Musings of an Orthodox Jew

Thoughts on Torah and the Jewish world today.

Korbanot for atonement- what exactly are we talking about

Some of you may know I am active on Yahoo! Answers- others may be ignorant of that fact.  (If you’re really interested- I answer questions there under the userid AllonYoav).  One of the frequently asked questions centers around sacrifices for atonement- and how do Jews atone nowadays.

First Lets first clear up a couple of things:

1) Sacrifices as atonement for sin (Korban Chatas) ONLY exist for accidental sin.  Deliberate sin has no sacrifice for atonement and is purely atoned for via repentance in the form of prayer and/or actions such as restitution of stolen property or some other action to make restitution to the victim (in the case of a sin against a person).  Deliberate sins against Hashem are forgiven purely on the basis of repentance.  The following forms of Korban Chatas are discussed:

  • Korban Asham- One could call this the definition of the Korban Chatas given above- the Korban Asham was brought for an accidental sin
  • Korban Asham Tali- When somebody was not sure if they had sinned or not they brought a Korban Asham Tali
  • Korban Chatas- this is basically a catch-all for the rest, from the sin offerings brought by a Nazir at the end of his period of nezirot to the par (bull) sacrificed by the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur on his own behalf or the par for communal error from the erroneous ruling of the Sanhedrin.

2) There are different forms that a Korban Chatas takes on depending on the person involved.
a) King or High Priest a bull
b) Normal priests or members of the community- a female sheep or goat
c) Poor people two doves or pigeons
d) Very poor people- a mix of flour, oil and frankincense
3) The translation of Korban as sacrifice is actually a very bad one and does not reflect the Jewish understanding of what a sacrifice is.  The word Korban comes from the root kiruv- to come closer (As brought by R’ Shimshon Raphael Hirsch in Parshat Vayikra).  The purpose of the Korban is not for us to give something up, which the word sacrifice implies, it is not for us to suffer – once again the implication of a “sacrifice”; but it is to draw us closer to Hashem.  Hashem does not need our korbanot, Hashem knows whether we have repented or not without us doing anything external, thus the purpose of the korbanot is purely for us.  People need tangible systems, something they can grasp in order to symbolise to themselves that they have taken concrete action.  It was through negligence or lack of thought that they came to commit the sin for which they are making a Korban, thus it is through a deliberate, thought out action that they show they wish to repair the damaged relationship between them and Hashem.

Given all that- let us return to the question of if the lamb was punished for the sins of the people.  The answer is: no.  The lamb/bull/doves/flour was a symbol for the person to grasp hold of to understand that they were reconciled to Hashem.  What purpose in an animal as opposed to just using flour or a donation of money?  Think of it like this: what is more visceral and immediate than being there when the animal is offered, as you stand in the holiest place that you can go to, the courtyard of the Temple, see the blood being sprinkled on the altar and know that in doing so you have brought yourself closer toHashem?

There are more esoteric reasons brought as well.  One which is relatively easy to understand is as follows:  A person’s soul has three parts- an animating force which is common to all animal; The highest, holiest part which is purely holy and cannot sin and the connecting element, the “You” bit, the part of your soul that can act independently in this world and whose job it is to raise your animal nature to be as close to the holy nature as possible.  What does sin represent?  Sin represents the animal souls instinctive desires and needs overcoming the push to holiness- it is the base animal pulling us away from the holy and towards the mundane.  When we sacrifice an animal- we figuratively are showing the killing of the mundane in order to draw closer to the holy- thus why it says “the life is in the blood”.  The life of the animal soul, the base part of us, is tied to the physical, dies with the physical, desires the physical, but a Korban shows that the physical must be overcome and made to serve the Holy.  The blood of the animal, the physical and mundane, is sprinkled on the Holy altar so that the person can elevate their soul and leave the mistrakes from their animal nature behind.

So that brings the question of:  How do we atone today when the Korbanot no longer exist?  The answer is in the definition of Korban.  If the purpose of the Korban is not to deprive us of something, not to cause us to suffer,  then actions that bring us closer to Hashem are just as effective!  Thus we shout loudly after u’ne;taneh tokef “Prayer, Charity and Repentance remove the evil decree”.  The purpose of atonement is not to give something up, it is not to be punished or forced to do something we don’t want to do.  The purpose of atonement is to repair the relationship between us and Hashem or us and our fellow man.  These three elements cover that.

  • Tefillah (prayer)- a direct communication between us and Hashem.  It is us telling Hashem that we wish to repent, to not repeat the actions we are guilty of.  One can also extend this to the approaching of our fellow man- apologising, taking responsibility for our actions and making amends
  • Teshuva (repentance)- the direct translation of “teshuvah” could quite easily be “to return”.  That is the purpose of our actions- to return our relationship to where it was previously through sincerely looking at our actions, undertaking not to repeat the offense, and repairing that element of us that  led us to that particular error.
  • Tzedakah (charity)- What greater way to show our commitment ot Hashem and his nation than through helping others?  Each chapter of Masechta Avos starts off with “All of Israel is responsible one for another, and there is a place in the world to come for all of Israel”.  The thoughts are indeed linked: charity binds us to the nation as a whole, shows our commitment to the nations as a whole, while those who dissasociate themselves from the nation are no longer part of Israel and no longer have this guarantee!

So, you want to atone for something and don;t know how?  Its simple- ask Hashem to forgive you through prayerand then give charity.  Hashem wants to forgive us and by helping others we show our commitment to Hashem and his people, binding us to the Jewish people and our portion in the World to Come.


April 24, 2009 - Posted by | Other Torah, Torah | , , , , , , , ,


  1. Thanks for explaining this again with new aspects that I haven’t seen in your yahoo answers about that subject before.

    Now it’s the second time you’re writing about something I’m thinking about right when I’m thinking about it … great 🙂 So I can probably ask you a question I had about that anyway.

    You once wrote that today there are no animal sacrifices anymore because there is no temple. But before there was a temple, there were also animal sacrifices, right?

    So here my question:
    Why were there sacrifices before the temple came into existance but not today? What is the difference between that time and now?

    Comment by Diana | April 25, 2009 | Reply

    • The difference comes in to the fact that when the laws for the sacrifices were given, it was stated that the sacrifces must be done in a specific place before the Mishkan. This was not understood as anabsolute- but only as being in effect when the Mishkan was in a “permanent” position, whether in the Mishkan built in the desert by Betsalel under Moshe’s instruction or when the permanent Temple was built. Thus when the Mishkan was in Shiloh for seventy years it was also forbidden to offer sacrifces anywhere else. When the Temple was built, Hashem stated to Shlomo HaMelech that this was his abode- indicating a permanent position for the altar to sand and forbidding the usage of any other bamot (lraised places on which altars uused to be built). Thus from that point onwards only the Temple Mount could be used for sacifices. Their is only one excpetion to this- the sacrifice of the red heffer which is not done in the Temple, but then, there is so much else outre and difficult to understand about that particular sacrifice that its unsurprising to find yet another exception applied to it.

      Comment by marcl1969 | April 25, 2009 | Reply

  2. thanks, that really explains it.

    Comment by Diana | April 26, 2009 | Reply

  3. Pretty cool post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say
    that I have really liked reading your blog posts. Anyway
    I’ll be subscribing to your blog and I hope you post again soon!

    Comment by LnddMiles | July 22, 2009 | Reply

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