The Purpose of Sacrifices

         In Aharei Mot, there is a strange section which highlights the purpose of sacrifices. Moses says to Aaron and all of Israel “if anyone of the house of Israel slaughters an ox or sheep or goat in the camp, or does so outside the camp, and does not bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting to present it as an offering to God, bloodguilt shall be imputed to that party: having shed blood, that person shall be cut off from among this people.”[1] These verses prima facie seem to indicate that no one can kill an animal without sacrificing it to God. With that being said, we know that the Israelites ate meat and were even commanded to eat parts of the sacrifice of well-being, so what could this be referring to? By continuing with the text, we get a sense of what is going on: “That they may offer their sacrifices no more to the goats after whom they stray. This shall be to them a law for all time, throughout the ages.”[2]

          What is going on here? The grammarian Ibn Ezra points out that this is a pun on words. The word for goat, שעיר, was also a word used for demon, because the body of one who sees them “storms.” (סערה). The person who sees them is agitated (צער). He goes on to say “it appears that they are so called because the insane see them in the form of goats (שעירים).[3]  Nahmanides, basing his comment off Ibn Ezra, says that they are called goats (שעירים) because on seeing them a person’s hair (שער) stands up on his body.[4]

          As moderns, what are we supposed to get out of this besides the similarity in Hebrew of the words for ‘goats,’ ‘storms,’ ‘agitated’ and ‘hair’? It seems apparent that this is a pedagogical exercise in the Israelites presenting their animals as offerings to God out of gratitude. While not all of the animal was burned on the altar, each Israelite had to at least go to the Tent of Meeting and present the animal as an act of both thanking and drawing near to God. This required a recognition that the animals were not there solely for one’s consumption and enjoyment but rather that they served a higher purpose in connecting Israel to the Holy One.

          We finished Passover last week but are still in this holy period leading up to the Giving of the Torah on Shavuot. It is imperative that each of us find a way to draw near to God during this time so that we will be prepared to receive the Torah anew in just 5 weeks’ time.


[1] Leviticus 17:3-4

[2] Leviticus 17:7

[3] Ibn Ezra on Leviticus 17:7 ד”ה לשעירים

[4] Ramban on Leviticus 17:7 ד”ה ולא יזבחו עוד את זבהיכם לשעירים

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