In ancient times, when the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, Jewish holidays were typically celebrated through grain, wine and animal offerings presented on the altar of the Holy Temple. Many of these offerings were eaten by Jewish families as part of their holiday feasts, while other offerings were completely burned atop the Temple altar. Entire chapters of the Bible (1) delineate the exact type and number of sacrifices to be offered in the Temple during each holiday: Sabbath, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover, etc.
Even today, in the absence of a Jerusalem Temple and the cessation of all food sacrifices of grain, animals and wine, we learn about these Temple offerings during our Sabbath and holiday prayers: The additional synagogue service conducted on every Sabbath and Jewish festival, known as the Musaf prayer, focuses on the type and number of sacrifices offered during that particular holiday in the Holy Temple.
Here is the big question: Why are we so obsessed with sacrifices? Can't our prayers discuss something more relevant and exciting?
The answer is critical to the understanding of Judaism. This is Judaism's way of teaching us that in order to celebrate you must be ready to make sacrifices.
A life of ecstasy, Judaism understood, is not born from a life free of any moral and spiritual responsibility, a life filled only with gluttonous indulgence and uninhibited expression of our hedonistic nature. These are short lived celebrations that ultimately cause us more stress and anxiety, since they cannot satiate the profound human need for meaning and transcendence.
From the Torah perspective, a holiday is deeply linked with sacrifices and hard toil, with the art of self-reflection, self-refinement, study and prayer. We celebrate what we give rather than what we take; we rejoice over our commitments, our values, our readiness to sacrifice the best within us to our loved ones and to G-d (2).
This is why every Jewish day of celebration focuses so much on the theme of sacrifices. If you are not ready to sacrifice anything in your life for truth, for love, it is difficult to achieve genuine fulfillment and celebration. If you are unwilling to challenge the animal within you and sublimate it, your happiness will be short-lived.
Why kill animals?
Yet there is a striking difference between Temple times and contemporary times. Then, the spiritual sacrifices of the human heart were coupled with the physical acts of animal sacrifices. Today, in the absence of the Jerusalem Temple, all animal sacrifices have ceased in the Jewish religion. Why?
Some great Jewish minds, most notably 11th century Jewish philosopher Maimonides, view the cessation of animal sacrifices as progress in the Jewish consciousness. Animal sacrifices, Maimonides writes, were the Torah's substitute for a primitive tribe's longing for human sacrifices practiced in most pagan cultures. It was the first step in transforming a crude tribe into an enlightened nation. Ultimately, the Jews were expected to graduate from the need of any sacrifices at all (3).
The Kabbalah, including the Zohar, Nachmanidies and Rabbi Isaac Luryah, view the issue in a different light (4). Nowadays, lacking the spiritual vision cast by the presence of the Holy Temple allowing us to perceive the soul beneath the matter, animal sacrifices justly appear as archaic, just as from our present perspective we fail to grasp why a moral and just G-d would create a world in which beasts are instinctively programmed to devour other animals in order to nourish their bodies.
In truth, however, the cruelty of the jungle is only based on our paradigm. From our vantage point, we ought to be deeply troubled by what occurs on a daily basis in the jungles. If not, we must question our humanness. Yet to the animals, things seem very differently. As the frog tells King David in a famous Midrashic passage (5): "I have a mitzvah greater than any of yours; for there is a bird that lives by the swamp and hungers, and I sacrifice my life to feed it." The mystics explain that to the animals, to be eaten is only to be transformed, from one being to another in an endless cycle of metamorphosis. The leaves become a deer, the deer a cougar, or a human being, the cougar or human returns to the dust and feeds the trees that produce leaves. And that is their fulfillment, their mitzvah of life.
The same and even more is true, according to Jewish mysticism, concerning animal offerings in the Temple. The animals deeply cherished the opportunity to become offerings for G-d, to enter directly the world of the Divine, consumed in the sacred flames atop the altar. The animals sensed that this was the greatest thing that could happen to them. The Zohar even states (7) that the secret of animal offerings touches the profoundest secrets of the infinite (That is why the Levites in the Temple played concertos while the priests were engaged in the animal offerings.)
Only when Moshiach comes, when we will perceive ourselves and the world around us in an entirely new light, when we will be able to readily appreciate the soul of every piece of matter, only then will animal offerings return, as we will be able to see clearly how animal sacrifices are not cruel. Until that period, as the physical remains far more real than the spiritual, we ought not become comfortable with the concept of animal sacrifices.
1) Leviticus chapter 23 and Numbers chapter 28-29. More references are made to these offerings throughout the Bible.
2) See Likkutei Torah Parshas Vayikra. This, incidentally, is one of the major themes of Chassidic literature.
3) A Guide to the Perplexed section 3.
4) See Sefer Halikkutim—Tzemach Tzedek under the entry of Karbanos and all references noted there. Cf. Tanya chapters 7 and 34.
5) Perek Shira. For an elaborate explanation of this concept, see Tzvi Freeman, “What Gives Us a Right to Kill Animals”? Posted on www.chabad.org