Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 1

March 2, 2014 at 12:09 pm | Posted in Tzav, Vayikra | 3 Comments
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Every year, when I start to read the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, my teeth clench. The first two Torah portions (Vayikra—“And It Called”, and Tzav—“Command”) consist of rules about offerings at the altar. And most of these offerings involve bringing forward a living animal, laying a hand on its head, and then slitting its throat, sprinkling blood, butchering it, and waving around or burning various pieces.

This is difficult reading for someone who stopped eating mammals and birds 18 years ago because they are too much like human beings.

The Torah teaches that we should not offer human beings at the altar, only animals and grain. But the instructions for offering a mammal always include laying hands on the animal’s head before it is slaughtered. This act transfers the donor’s identity to the animal, so killing and offering it is like sacrificing oneself for God.

For the ancient Israelites, domesticated mammals and birds had economic value. That made them suitable gifts for God. But what use would God have for a dead animal? In the book of Leviticus, the fatty parts of the animals are burned up into smoke, which ascends to the heavens, and the scent pleases God. When the priests or the donors eat other portions of the animal, they are partaking in the holiness of the sacrifice.

I can understand the desire to present God with a gift—out of sheer gratitude for our lives in the world, or out of a desire to return to harmony with the divine after we have strayed. I am also grateful that Jews have moved beyond killing animals at an altar.  But what we can give to God instead?

The portions Vayikra and Tzav lay out the procedures for six kinds of gifts to God. For all six, at least part of the gift is a fire-offering, burned on the altar. The first type of fire-offering the Torah discusses is the rising-offering.

…and the priest shall bring all of it and make it go up in smoke on the altar; it is an olah, an isheh of restful fragrance for God. (Leviticus/Vayikra 1:13)

olah (עֹלָה) = rising-offering. (From the root alah (עלה) = go up.) In an olah the entire slaughtered animal is burned up.

isheh (אִשֵּׁה) = fire-offering. (From the word eish (אֵשׁ) = fire.)

For the ancient Israelites, fire was not just the way to cook meat and make smoke. God manifested as something that looked like fire. And Biblical Hebrew, like English, used words like “burning” and “inflamed” to indicate consuming emotions such as anger.

Today, we might make an isheh, a fire-offering, by praying, chanting, or meditating with a specific intention about passion. If our passions about spiritual matters are easily inflamed, we might imagine offering our emotionality on the altar to burn itself out. We might visualize the smoke rising and dissipating into a clear, calm sky. Then we can be at rest with the divine.

If passion seems to be lacking in our search for God, we might imagine feeding the fire on the altar through our words or breath, so that the sparks of our buried feelings can become flames and rise like smoke.

The first type of offering in Leviticus, the olah, was the only one which stayed on the altar fire all night, until it was completely burned up into smoke.

Today, if we want our souls to keep rising up toward the divine, day and night, we have to keep tending the fire of our desire to make the most of our lives. The last thing we need is a wet blanket.

I have often smothered my own fire with a wet blanket of repetitive worrying. I am training myself to notice when the dripping edge of my blanket flops down again, so I can flip it away from the embers. For me, a good intervention is to sing a prayer or chant. It’s even better if I walk around the block while I am singing. After my mood has risen higher, I can have a better conversation with myself.

Next week I will look at the other five types of fire-offerings described in the Torah portions Vayikra and Tzav, and how we might address the impulse behind each one today—without slaughtering animals.

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  1. […] Killing and burning animals may have been spiritually moving to the ancient Israelites, but today we can apply their categories of offerings to a more ethical set of procedures. Last week I suggested new meanings for fire-offerings in general, as well as for the first kind of fire-offering in Leviticus, the olah or rising-offering. (See last week’s post, Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 1.) […]

  2. […] more on these smoke offerings, see my posts Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings without Slaughter, Part 1 and Part […]

  3. […] for the people.  For an explanation of these four types of offerings, see my posts Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 1 and Part […]


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