Siyyum on Zevachim – Action and Thought in Korbanot

This Thursday the daf yomi finished mesekhet Zevachim and on Friday we began mesekhet Menachot.  For those who have been with the daf throughout Zevachim, Thursday marked a significant milestone – the completion of one of the largest mesekhtot, and one that deals with the obscure topic of sacrifices and all their minute details.   At this juncture of transition, it is worth taking a breath and looking back for a moment on the mesekhet we just completed.  In that vein, I would like to share a brief dvar Torah that I gave at the siyyum that our daf group held today.

One of the major themes of Zevachim – and the one that opens mesekhet Menachot as well- is that of intent.  The concepts of shelo li’shma and pigul factor very heavily throughout the meskhet.  Now, when we look at the psukim this is quite surprising, since neither of these concepts is clearly present in the Torah.  The verses that deal with pigul (Vayikra 7:18 and 19:7-8) are, at the pshat level, referring to eating notar, the korban meat after its time, and not to having a wrong intent when doing the avodah.  But, according to Hazal, here intent is equivalent to action.  If one eats korban meat that became pigul – invalid because the Kohen was thinking to eat it or offer it at the wrong time, then one transgresses a negative prohibition which is punishable by karet.  This is exactly equivalent to the sin of eating notar, korban meat that actually stayed beyond its time.  The thought – to intend to leave the meat over – is the same as the deed – actually leaving it over beyond its time.

The same emphasis on kavanah, intent, is present in the case of shelo lishma.  The Torah is replete with requirements for the rituals of bringing korbanot, exactly where it is to be slaughtered, what is to be offered, how the blood is put on the altar, how one sacrifice differs from another, and so on.  What is never explicit in the Torah, however, is the need to have proper intent.  The derashot in the Gemara to show that this requirement exists (see Zevachim 4a and 7a) are certainly not pshat of the verses.  Nevertheless, once we have this requirement, its impact is huge.  If a Kohen has the wrong intent (according to Rashi and Tosafot, this has to be verbalized intent), then minimally this prevents the owner from fulfilling his or her obligation, and in the worst cases can fully invalidate the korban.

In contrast, the consequence of doing the rituals incorrectly is not nearly as severe.   Failure to do many of the rituals – not placing the blood on all the corners, not burning the entrails, not doing the tnufah, the waving, not doing the vidduy, the verbal confession, not eating the meat  – does not invalidate the korban and does not even prevent the owner from fulfilling his or her obligation.  In fact, we have a very unusual  hermeneutic principle by kodshim – we require shana alav ha’katuv li’akev –  that the verse repeat a requirement (or use a word such as “chukah“) in order for the requirement to be deemed necessary for the validity of the act.   This is never the case by non-kodshim mitzvot.  Normally, we assume that every detail that the  Torah mentions is required for the fulfillment of a mitzvah.  But with sacrifices this is not the case – we assume that the details are not necessary unless the Torah explicitly teaches us that they are.  That is, except for intent.  This detail, learned from a drasha and not from  an explicit verse, is assumed to impact the validity of the korban when not done properly, and a verse  is actually needed to teach that lacking it does not fully invalidate the korban (Zevachim 4b, and Tosafot, s.v. Aima). 

The prioritizing of intent can also be seen by the amount of  mesekhet Zevachim that is devoted to issues of intent, in contradistinction to the amount of the mesekhet that is devoted to the details of the actions.   Considering that the Torah devotes all of its verses to the details of the rituals, this disproportionate treatment certainly stands out.

What is to be learned from the strong emphasis on intent, over and above that of action?  I .believe that by internalizing the ritual of korban, Chazal are to a certain extent addressing the critique of the prophets:

… But to this man will I look, to him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembles at my word.  He who kills an ox is as if he slew a man; he who sacrifices a lamb, as if he cut off a dog’s neck; he who offers a meal offering, as if he offered swine’s blood; he who burns incense, as if he blessed an idol. For they have chosen their own ways, and their soul delights in their abominations.  (Isaiah 66:2-3)

What good are sacrifices if they do not lead to any internal transformation?  If a person does not become closer to God, does not improve his deeds, then the sacrifices are worthless.  Or, as Shmuel said to King Shaul, when Shaul violated God’s command in order – as he claimed – to bring a great sacrifice to God:

“But the people took of the booty, sheep and oxen, the best of the devoted property to sacrifice to the Lord your God in Gilgal,” [said Saul].

And Samuel said, Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen better than the fat of rams.  (Shmuel I, 15:21-22)

Where is the answer to these questions in all of mesekhet Zevachim?  I believe that the emphasis on intent, and its greater weight than the actions themselves, is Chazal’s answer to this question.  If intent matters so much, and so much more than action, then one will not be led astray to believe that bringing sacrifices and doing the rituals is all there is to drawing close to God.  The sacrifices are not magic, and they do not have an automatic theurgic effect on God.  They are a part of drawing close, and because the issue is drawing close, intent is key.

Consider what Chazal say regarding the mincha: אחד המרבה ואחד הממעיט ובלבד שיכוין לבו לשמים – whether one does a little (i.e., brings a micha) or one does a lot (i.e., brings an animal sacrifice), what matters most is that one’s intent is to heaven (Menachot 110a).  That is – what is the key about sacrifices is the intent, and not the sacrifice itself! 

In a way, what we have here is the internalization of the rituals of the korbanot – the focusing on the inner experience is the first step in transitioning from a world of korbanot to a world of tfillah.  And tfillah is defined by halakha as aovda she’b’lev – service of the heart.  This definition is so far reaching that poskim even wonder if one could fulfill his or her obligation to pray merely by thinking the words, since at its core this is a mitzvah of intent!

One final point.  Although she’lo lishmo is a major concern by sacrifices, there is one place where it is not a concern at all – the learning of Torah and the doing of mitzvot:

Said Rav Yehudah in the name of Rav: “A person should always involve himself in the learning of Torah and the doing of mitzvot, even shelo li’shma, even for the wrong reason, because out of doing it for the wrong reason, one will come to do it for the right reason.”  (Pesachim 50b)

Torah and mitzvot are transformative in a way that sacrifices are not.  With sacrifices, the act in itself does not have significance, and, without the right intent, it can even be a source of leading a person into a false perception of his own religiosity.  Sacrifices need the proper intent to be valid.  Not so Torah and mitzvot.  These acts are not mere rituals.  The intellectual-religious engagement that comes through the learning of Torah, and the performance of mitzvot which evoke religious and moral values, are transformative even if done for the wrong reason.  Through doing these powerful acts, one will achieve even the right intent, and they will become fully religious acts, and bring about a strong, deep connection to God.

הדרן עלך מסכת זבחים והדרך עלן




About Rabbi Dov Linzer

Rabbi Dov Linzer is the Rosh HaYeshiva and Dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, a groundbreaking Orthodox smicha program. Rabbi Linzer spearheaded the development of YCT to create an innovative four year smicha program which provides its students with rigorous talmud Torah and halakhic study and sophisticated professional training in the context of a religious atmosphere which cultivates openness and inclusiveness. Rabbi Linzer has published Halakha and machshava articles in Torah journals and lectures widely at synagogues and conferences on topics relating to Halakha, Orthodoxy, and modernity. He is most recently the awardee of the prestigious Avi Chai Fellowship.
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One Response to Siyyum on Zevachim – Action and Thought in Korbanot

  1. cyberdov says:

    Re the concluding point – I wonder whether the premise of “out of doing it for the wrong reason, one will come to do it for the right reason” is as valid today as when Rav Yehuda said it. Many people study Torah and arrive at the conclusion that we would not classify as the ‘right intent’. True, there is a variety of reasons for this which have always been there, but in the last couple of centuries the intellectual challenge to Torah has become much stronger. For some people, the more one studies, the more one becomes intellectually convinced that God, religious engagement, etc. are not the inevitable outcome.
    On the other hand, of course, there is no alternative – encouraging more study and intellectual engagement is just as important to the rational/scientifically inclined today, if not more so than in the past, in order to appeal to that mindset. I am just wary of an assumption (particularly from the POV of teaching) that simply increasing the volume of one’s Torah study will bring about the desired result – instead, perhaps, more focus needs to be placed on the quality of that study.

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