Biblical Sacrifice Question – updated

Command the children of Israel, and say unto them, My offering, [and] my bread for my sacrifices made by fire, [for] a sweet savour unto me, shall ye observe to offer unto me in their due season.

And thou shalt say unto them, This [is] the offering made by fire which ye shall offer unto the LORD; two lambs of the first year without spot day by day, [for] a continual burnt offering.

The one lamb shalt thou offer in the morning, and the other lamb shalt thou offer at even; And a tenth [part] of an ephah of flour for a meat offering, mingled with the fourth [part] of an hin of beaten oil.

[It is] a continual burnt offering, which was ordained in mount Sinai for a sweet savour, a sacrifice made by fire unto the LORD.

As I mentioned yesterday in my Seven Quick Takes, I’m reading through the Bible as part of the The King and I project.  The passage above is taken from Numbers 28:2-6, part of yesterday’s reading.  So far, in my reading, the lengthy descriptions of the proper form of sacrifices are second in dullness only to the genealogical recitations.  Unlike the ‘begats,’ the sacrifice laws are related to the practice of Judaism, not just its history, so they win out on interest.

But that leads me to a question: when did the Jews stop obeying all these highly detailed sacrifice laws?  I grew up in very Jewish (if very secular) Long Island, and certainly no one there was making sin offerings or burning livestock.

The precise details of sacrifice have gotten a lot of attention in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, so it’s hard for me to imagine how Jews would let these practices fall by the wayside, when they seem to be at the heart of the Pentateuch.  Christians have an excuse, since the sacrifice of Jesus replaced that of the paschal lamb, but what prompted the Jews to abandon these laws?


Edited to add: It didn’t occur to me that these laws might still be followed in more orthodox communities, but then I remembered an article from the NYT about Orthodox Jews who swing live chickens over their heads and then slaughter them as a sin offering for Yom Kippur.  Are these practices still common in highly observant communities?

Edited again to add: Commenters are suggesting that sacrifices could only be in the Temple which was most recently destroyed in 70 AD.  So were sacrifices on hold between the destruction of the first Temple and the construction of the second?  Why couldn’t Jews return to the mobile Tabernacle used in the desert?  Did all Jews live close enough to the Temple that they could participate in ritual, or was their part in the covenant satisfied by the actions of others?

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  • thomas tucker

    I think the answer to the question is after the destruction of the Temple.Someone correct me if i'm wrong.

  • Michael Haycock

    It's my impression that that the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD by Roman emperor Titus was main reason sacrifices were abandoned. Without the temple and the priests to operate it, sacrifices could not be performed. (Note the incredible emphasis on the temple in the Passover Haggadah.) Most consider the only possible place for a temple to be the Temple Mount in Jerusalem (despite the fact that in the wilderness, the tabernacle was a portable version of such, and there were the many years until Solomon in which there was no temple) – which, as you can imagine, causes some sectarian problems, as the current occupant of that space is the Dome of the Rock. Nevertheless, plenty of Christians (and, I'm sure, Jews) preach that the temple will be rebuilt on that location.

  • Anonymous

    Michael's comments sound accurate. My understanding of the chicken sacrifice on Yom Kippur is that it's a. the only sacrifice of its kind performed today and b. not connected to a specific biblical sacrifice commandment. I think it's an independent Yom Kippur tradition.Also, re: whether most Jews participated, it was traditional for as many Israelites as possible to walk to the Temple on Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot to participate in sacrifices/other holiday rituals.-David Steinberg

  • B. R. Lind

    My understanding also has always been that we stopped making sacrifices due to the destruction of the second Temple. I also second Mr. Steinberg's comment that it was traditional for Israelites to walk to the Temple on those festivals if possible.I think it's important to note that Judaism was not always the heavily book-centered, law-centered religion it is today. It was more of a loose set of beliefs and rituals practiced by the people of Judah/Israel. Prior to the construction of the first Temple, people made sacrifices at altars around the countryside, and some continued to do so even after the Temple was built (until around the 7th century BCE, according to my notes). The Tabernacle you mention predated the Torah itself.When the first Temple was destroyed (586 BCE I think?), Jews were exiled to Mesopotamia – a pretty traumatic event. It seems plausible to me that sacrifices went "on hold" during this period, but I'm not sure. I do know there was some assimilation (intermarriage, people taking Babylonian-sounding names, etc.), and not all Jews chose to return to Israel when the period of exile ended (yay Persia!).When the returning Jews rebuilt the Temple, the priests – who had helped the religion to stay alive in exile – became an even bigger deal than they were already, as there was no more Jewish monarchy. By the time the Temple was destroyed centuries later, I suspect it was unimaginable to perform sacrifices anywhere else. Temple sacrifices had a strong communal element, and many Jews were scattered by the war with Rome. Also, Judaism had become the more "scholarly" religion I know and love, with lots of old bearded men arguing about obscure laws; said men had decided that the sacrifices could only be performed at THE Temple. Meanwhile, Torah study and home ritual were supplanting Temple sacrifice as central features of Jewish life.

  • Doesn't anyone ever find the idea that God required sacrifices somewhat… upsetting? Even if God no longer does require them, the idea that he once did would be entirely discomforting to me.

  • @Matt – I think people find sacrifices upsetting. I think the main reason is because peole understand the demand for sacrifices to be divine sadism – as though God demands payment in destruction and pain.A book I've been reading offers this explanation:"I learned that the meaning of the word 'sacifice' is not 'vicarious victim' but 'holy gift.' In Hebrew, 'sacrifice' is korban, from the root karov, which means '[come] close [to God]' or communing tiwth God. The Hebrew word ola, which is oftne translated as 'holocost' means 'that which goes up.' … Combining these word themes, a holocaust sacrifice is a holy gift, complete, whole, offered in its entirety to God and representing the totality of the penitent's life, enabling him to ascend to and approach God without destruction."(Page 249 of Rev. Bernstein's Surprised by Christ)

  • The Samaritans in Palestine still enact these laws:

  • Also, all Halel meat prepared by Muslim butchers is offered up specifically as a sacrifice to Allah in order to make it suitable for consumption.And the Armenian Apostolic Church regularly offers up lambs and other animals, not as atoning sacrifice, but to honor God and feed the poor.Both of these point to one of the central aspects of sacrifice, which tend to be lost on a culture such as ours which is cut off from such practices: communal eating. So, for instance, the Aztecs practiced human sacrifice, and ate what they killed. So, too, the Passover lamb was also Passover dinner.

  • As a slightly off-topic comment to your line, "So far, in my reading, the lengthy descriptions of the proper form of sacrifices are second in dullness only to the genealogical recitations," when I had decided to read the whole Bible via my daily prayer time, I was moved to reflect on how perfect god's plan must for my life if he put that much attention into sacrifices and other rituals. It was quite moving. I thought that if he can spell out specific rules for curtain lengths, metals for various poles, the sizes of worship areas, colors to be used, etc… surely I'm so incredibly blessed that he cares so much more infinitely for me and has a very concrete and specific plan for my life.Just thought I'd share that!

  • thomas tucker

    An interesting article about Christ and His sacrifice can be read in the journal First Things in the January 2010 issue- entitled Treasures in Heaven. It is thought provoking. I hope this link will work: