The Book of Leviticus, which we begin to read this Shabbat, focuses on the world of the sacred: the Temple, the kohanim (priests) and the sacrifices.
The book’s first two parashot detail the Jewish laws pertaining to the various sacrifices – something the modern reader finds so alien. But an in-depth examination reveals that the sacrifices in ancient times represented human and emotional issues that are relevant in every period and in every culture, gaining different expression throughout the generations and in various cultures.
Let us look at the olah sacrifice, for example. This sacrifice is not eaten – neither by the kohanim nor by the person who brings the sacrifice. It is offered in its entirety on the altar. This offering represents man’s desire to be completely devoted to the sacred, to God, a desire that still exists and is expressed in various ways even now, when offering sacrifices is such a distant concept.
In parashat Vayikra, we learn about a long list of sacrifices: olah, shlamim, hatat, asham and mincha.
The mincha (meal) offering is different from all the others; it comes from plants and not from living things. It is actually a rather unimpressive sacrifice. The person comes to the Temple with a small amount of flour, the kohanim add oil and a spice called levona (frankincense), and a tiny amount of it is offered on the altar and the rest of it is eaten.
Who brings such a meager sacrifice to the Temple?
Probably a person who does not have the financial ability to invest more and bring an impressive offering of an animal. The mincha is therefore the sacrifice of the poor.
This sacrifice is usually brought voluntarily. There is no obligation to bring it – other than under rare circumstances – and the person brings it to the Temple of his own will.
Our sages discerned that the Torah used different language when referring to the mincha sacrifice in comparison with the other voluntary sacrifices, the olah and the shlamim.
The description of the olah sacrifice begins with the words “When a man from [among] you brings a sacrifice to the Lord.” The commandment regarding the shlamim sacrifice does not refer to the person bringing the sacrifice and starts with the words “If his sacrifice is a peace offering.” The mincha sacrifice is described as follows: “And if a nefesh brings a meal offering to the Lord.” What is the meaning behind the word “nefesh” (soul) in relation to the mincha sacrifice? Rabbi Yitzhak, a Babylonian sage of the second century, inferred from this a message for generations:
“Rabbi Yitzhak said: For what reason is the meal offering different from other offerings in that the term ‘a nefesh [soul]’ is stated with regard to it? The Holy One, blessed be He, said: Whose practice is it to bring a meal offering? It is that of a poor individual; and I will ascribe him credit as though he offered up his soul [nafsho] in front of Me” (Menahot 104).
The mincha (meal) offering is, as mentioned, the offering of a poor person who cannot bring an impressive offering. This person might feel that his offering is worthless in comparison with the offerings whose monetary value is high, brought by others. Even society might look down at this offering as pathetic. Rabbi Yitzhak learns from the word “nefesh” that the value of the offering is not determined by its monetary value. The value of an act is measured by the goodwill behind it and not by other parameters. On the contrary, the poor person who contributed from his meager assets to the Temple, his offering could be more valuable than the impressive offering of a rich man whose expenditure did not affect his financial situation.
Furthermore, Prof. Yonatan Grossman shows in his book Torat Hakorbanot that while the animal offerings represent the person himself, with the animal being a sort of “exchange” for the person, the mincha (meal) offering that is from plants represents a person’s sustenance, and by bringing this offering to the Temple, he is expressing his gratitude for the food that sustains him. If we remember that the person who brings this mincha offering is someone who is not financially fortunate, we see that this sacrifice is very impressive. The poor person whose livelihood is limited does not come to complain. On the contrary, he is “satisfied with what he has” and expresses gratitude for the little he has.
“Whether one brings a substantial offering or a meager offering, [it is equally pleasing to God], provided that he directs his heart toward Heaven.”Tractate Menahot
In the Mishna, Tractate Menahot, a tractate mostly devoted to the mincha (meal) offering, we find the profound statement “Whether one brings a substantial offering or a meager offering, [it is equally pleasing to God], provided that he directs his heart toward Heaven.” ■
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.