Menachot 5a-6a – Sacrifices from non-kosher foods: Ethics or Aesthetics?

Earlier this week, the daf yomi , for one-and-a-half dapim, discussed the requirement that sacrifices come only from foods that can be eaten by Jews.  This is learned from the verse in Yechezkel (45:15):

ושה אחת מן הצאן מן המאתים ממשקה ישראל למנחה ולעולה ולשלמים לכפר עליהם

And one lamb from the flock, out of two hundred, from the mashkeh Yisrael,  the well watered pastures of Israel; for a meal offering, and for a burnt offering, and for peace offerings, to atone for them

Although the simple sense of the verse refers to the type of animals to be brought, the Rabbis focus on the words mashkeh Yisrael, and translate it to mean: the drinks that [are permitted to a person of] Israel.  It is from this that we learn that sacrifices can only be brought from kosher products.

This makes a great deal of sense.  The burning of the sacrifice on the altar is referred to as “the eating of the altar.”   In the Torah the imagery is even more anthropomorphic, as it refers to sacrifices as God’s “bread” (or “food”), see, e.g., Bamidbar 28:2.  Thus, it would not make sense for the altar to “eat” food that is not kosher.  Certainly the standards for the Temple should be at least as high as they are for the layperson.  

This way of thinking about it evokes the statement of Rebbe Yochanan in Sukkah (30a) explaining the concept of mitzvah ha’ba’ah be’aveira, a mitzvah that comes through a sin:

R. Yochanan in the name of R. Shimeon b. Yochai further said, What is meant by that which is written, “For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery with an olah ?” (Isa. 61:8). This may be compared to a human king who passed through his custom-house and said to his attendants, ‘pay the tax to the tax-collectors’. They said to him, ‘But the whole tax, surely, belongs to you!’ He answered them, ‘All travellers would learn from me not to evade their payments of tax’. So the Holy One, blessed be God, said, ‘I the Lord hate robbery in burnt-offerings’  – let My children learn from Me and keep away from robbery’

Stolen objects cannot be used as sacrifices, lest people come to justify stealing.  Similarly, non-kosher foods cannot be used as sacrifices, lest people come to justify eating non-kosher foods.  God’s standards must be at least as high as those God sets for the layperson.

This approach, however, does not fit in with the end of the sugya.  The Gemara spends a good deal of time trying to understand why a verse is needed to invalidate a korban that is a treifa.  Can’t we infer, asks the Gemara, that sacrifices from forbidden foods are invalid,  since the Torah even invalidates animals that are totally permissible to be eaten – such as an animal born through a C-section, or an animal that has a blemish?   Why then is a special verse needed?  The Gemara answers that a C-section and blemished animal might be worse than a treifa, since their problem is visible (or at least, in the case of the C-section, known), whereas the problem of a treifa is not visible, and not even known until the animal is slaughtered and opened up.   Since its problem is hidden from view, it may be less problematic, and may be acceptable as a sacrifice.

This hava amina – possiblity – assumes that the problem with invalidities of sacrifices is best understood as the problem of a “blemish.”  Understood this way,  a visible blemish will always be more problematic than an non-visible one, even if that the non-visible one may be more religiously or ethically problematic.    

Now, we do find, again in the case of mitzvah ha’ba’ah b’aveirah that there exists a concept of a moral, non-physical blemish:

R. Yochanan in the name of R. Shimeon b. Yochai said: Because it is a mitzvah that comes through a sin.  As it says: “And ye have brought that which is stolen, and the lame and the sick,” (Malachi 1:13). ‘The stolen’ is compared with the lame; just as a lame sacrifice can never be rectified, so that which is stolen can never be rectified… The reason must then be that it is a mitzvah fulfilled through a transgression  (Sukkah 30a)

Just as mitzvah ha’ba’ah bi’aveirah can be understood as a moral issue or as a form of a blemish, such is the case with an animal from non-kosher food.  Is it a religious problem, or is it a blemish, albeit less problematic than a obvious, physical blemish?

This emphasis on appearance does reflect the reality of the Mikdash – the emphasis on the aesthetic – from the gold and silver, to the disqualifying of both Kohanim and sacrifices that have visible blemishes.  It is always a struggle to understand this emphasis, since the Torah’s hierarchy of values certainly gives more weight to what is inside a person, and not how they appear:

But the Lord said to Samuel, Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him; for the Lord sees not as man sees; for man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart. (I Samuel 16:7).

Nevertheless, the Mikdash also has to approach people where they are at, and to feel that one is in the house of God, majesty, gold, silver, and aesthetically unblemished animals and priests are important factors.

This, then, is the question regarding non-kosher foods.  Is the problem a “blemish,” and, as such, less of a problem than a visible, aesthetic blemish, or is the problem that it sends the wrong religious message, and hence more problematic than an animal with a physical blemish?  Because I might have thought the former, I needed a special verse to exclude a treifa.  But now that I have that verse, now that it is excluded, what is the basis for its exclusion?  That question remains unanswered.

The final conclusion of the Gemara that three verses are needed to include cases where the animal became a treifa after it was born and after it was sanctified also do not resolve this question.  The need for these three verses shows that I might have thought that the invalidity was that of a blemish.  Thus, I would have been inclined to be more lenient if the “blemish” came later in life – thus less part of the very identity of the animal, or if it came after the animal was sanctified – thus less impinging on the kedusha of the animal.  If the problem were that of the religious lesson, none of this should matter.  However, at the conclusion, all these cases are invalid.  The question thus remains – invalid, why?  Because of a “blemish,” which extends even to all of these cases, or because of the religious message, which logically applies here, just as it logically applies even to a case when the problem is less visible.

Personally, I am much more inclined to the ethical/religious understanding.  Not because I don’t think that the idea of a blemish makes sense.  Quite the opposite, I think that the problem of blemishes is a central one in the Mikdash.  It is rather that I would like to see some counterbalancing of this idea.  I would like to see that in the Mikdash we also acknowledge that while “people see with their eyes, God sees into the heart.”

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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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