different forms of worship merged into one such that prayer has taken the place of sacrifices. 

[5] This explains why keeping kosher is so easy but dieting is so hard.