Maimonides on resuming sacrifices

Professor Amitai E. Halevi illustrates how Maimonides (Rambam) was ultimately against animal sacrifices, even though he listed laws about them in his Mishneh Torah (12th century Code of Jewish law)


Question: I find the idea that [the Guide alone expressing Maimonides’s real views] uncomfortable in this case…  It is not so much that it is impossible that Maimonides would adopt such a position; but that I find it difficult to see why in that case he would codify the halacha of sacrifice in such positive language …given that he is (I believe) unusual among post-Talmudic halachic codifiers in treating this area at all, and that it was not of practical significance at the time.

Please remember that in Mishneh Torah Maimonides undertook to codify the entire Halakha, and make it unnecessary to consult the Talmud or later commentaries on any point of law. As he writes in the final paragraph of his introduction: “To summarize, in order that a man will need no other composition on Jewish Law whatsoever, [this work is] a compilation of the entire Oral Law: including all of the ordinances, customs and decrees that were promulgated since the days of Moshe Rabbenu and through the Gemarah, as interpreted for us by the Gaonim in all of the compositions that they wrote after the Gemara. For this reason, I have entitled my composition Mishneh Torah, so that if a man reads the written law and then this work he will know the entire Oral Law without having to read any book between the two”.

This being so, though he was no less aware than the Ro”Sh and Ba`al Ha-Turim that the halakhot of sacrifice and Temple service had no practical significance, he was obliged – unlike the other codifiers – to include them for completeness.

The Temple Altar


This engraving by Otto Elliger depicts King Solomon supervising construction of the altar outside of the Temple. At the bottom right is shown one of the movable bronze stands with a basin.

For the most part Maimonides kept his philosophical views out of the Mishneh Torah. Wherever his “real” views conflicted with those expressed in the Talmud, his reservations – stated subtly – almost invariably refer to matters that are relevant to practical life (medicine and hygiene, contemporary science, marital relations, etc…) There was no reason for him to express his reservations about  halakhot that might only become relevant “at the end of days”, so  he simply codified them faithfully without comment.

As to The Guide: I pointed out in my previous post that Maimonides does not deny that animal sacrifices are part of halakhah; having devoted an entire section to them in Mishneh Torah – to say nothing of the fact that they are spelled out in the Written Law – how could he? He explains God’s rationale as a concession to the psychological needs of a primitive people just emerging from idolatry. In Ch. xlvi of Part III he gives animal sacrifice a positive slant (for the era in which it was instituted):

“Scripture tells us, according to the version of Onkelos, that the Egyptians worshipped Aries, and therefore abstained from killing sheep … Some sects among the Sabeans worhipped demons, and imagined that these assumed the form of goats … For this reason, these sects abstained from eating goats’ flesh. Most idolators objected to killing cattle, holding this species of animals in great estimation… In order to eradicate these false principles, the Law commands us to offer sacrifices of these three kinds… Thus the very act is considered by the heathen as the greatest crime, is the means of approaching God, and obtaining His pardon for our sins”.

Maimonides leaves us in no doubt that he considers animal sacrifice to be anachronistic. Not pretending to be a prophet, he does not presume to predict whether or not the practice will be reinstituted in the days of the Messaiah. However, he cites the written law, as well as the prophets, to make the point that even in biblical days, animal sacrifice was at best a second-rate sort of mitzvah. “In addition to the teaching of truths, the Law aims at the removal of injustice from mankind. We have thus proved that the first laws do not refer to burnt-offering and sacrifice, which are of secondary importance (Part III, Ch. xxxii)”.

Maimonides is never explicit about such delicate matters in the Guide for the Perplexed; if he were, he would have been excommunicated – if not stoned – by his contemporaries.

In Chapter 32 of Part III, he writes:

“But the custom which was in those days general among men, and the general mode of worship in which the Israelites were brought up consisted in sacrificing animals … It was in accordance with the wisdom and plan of God … that He did not command us to give up and to discontinue all these manners of service; for to obey such a commandment it would have been contrary to the nature of man, who generally cleaves to that to which he is used; it would _in those days_ have made the same impression as a prophet would make at present [12th Century] if he called us to the service of God and told us in his name, that we should not pray to Him nor fast, nor seek His help in time of trouble; that we should serve him in thought, and not by any action.”

It should be is obvious from the above that Maimonides does not deny that the various animal sacrifices are divinely ordained, but that he regards them to be a holdover from the idolatrous practices of the time. In his view, God’s decision to allow their continuation, mutatis mutandis, was no more than a concession to the conservatism of the primitive Israelites to whom the Torah was given.

Anyone who is concerned enough about the issue to read this chapter through should follow the advice proffered at its very end. Citing Psalm 50, in which animal sacrifice is trivialized, Maimonides writes “Wherever this subject is mentioned, this is its meaning. Consider it well and reflect on it”.

The last sentence is the code that author uses whenever he urges the discerning reader – the only one he cares about – to read between the lines. Such a reader may even find a hint of relief that animal sacrifice has been discontinued until the days of the Messiah, who may find the Jewish people of his day to be sufficiently sophisticated that the distasteful practice need not be reinstituted.

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