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The Jews and the Mosaic Law

By Isaac Leeser (1843).

Chapter 18

The Sacrifices.

It will be easily discovered in reading the preceding chapter, that the festivals, and the ceremonies attending them, are not founded upon superstitious usages; but that they are intended to preserve to the latest posterity the memory of those events, which are recorded as the cause of their being instituted. Thus was the Passover instituted to celebrate annually our redemption from Egypt; the Pentecost (שבועות Shavuoth), the promulgation of the law from Sinai, and the Tabernacle feast, that for forty years our almighty Redeemer cause our ancestors to live in tents by Him provided, and that He, through all this time, held His protecting arm over them, and provided for all their wants, and supplied them with the necessaries of life. The first day of the seventh month is, as has been mentioned above, the New-year's-day, the day on which all the world is judged; and the tenth of the same month is the Day of Atonement, on which sins sincerely repented, faults positively amended, and injuries done to our neighbors atoned for by full reparation having been made them, will be forgiven by God to those who seek his forgiveness.

But some may say again: "We will admit that the festivals can be construed to mean very pretty things; but what have you Jews to say in favor of the sacrifices? Can any man seriously believe that the blood of an animal can operate as a forgiveness for his sins — or rather, can it be taken, according to your opinion, as a full expiation for offenses committed?"

To answer this query properly we will not proceed to investigate, according to the truths laid down in the Pentateuch and the prophets, the view of the offerings, and how and when they were required. — First: "Did the Jews believe that they could be forgiven when they sinned wilfully, at the same time promising a sacrifice in atonement of this sin? And: Granted the Mosaic law did not countenance such a practice, had not the Jews degenerated so much at the commencement of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, as to deem such unhallowed conduct justifiable?"

We must, unhesitatingly, answer both questions in the negative; for the Mosaic law did not teach that a man might sin, and bring an ox as an atonement; nor did the Rabbins and Pharisees, at the time of Tiberius, teach any thing like it, but just the contrary. And although it has often been asserted, that at various times, if not throughout their whole existence, the Jews looked upon the blood of animals as the only thing requisite to obtain atonement for any sin committed: the contrary will be apparent, if any man will but candidly examine the passages from our writings I am going to adduce in support of this assertion.

In the book Leviticus we find nowhere that willful sins could be expiated by sacrifices alone; on the contrary, we read in Numb. chap. 35. that no expiation could be made by a murderer, except with his life; analogous crimes were punished without accepting bail or mainprize (Levit. chap. 24:21.); and (ibid. chap. 27:29.) we find that no man condemned for a crime (not devoted as incorrectly rendered in the Eng. vers.) could be redeemed, but was absolutely to die. — What, then, was the object of the sacrifices? How were they brought? And on what occasions?

In studying the book of Leviticus we shall discover that sacrifices were national and individual. The national sacrifices, — i.e. those for the whole congregation — were either the daily burnt-offerings תמידים, the additional sacrifices מוספים for the Sabbaths and festivals, or sin-offerings חטאות, when the whole congregation had acted contrary to a principle of the law; as, for instance, if the Sanhedrin had given a wrong decision upon a question of law referred to them, and all the Israelites had acted according to this erroneous decision, but contrary to the will of God, as laid down in the law. (Lev. iv.) The אנשי מעמד spoken of above in chap. xiv. attended at these sacrifices, as the representatives of the people, except at the national sin-offering, where the Elders, who were the cause of the sin, themselves attended and imposed their hands upon the head of the victim; and on the Day of Atonement the high priest was obliged to do the same with the goat destined as the offering for the whole people. (See Lev. chap. iv. v.15. and ibid. xvi. v.21.)

Private or individual sacrifices were either brought when a man had, through ignorance, offended against one of the principal negative precepts, the offering in this case was called חטאת sin-offering; or when he had wronged his fellow man, or committed one of the other sins enumerated in Leviticus, for which a trespass-offering אשם was to be sacrificed; or when he had escaped an imminent danger, for which a תודה i.e. thanksgiving-offering, was brought; or at last offerings which a man voluntarily obliged himself to bring, which were of two kinds, שלמים peace and עולה burnt-offerings, though the latter were frequently offered as an atonement for evil thoughts, when a man had not accomplished the intended sin or trespass. It is useless to explain the various kinds of sacrifices, which were either of horned cattle, sheep, goats, birds, or fine flour, and in one instance barley meal, (Numb. chap. v. v.15.), as these can easily be found out by turning to the law book itself; I shall therefore proceed at once to explain the reasons and purpose of the sacrifices.

God is just and merciful to all His creatures, for He maintains all through His infinite kindness, and has, as we have seen, given them a law, which, if obeyed, must lead a man to happiness. To obey, therefore, the will of God, is nothing more than to show our gratitude to Him by following the rules which He has marked out for our happiness, and, in consequence, we shall be made happy, if we are, in every sense of the word, religious. — To disobey the word of God is ingratitude, and we therefore, by our own actions, discard happiness and choose misery and punishment. If a man sins willfully he can blame only himself for misery he may draw upon himself by his acts; and if these offenses be committed against the peace of society, he will be punished by those entrusted with the management of public affairs, and who are, therefore, guardians for the time being, of the public welfare — that is, the happiness and peace of society. — But if he should transgress, not the laws of men, but the statutes of God, should he not in this case also deserve punishment? Shall the laws of God be transgressed with impunity, when those of men must be obeyed to the letter? Certainly not, and whatever may be said about the cruelty it would appear in the Deity to punish man hereafter for sins committed in this life; yet will every thinking man see, upon a moment's reflection, that God cannot be blamed for that, which man by his own wickedness and willful folly draws upon himself, when he had the power to avoid the evil. — But for wrong actions done unknowingly or in ignorance man cannot, with any degree of justice, be punishable to an equal extent with sins committed willfully. Yet a wrong action, a sin, has been committed, and the harmony of right has been disturbed; and then man should always be watchful, always consider himself acquainted with his duty; he ought, therefore, to make atonement for his sins, he ought to show that he is sorry for having offended his God, who maintains him and watches over him. He was for this reason obliged to bring a sin-offering to the temple door, lay his hands upon its head, and kill it, or have it killed, as a sin-offering. (Lev. chap. 4:33.) The meaning of this is: that the offerer, who wished to be forgiven, was to ask of God the forgiveness of his transgression, whilst imposing his hands upon the head of the victim, and then have this animal killed, with a view that it was intended for this particular occasion. No foreign thoughts were to obtrude during the sacrifice; but the sinner's attention was to be riveted to the ceremony; and he was to consider, that as he himself had laid his hands upon the head of the beast, thus had he himself deserved the imposition of hands by the witnesses of his crime, previous to execution, (Ibid. chap. 24:14.); as the blood of the beast was flowing, thus had he deserved to be dealt with, and so on at every stage and ceremony during the sacrifice. If a man truly penitent, thus prepared and so doing, came before the altar of God, can it be doubted that the sacrifice was obliged to work a reformation in him? And again, can any man gainsay that he ought to have been forgiven, if he was sincerely sorry for what had past, and acted for the future as he had determined during the moment of holy enthusiasm?

As has been said above, if a man has sinned it is absolutely necessary that he should make an atonement of some sort or other. If he commits theft or otherwise wrongs another person, it is but just that he should make restitution to the full extent of the injury he has done. But though he thus satisfy his neighbor, yet he has also offended his God, for every breach of duty against the peace of society is an offense against the law of our God, whose object, in promulgating it, was the happiness of mankind, as has been already sufficiently established in the foregoing. — Any man, therefore, who had been guilty of such a sin, as just mentioned, was to bring a trespass-offering in expiation, and its treatment was in almost every respect similar to that of the sin-offering.

When the traveller in the pathless desert had felt the keen blast of the poisonous Simoom, when he had expected to perish amidst the endless sand, for want of water, for lack of food: it was his duty, after he had reached the residence of men, to return, publicly, thanks to his God, and to bring to His altar the תודה (Todah) the offering of thanksgiving. — When amidst the storm of the battlefield he had sunk overpowered by fatigue, and been led away captive, and had long lingered in hopeless captivity in the land of his enemies: he was also to testify his gratitude when he had returned to the bosom of his family. — When a man had been thrown upon the bed of sickness, all his bones had ached, when he loathed food and a speedy death had been impending over him: when he recovered he was bound to proclaim, before all, the mercy of his Deliverer from death, and with his thanks bring the offering as ordained. — When the seafaring man had encountered a furious storm, while the waves dashed the frail bark to and fro, when the master had exhausted all his skill in vain, and expected, in mute despair, the wreck of his ship: when then God's mercy had been manifested to him, and the storm abated, and the sea calmed, and he had been permitted to enter the port of his destination in safety — he was obliged to praise God before the assemblage of people, and to repair to the altar with the sacrifice.

We have thus a brief view of the object of this sacrifice; but who is bold enough to call it superstitious, when we must admit, even without the aid of revelation, that we are bound by mere common gratitude, when we have escaped from danger, to return thanks to Him who is the disposer of our fate; and how can our gratitude to Him be better shown, than if, by a public acknowledgement of His mercy, we induce others, who may have strayed from His ways, to love, to fear, and to adore Him?

When, at last, a man saw himself blessed and all around him cheerful, he brought a peace-offering, of which all his friends were usually invited to partake. This sacrifice, the firstlings and the annual tithe of the increase of the flocks, were permitted to be eaten for the space of two days and one night, but all the other sacrifices, those I mean, which were eaten after midnight of the first day, and whatever was left after this time, was to be burnt. (See various passages of Leviticus relating to the sacrifices.) It is well known, that it was unlawful for any Israelite to sacrifice out of the precincts of the temple, and the tendency therefore of the frequent offerings was to bring the people often to the house of God, where an interchange of opinions and acts of friendship could and did take place. And the greater the individual happiness of the Israelites was, the greater must have been the benefit arising from those meetings, for when a man is happy himself, and actuated by motives of true religion, he will always be glad to rejoice when others are happy, and he will try to do all in his power to promote general satisfaction around him.

Though the private burnt and peace-offerings are spoken of in the law, yet were we never commanded to bring such offerings; for in this, as in other acts of virtue, the Almighty never intended to force our inclinations, but left it altogether to our own free choice to bring such sacrifices or not. He even tells us (Deut. chap. 23:23) that we should commit no sin, if we made no vows at all; but on the other hand, He most strenuously exhorts us to keep strictly to our vows, for their violation is highly offensive to Him.

We have thus seen briefly exhibited the nature of the sacrifices; but it may be asked: "Did not the Jews think themselves absolved from sin by the mere sacrifice of beasts and a pretended reformation?"

That such opinion may have taken root amongst our ancestors, I cannot positively disprove, though it is highly improbable; but this I can say with the utmost confidence, that if they ever thought so, it was contrary to what they had ever been taught by the prophets. — The first lesson on this subject we find in 1 Samuel chap. 15:22. Samuel had ordered Shaul (Saul) to go and slay all the Amalekites and to suffer not even a beast to live. Shaul did go and conquered the Amalekites, but took the best of the cattle along with him; and when the prophet enquired of him at their meeting after his return, "about the voice of the sheep he heard," he answered him frankly, that "they (the sheep) had been brought from the enemies' country, and that they were intended for sacrifices." Hereupon Samuel said, and I beg every Jew and every stranger to our faith to consider with attention his words: "Does the Eternal find as much pleasure in burnt-offerings and sacrifices as in hearkening to the voice of the Eternal? Behold, to hearken, is better than a fine sacrifice, and to obey better than the fat of rams! For disobedience is equal to the sin of witchcraft, and refusing to comply is like idolatry and image-worship." The speech of Samuel is too plain to be misunderstood, for he is here correcting an error into which Shaul had fallen, and of course it must be conceded, that sacrifices were not according to the Mosaic law and the opinion of the good amongst the Israelites the only thing necessary for the absolution of sins. — This position is incontrovertible; but since the truth of the prophets has been so frequently assailed, since their motives have been so often misrepresented, since their doctrines are so little understood: I shall give concurrent evidence from three others, according to our belief, inspired writers, namely Asaph, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, in accordance with Samuel's address, and thus force even the most obdurate to admit, that the assertion in the commencement of this chapter is correct.

First, as to Asaph; the opinion of the holy bard is found in Psalm 50. v.7, &c., where he speaks in the person of the Deity: "Hear me, my people, whilst I speak, Israel! Whilst I testify against thee: I AM GOD, THY GOD! Not for thy sacrifices will I reprove thee, nor need thy burnt-offerings be continually before me. I will not an ox from thy house, nor a ram from thy enclosures; for Mine are all the beasts of the field, the cattle on the mountains by thousands; I know all the birds of the mountains, and all that moves upon the field is with Me. When I hunger, I need not tell thee, for Mine is the universe and all that is in it. — Shall I eat the flesh of the fattened sheep? And drink the blood of the rams? Offer up thy thanks unto God, and then pay the Most High thy vows. And call on Me in the day of affliction, and I will help thee out. — Thus only thou honorest Me!" Here the Psalmist plainly tells us, that not sacrifices alone are agreeable to God, for "when He hungers He need not tell us, for all the world is His;" but His chief delight (if I may so express myself) is, that we show ourselves grateful for His kindness by our actions, and honor Him by word and thought!

Isaiah (chap. i. v.11,) exclaims in the bitterness of his heart: "To what use serves me the great quantity of your sacrifices, says the Eternal, I am tired of the burnt-offerings of rams, and the fat of fattened sheep; I no longer desire the blood of oxen, of sheep, and of goats. And when you come to appear before me — who asked it of your hands to tread (the floor of) my courts? Bring no longer your insincere meal-offerings, for it is incense of abomination to me," &c.

Again, chap. lxvi. v.3, he says: "He who kills an ox, slays a man; he who sacrifices a lamb, breaks the neck of a dog; he who brings a meal-offering, sacrifices a swine; he who burns incense, brings as it were stolen property as a present; they also chose their own ways, and their soul delighted in their abominations."

In the 57th chapter, Isaiah explains what kind of fasting can be agreeable to God, from all which it appears, that no outward show can, according to the opinion of Isaiah, tend to operate as an expiation for sins.

Jeremiah confirms the assertion of Samuel, Asaph, and Isaiah, in the following words: "For I did not say to your fathers, nor did I command them, on the day when I carried them out of Egypt, any thing about burnt-offerings or sacrifices. But this matter commanded I them, as follows: "Hearken to my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be My people, and you shall go in all the ways which I will command you, that good may be done to you." (Jeremiah vii. v.22 and 23).

There are other passages in the Bible to prove that the Jews did not think slaying an animal sufficient for an atonement if not accompanied with sincere repentance, and amelioration of the former course of life of the sinner, if the offense was against God alone, or reparation of the injury done to man — before a sacrifice would be supposed to be acceptable to the Deity.

Instead now of the Jewish sacrifices being a superstitious rite, like those of the Romans, Greeks, and other nations, they were on the contrary intended to draw forth the finest feelings which grace human nature: in the first place, love and gratitude to God; secondly, restitution of property, unlawfully obtained from our fellow-men; and lastly, they were eminently useful to make ourselves better men, and more fitted to receive the blessings of the Most High, whose forgiveness we always implored by the act of sacrificing. — Another noble feature does this law of sacrifices present to our view. After our legislator had detailed in the first chapter of Leviticus the regulations to be observed at the sacrifice of an ox, of sheep, and goats, and of pigeons: he next laid down, by the order of the Almighty, the rules for the sacrifice of a handful of meal, the offering of the poor. Here we find also many regulations for, and a description of the various modes in which the poor man could bring his humble offering; thus showing, that the poor man's pittance will be no less acceptable to the Father of all, than the rich man's magnificent present; as we are also taught by our Rabbins: "No less he who gives little, than he who gives much, will be acceptable, provided he steadily direct his heart and thoughts to the honor of Heaven."

Some canting heathen may perhaps whine about the cruelty of our priests in sacrificing innocent animals, and refer with exultation to the Brahmins, who never even eat meat. But this objection, if it be really urged, is really too nonsensical almost to deserve the least notice; since, however, I wish to proceed step by step, I shall endeavor to break its force by a few words. Well then, philosophers, if you yourselves will abstain from animal food altogether, I would be compelled to admit this your argument of some weight; but it is hardly probable that you are resolved to sacrifice this much to your principles of universal benevolence, for all of you are too fond of what good things this life affords to act so; but even if you did, that could be no reason why we should abstain from that which our law allows us. All the brute, vegetable, and mineral creation was made subservient to man: is not this true? — To proceed: in the first ages of the world, namely, before the flood, animal food was not allowed to man, and it was only first permitted to Noah. (Genesis ix.) Since then animals may be slaughtered for our own use, could we make a nobler use of this permission, than to dedicate them to the service of our Maker? — "But the Brahmins?" — But let me ask you, do they not burn widows alive upon the funeral piles of their husbands? Do they not sacrifice men to their idols? Is not in fact their religion, if religion it be, more like brutality than wisdom? — I may therefore freely assert, that the objection on that score against the sacrifices is of no force.

We must now investigate the last part of the introductory question, namely: "Had not the Jews degenerated at the commencement of the reign of Tiberius, so much as to think that sacrifices were alone an atonement for all sins?"

It is well known that the Rabbins, or the Scribes and Pharisees so often mentioned in the gospels, were apparently very pious men, for even the gospels admit this; neither can it be denied that they stood always very high in the estimation of their brethren. Can it be possible, I ask, that they should have obtained and preserved such immense influence from the days of Ezra to the present hour, if their interpretation of the law had been contrary to the generally received opinion? It must, therefore, be admitted, even if there were no positive argument of the fact, that the Jews, in the time of Tiberius, had the same opinion concerning the sacrifices, which they were taught to entertain by Jeremiah and his predecessors; and in consequence, that the Scribes and Pharisees did not believe that willful sins could be atoned for by offering sacrifices, or by any other means save suffering the punishment decreed for the offenses committed. — But that this was their opinion we are enabled to prove by positive argument; for we read in Yomah, perek viii. Mishnah 8: "A sin-offering and a trespass-offering with repentance will operate as an atonement." — Mishnah 9: "He who says, 'I will sin and repent, I will sin and repent,' will never have it in his power to repent. He who says, 'I will sin, and the Day of Atonement shall be my expiation,' will not be forgiven on the Day of Atonement. Sins between God and man will be forgiven on the Day of Atonement, but not those between man and man, till the offender has made reparation to the other."

This proves most clearly that at no time of our national existence was it considered pardonable to commit sins with a view of obtaining forgiveness by sacrifices or any other method; for it was always well understood, that to obey the word of God is the greatest virtue, and disregarding His law the greatest vice. It must, therefore, be admitted, that all the expiatory offerings were instituted for sins committed unconsciously or without premeditation — or without having known the action to be sinful. Trespass-offerings, as we have seen, could only then be acceptable when the wronged party had been satisfied; and the other offerings were either brought to return thanks in public, when a man had escaped from danger, or to testify his gratitude for benefits received from the Deity; and the national sacrifices were brought in the name of all Israel, either as atonement for sins or as an acknowledgement of national gratitude. — All this was when our temple yet stood, — the temple called by God's name; — but now our altar lies prostrate, our glorious temple exists no longer — and we wander about without priest, without sacrifice, without incense — and nought is left us but the words of our mouth in our prayers, and the study of the law, as a substitute for the sacrifices once offered up before God's temple. We hope, however, that He will receive our prayers graciously, and look down upon our desolate condition — upon the ruined towers of Jerusalem — upon the walls of the temple blackened by the fire of the enemy — and have mercy upon the dispersed and despised remnant of Israel, who have for so many centuries suffered the just burden of His wrath, and the weight of His chastisement. May He then speedily gather us from all the countries of the earth, reinstate us in our land, restore Zion, and cause again the halls of the temple to re-echo with our songs of thanksgiving to His holy name, and praise to Him, for His unbounding mercy, which endureth for ever. Amen!

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