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As soon as the Book of Vayikra begins, we are immediately launched into an exhaustive, detailed description of the sacrifices that are to take place at the Tent of Meeting. Indeed, the directions and prescriptions for sacrifices occupies a very large amount of this book and the next one, Numbers.
One phrase that is used repeatedly in this sidra is striking in its oddity. Although we have encountered this particular peculiar terminology in four earlier verses (once in Genesis and three times in Exodus), its repetition here makes it stand out. It’s first used early in the parashah, and is repeated a number of times thereafter: at least thirty times in Leviticus and Numbers.
…an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the Lord. (Lev. 1:9)
The words rayach ni-cho’ach can be variously rendered as a “pleasing, pleasant, sweet, or soothing odor (or fragrance or savor).” Commentators have used all of these translations; one can find translations that read a “pleasing odor,” “sweet savor” or an “appeasing” or “soothing odor.” In Babylonian mythology, the sacrifice was for the purpose of feeding the gods. In idolatrous worship, sacrifice not only “fed” the gods, it also placated them (even to the point of attempted “bribery”!). It was a common belief in the ancient middle east that gods needed to be fed by humans in order to live; in fact, the Leviticus descriptions of sacrifices that were turned “into smoke on the altar as food, an offering … to the Lord” (Lev. 3:11) seems to imply that this belief might have influenced the book’s authors in some way.
So what was the purpose of sacrifice for the Israelites? Possibly the phrase “pleasing odor” may hold a clue to the purpose of the sacrifice. That the sacrifice served as an appeasement or even a bribe is not at all likely. Jacob Milgrom (Anchor Leviticus 1–16) maintains that, given its usage and context, this term does not express the idea of appeasement but it “must connote something pleasurable to the deity.”
The first use of this strange anthropomorphism appears in Genesis, with Noah’s sacrifice after the flood waters receded.
Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking of every clean animal and of every clean bird, he offered burnt offerings on the altar. The Lord smelled the pleasing odor. (Gen. 8:20–21)
In Leviticus, the priest is instructed to burn the offering completely, to “turn the sacrifice into smoke.” This was no barbeque. What could possibly be pleasant about the odor of meat burnt to an ash? And how could “smelling” meat burnt to a crisp and caramelized grain be “pleasurable”? We will look to the commentators for some insight.
Midrash, taking a straightforward and literal approach, maintains that the sacrifice represents the offerer himself: his dedication and resolve. The wording of these passages in directing the duty to provide the sacrificial animal, after all, is directed specifically to the offerer and not to the priest.
“And the Lord smelled the sweet savor” [Gen. 8:21] —He smelled the odor of Abraham issuing from the furnace; He smelled the odor of Hananya, Mishael and Azarya [Daniel’s companions] issuing from the furnace; He smelled the odor of the victims of religious persecution and forced conversion [i.e., the generation of Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues, martyred during the reign of Hadrian]. (Bereshit Rabbah 34:9)
The midrash goes on to liken God’s response to “sensing” such situations to a king deciding how to honor those who make sacrifices of faith.
The later commentators, however, sought a more intellectual interpretation. Rashi, trying to avoid the anthropomorphic implications of the phrase rayach ni-cho’ach, said that it meant “an odor that causes satisfaction to Me by the knowledge that I gave commands and that My will was executed.” Ibn Ezra, the great Hebrew grammatical expert, also tried to avoid any interpretation that suggested that God used any physical senses by commenting:
Far be it from us to think that God smells or eats … rather … God accepted the burnt offering which pleased Him, just as a sweet scent pleases a human being. (Commentary on Vayikra)
In his Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides, in an explanation of the purposes of sacrifice, suggested, among other things, that animal sacrifice serves solely as a step along the path to the development of a completely spiritual form of worship. This suggestion outraged Ramban (who became outraged very easily, especially at Maimonides), who wrote:
These words are in folly superficially attempting to heal a great wound and [solve] a difficult problem simplistically. They make “the table of the Lord” [the altar] seem revolting, in saying that sacrifices have no purpose other than to placate the evil-doers and the fools of the world. Does not scripture say that burnt-offerings are “of pleasing odor to the Lord”? [Lev. 1:9] (Commentary, 3:32)
The battle of the commentators continued with the comments of Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi (1512–1585), who viewed the phrase “pleasing odor” as metaphorical.
Rather than enhancing the function of the offering, the attribute “sweet savor to the Lord,” detracts from it. For he who brings an offering, believing it to be the atonement for his sin, is informed by the Torah that it is merely a “sweet savor” of his future acts. Isaiah’s protestation, “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to me?” [1:11] applies to him who fails to mend his ways. Just as the sweet savor that comes from afar testifies to its favorable origin, so does the “sweet savor to the Lord” associated in the Torah with the sacrifices, signify the function of the offering as a harbinger of the good deeds about to be performed by the offerer. Moreover, in Hebrew, “smell” denotes anything sensed before its advent, as in “he (the war horse) smells the battle afar off” [Job 39:25], i.e., it senses the battle even before joining it. Indeed, anyone who brings an offering intends to mend his ways and draw closer to God. This is the significance of the offering as a “sweet savor to the Lord.” (Sefer Ma’aseh HaShem, Chap. 27)
Now that we’ve wrung a number of possible interpretations out of the phrase “pleasing odor,” let’s look at the sacrifice itself. The Israelites needed to separate their sacrificial rites from those of their heathen neighbors. Using different “mechanical” procedures for actually performing the sacrifice would not be enough to distinguish the Temple rites from those of the other nations. And abolishment of sacrifices would not be possible; a sacrificial tradition was so ingrained in the cultures of the ancient middle east that breaking with that tradition was unthinkable. The distinguishing characteristic of the Israelite sacrificial rite needed to be its theological purpose.
This purpose, or intent, can be found in the Hebrew word most associated with the sacrificial offerings: korban, which means, literally, “to approach, to draw near.” So the intent of the rite was recast from one of anthropomorphizing the deity to one of expressing an intent of the offerer to change—a change of heart, so to speak—and for all of the people, to provide a way for them to attempt to approach God in holiness.
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