The last chapters of Shmot told us of the spiritual elevation of Israel at
Har Sinai, the commandments for the Mishkan and its vessels, the Chet
Heigel and the Divine love and Israel's teshuvah that led to forgiveness
and atonement, and the subsequent making of the Mishkan. Now the Divine
Wisdom set the Sefer Vayikrah, that is Torat Kohanim to follow as the
third sefer in the Chumash. The first five and a half parshiot of Vayikrah
[till the end of chapter 17- mid Acharei Mot], deal with the kedushah of
the Kohanim and Leviim. Then, till the end of Vayikrah, they deal with the
kedusha of the Jews, which is derived from the kedusha of the Mishkan.
Therefore, Chazal named the Seder of the mishnayot dealing with the
Avodah, Seder Kodshim. The kedushah of the Mishkan was centered [as was
the Mikdash] on the Avodah of the Korbanot, so I will devote this
introduction to the types of korbanot and to their purpose, even though
they are scattered throughout the Torah. I have seen fit to divide this
into 4 sections: the subject matter of the korbanot, the types of
korbanot, the types of people offering them and their overall purpose.
Actually, the knowledge and ideas behind the korbanot as they are
expressed in the verses of the Torah have been hidden and withheld from us
since the destruction of the Bet Hamikdash and the cessation of the
Avodah, as Maimonidies explains in his Introduction to that Seder of the
Mishnah. So I can only bring here the clear expression of the Torah, the
true traditions and the words of our Sages, all according to the teachings
of the great Rambam.
The Subject Matter of the Korbanot:
The names korban and zevach used to describe them are not identical.
Zevach refers only to those korbanot that are shacut on the altar whereas
korban includes the offerings of birds and the meal offering that do not
have shechitah. The name korban comes to denote that they are offered
nikrav, on the mizbeach but also because through them the owners are drawn
closer to Hashem.
There are 3 types of animals offered as korbanot: First there are the
domesticated animals - the cattle, the sheep and the goats. Of the birds
offered there are only 2 types; the dove and the pigeon. The minchah that
is offered of that which groes from the ground, comes from3 types; meal,
wine and oil. There is no doubt that the most important and the most
elevated of all are the korbanot drawn from the 3 types of domesticated
animals. We see that only they were included in the communal offerings.
"Cattle, sheep and goats were chosen to be slaughtered and offered on the
altar of Hashem for 2 reasons. Firstly because these in their feeding
habits, their docile characteristics and their peaceful natures are the
most select and refined of all the animals. Then, in addition, they are
found close to human habitation and so easily obtainable; Hashem did not
desire to impose difficulties and excessive bother on us in His service"
(Rambam). Ralbag in his commentary on the Torah, extends the Rambam's
reasoning to explain the selection of doves and pigeons as the offerings
from the birds.
Whilst accepting the words of both these scholars, I see it fit to add
another 2 reasons for the choice of these 3 types of domesticated
The first explanation is that they represent the 3 Avot. Since the cattle
are the largest of these animals, it is fitting that they represent
Avraham who is the most important and powerful of the Avot. In addition we
read "And Avraham ran to the cattle and chose a calf" (Ber. 15:7).
Yitschak is represented by the sheep since like them he offered himself on
the altar, and his father said, "The Lord Himself will provide a lamb for
the burnt offering" (Ber.22:7-8). Avraham offered the ram that was caught
by his horns instead of Yitschak, after Hashem told him not to sacrifice
his son. Rivkah told Yaakov: " Go to the flocks and bring me from there 2
kids of the goats"(Ber. 27:8); later she took their skins and put them on
his arms and on his neck. Goats are the lesser of the 3 types, so it is
fitting that Yaakov the last of the Avot should be represented by them.
Indeed we see from the Brit Bein Habetarim that these 3 types represent
the Avot: "And He said to Avraham, ' Take for Me a heifer and a ram and a
goat'" (Ber.13:9); the dove and the pigeon there refer to Moshe and Aharon
and that is why these 2 are also brought as a korban.
Moreover, the 3 types that are the elevated and pure of the korbanot, are
also symbolical of the Nation of Israel, the elevated and pure of the
nations. The whole of the Tanach is full of references in which the
Jewish People are compared to these 3 animals. For instance, "Hear this
word, cows of Bashan"(Amos 4:1), or "Ephraim is like a rebellious cow";
the korban for communal errors is a one year old bullock. Yechezkiel
said, "I will judge between sheep and sheep", so the Tamid is a sheep in
the morning and a sheep in the evening. The connection with Am Yisrael
extends to the bird offerings as well. The Ramban sees this in that Israel
remains faithful to Hashem always, and the dove and the pigeon, being
monogamous, remain faithful to their partners; only occasionally when one
partner dies, then the males may find another mate.
The mincha offerings, from flour, wine and oil, are like the gifts that
people bring to their kings, lords or benefactors. So Hashem commanded us
to bring them as thanksgivings to the Master of the World and the Source
of all wealth.