Jewish Perspectives

The Jewish People and Sacrifice

The destruction of the Temple in 70 AD proved to be one of the most significant events in the history of Judaism. The house of God standing among his own people with its implied invitation to fellowship with him was ever a token of his favour toward them. Its loss, its ruin, its removal under the sovereign hand of God must mean, on the other hand, disfavour. Nowhere is that truth captured for us more clearly than when Jesus, descending from the Mount of Olives, looked over the city and wept over it and warned of what would shortly overtake them because they knew not the day of their visitation.

Since the destruction of the temple the Jewish people have made a point of gathering at the Western Wall, the one remaining part of the house of God, to plead for God to restore his favour and to come again with his blessing. And that place of prayer has come to be known as the Wailing Wall. Yet it is hardly likely that the Jew, pleading for the restoration of God’s house and the return of his favour, would see the implications of that loss in the way that we as Christians see it.

No Temple, No Sacrifice.

The destruction of the temple meant not only the cessation of sacrifices but also the cessation of that God-ordained religion given to Moses, and so to remove the temple with all its ritual was the removing of the very heart of the Jewish religion. In a very real sense we could speak of the Old Testament religion as sacrifice-centred and, in like manner, we can speak of Christianity as a sacrifice-centred. But rabbinic Judaism, which sought to continue Judaism without sacrifice is, of necessity, a radically different religion.

The writer to the Hebrews puts it: "Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin". Aware of this, some Christians understandably can hardly believe that the Judaism today is a religion without sacrifice. We must also remember that the previous destruction of the temple and the captivity in Babylon no doubt had laid some foundations for the changes that would be necessary in the religious pattern when the temple was destroyed. In Babylon the Jews experienced just the same problem and, whilst they were exiled from the land, a pattern of religion had to be formed without the ritual of priesthood and sacrifice. It is generally understood, of course, that synagogue worship developed at that time. We deal with this in The Jewish People and the Synagogue.

From Sacrifice to Prayer

It is interesting and instructive to note how much of the basic pattern of synagogue worship derives from the temple order. For instance, the three set times of prayer – Shaharit, Minhah and Ma’ariv – are said to replace the morning, afternoon and evening sacrifices. In fact minhah is the word that we translate as "offering". Alfred Edersheim points out that that there is an interesting connection between the prayer of Zachariah in Luke 1:68-79 and the most ancient prayer of the synagogue, the Amidah, which consists of the 18 benedictions. Edersheim suggests that Zachariah as the priest in the temple using those prayers in the period when he was unable to speak was meditating on the eighteen benedictions and that when the Spirit gave him utterance it was natural for him to express in these words the appearance of Messiah.

Religious Jews are agreed on three things: First, the loss of the temple was the mark of divine disfavour because it was the central feature of a symbol of their loss when once again they were to enter upon exile. Secondly, this meant the cessation of sacrifices, for the sacrifice could be offered in no other place than that ordained by God. But, thirdly, they would all agree that the loss of sacrifice certainly did not mean the loss of access to God because prayer has taken the place of sacrifice.

If we ask how prayer can possibly take the place of sacrifice as an adequate means of atonement, we may receive several different answers. A synagogue secretary put it to me that the transition from animal sacrifice to prayer, reading and fasting is a form of evolution in religion. The people of old knew no better, he said, and he did not see the transition from animal sacrifice to "human sacrifice", which took place in Christianity, as an advance in religion. The more Orthodox might answer somewhat differently to that.

Bloodless Atonement

A young Orthodox Jew put the Orthodox Jewish position very clearly to me when he said Jews equate atonement with repentance. That is important because I think that lies at the root of the Orthodox attitude towards the question of sacrifice. When I put the question to him, "How do you understand sacrifice?" he responded by saying that the most important thing was that sacrifice had to be accompanied by sincere repentance and that without repentance sacrifice was useless and unacceptable. Therefore, he argued, when Jews can no longer sacrifice, as long as they sincerely repent they shall find acceptance with God.

Repentance has therefore taken the place of sacrifice. But how did the Jews Jew arrive at this conclusion? There are two main views:

The first is the rationalistic view which was propounded by the great Jewish scholar of the 12th century Moses ben Maimon, or Maimonides, who taught that the sacrificial cult was ordained as an accommodation to the conceptions of a primitive people and for the purpose of weaning them away from the base and religious rites of their idolatrous neighbours. Now for support of that they would turn to Leviticus 17:7 where we read, "They shall no more offer their sacrifices to demons, after whom they have played the harlot." Perhaps the synagogue secretary’s answer came from that kind of thinking.

The second main view, which has been held by the main body of Jewish people throughout the generations, is sometimes referred to as the symbolic view: sacrifices were merely symbols of man’s gratitude to God and dependence upon him. Some Jewish scholars would add to that that the symbols included the idea of reconciliation with God and that the sacrificial gifts would restore the offerer to divine favour.


It is interesting that in the rabbinic writings, alongside all this, is a view that appears similar to the Christian explanation of sacrifice: as a sinner the offender’s life is forfeit to God but, by a gracious provision, he is permitted to substitute a faultless victim to which guilt is, as it were, transferred by imposition of hands. One of the rabbis commenting on this said that many Christians have adopted this view and built their theological foundation of their church upon it. This view is unacceptable to mainstream rabbinic Judaism. It certainly seems to have little bearing upon the reasoning of the rabbis in the Talmud and has no place, as far as I can see, in current thinking among the Jewish people concerning sacrifice.

The important thing to notice about those two main views is that in both of them sacrifice is not of pre-eminent importance. For example, taking Maimonides’ view, when primitive people were weaned from idolatrous practices to the worship of the one true God the sacrifices would no longer be necessary. Or, again, if the sacrifices are seen primarily as symbols of man’s gratitude to, and dependence upon God then, as long as the believer achieves the right attitude of dependence, gratefulness and devotion the symbolic tokens are dispensable. That dispensability of sacrifice underlies the development of rabbinic reasoning where they seek to show that sacrifice is replaced by other means to provide atonement for sin.

The Talmud

Turning to the Talmud, the great authoritative standard of Judaism, we find that much space is devoted to what must take the place of sacrifice since the temple was removed. There is an interesting story told of Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai and his disciple Rabbi Joshua. On one occasion when they were leaving Jerusalem the latter gazed upon the destroyed temple and cried out, "Woe is us the place where Israeli obtained atonement for sins is in ruins." Rabbi Johanan said to him, "My son, be not distressed. We still have an atonement equally efficacious and that is the practice of benevolence."

Dr. Cohen, one of the great leaders of Jewry in this last century, writes, "The greatest accomplishment that the Talmud achieved for the Jewish people was to make them feel that the end of the temple did not imply an end of their religion. Severe as the loss was, the way of approach to God was kept open." In addition to charity, justice and Torah study, prayer was declared to be even greater than sacrifices, based on Hosea 14:2, "We will offer the sacrifices of our lips."

Again, Dr. Cohen says that when sacrifice could be no longer offered the people needed to be reminded that their hope for atonement was not in the least affected, so they were told, "Whence is it derived that if one repents it is imputed to him as if he had gone up to Jerusalem, built the temple, erected an altar and offered upon it all the sacrifices enumerated in the Torah from the text, ‘The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit and a contrite heart’."

Sacrifice Condemned?

It is said by some Jewish people, in support of the claim that sacrifices are dispensable, that the prophets spoke against sacrifice. Many would contend that because God says in Isaiah 11:11, "‘To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to me?’ says the LORD. "I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed cattle. I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who has required this from your hand, to trample my courts? Bring no more futile sacrifices . . .’ " But one of their chief teachers has pointed out the error of this interpretation for, as he rightly points out, if you argue from vv 11-12 that the prophet condemns sacrifices then you must conclude from vv 13-15 that he condemns Sabbaths, festivals, public worship and prayer. Obviously in Isaiah chapter one, God is condemning insincere worship, whether in the form of sacrifices or prayers.

Sin and Punishment

The pre-eminence given to repentance is brought out in a fundamental passage of the Talmud where the question "If a man sin, what shall be his punishment?" is put to the various parts of the Bible and, finally, to God himself.

The question is put, first of all, to Wisdom which is the section of the Old Testament called Ketuvim, the Writings and the answer is given from Proverbs 13:21: "Evil pursues sinners". In other words the punishment for sin can be either evil or suffering. Nevi’im, the Prophets, is asked the same question and the answer given is from Ezekiel 18:4: "The soul who sins shall die". The question is put to Torah, the five books of Moses, and the answer given is from Leviticus: "Let him bring a guilt offering, let atonement be made."

Finally God himself is asked, "If a man sin what shall be his punishment?" and the answer from God is, "Let him repent and he shall be forgiven", from the Psalm 25:8, "Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he teaches sinners in the way".

So in the Talmud all these things can be means of atonement but it is emphasised that without repentance none of these will atone and ultimately repentance itself is the means of atonement. So that’s how the young Jew learned from his rabbi to equate atonement with repentance.

Yom Kippur

The rabbinic view of sacrifice is sadly inadequate and it seems to me that the fundamental truths of the biblical view are conveniently brought together within the compass of the one great chapter concerning the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16.

From the principles of rabbinic interpretation of Scripture, the central feature of this great passage, the sacrifice itself, becomes merely a symbolic portrayal of the sinner yielding his life back to God in repentance and faith. In that way sin is forgiven and atonement is made but the rabbis would stress that the important thing about the ceremony of the Day of Atonement is that the offerer has the right disposition as he comes to God and the sacrifice is seen only as an aid towards that end. The stress is laid on the attitude of the offerer.

An Attitude Problem

However, in Leviticus 16 the problem is not my attitude toward God but his attitude toward me. The kind of God we have to do with the one who is altogether holy, to whom sin is an abomination and who would strike down the sons of the high priest in their wrong approach to him. I have offended this holy God by violating his holy law and he has decreed that the punishment for sin is death. The problem is not my attitude but, rather, God’s holy hatred towards sin. But God has made a provision for my need and the principle is spelled out in Leviticus 17:11: "For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul."

Death for sin is absolutely indispensable but other factors in Leviticus 16 press the same point upon us. The laying on of hands, for instance, is an important factor: "Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions concerning all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat" (verse 21). The laying on of hands in biblical symbolism always means the transmission of something from one person to another. The implication of that with regard to the sacrifice on the Day of Atonement – and indeed all the sin offerings of the OT – was that the sacrifice under the hands of the high priest represented another person. It could never be a symbol of one’s self as implied by the rabbis.

The shedding of blood itself and its use in the sacrificial procedure is also important in helping us to understand atonement. The use of blood with the sacrifices was highly significant. The blood was not simply dispensed with when an animal died; it had a particular purpose. The blood, according to Leviticus 17:11, was used because it is the seat of soul or the life of the animal and the blood shed spoke of death. The blood separated from the body spelled death. It signified that the penalty for sin decreed by God had been paid and that the sinner’s guilt was atoned for. The Hebrew word for "atone" means "to cover" and on the great Day of Atonement the high priest went right into the throne room of God and sprinkled the blood upon the mercy seat, the seat of atonement. There was "a cover" for sin on the ground of sacrifice That, of course, makes sacrifice absolutely indispensable and it is tragic to see how the rabbis, in endeavouring to find a way to approach God when the sacrifices have been taken away, have produced a religious system in which sacrifice is totally unnecessary. For modern Jews, the basis of the acceptance with God lies in self-effort. As Paul is says, "They have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For they, being ignorant of God’s righteousness [are] seeking to establish their own righteousness."

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