Vayikra: The Korban Yachid: Nedava and Chova

This shiur provided courtesy of The Tanach Study Center In memory of Rabbi Abraham Leibtag

Does God need our "korbanot"?

Or, would it be more correct to say that we 'need' to bring them, even though He doesn't need them?

In an attempt to answer this 'philosophical' question, this week's shiur undertakes an analysis of Parshat Vayikra to show how its specific topic of "korbanot" [sacrificial offerings] relates to one of the primary themes of the Bible.


The Mishkan certainly emerges as a primary topic in both the books of Shemot and Vayikra, and hence, it would only be logical to assume that its underlying purpose must be thematically important.  To appreciate that purpose, we must first note a very simple distinction that explains which details are found in each book.

In Sefer Shemot, the Torah explains how to build the mishkan, and hence Shemot concludes (in Parshat Pekudei) with the story of its assembly.  In contrast, Sefer Vayikra explains how to use the mishkan, and hence Parshat Vayikra begins with the laws of the korbanot - i.e. instructions regarding the sacrifices that will be offered there.

Even though this distinction explains why Sefer Vayikra discusses korbanot in general, it does not explain why the Sefer begins specifically with the laws of korban olah [the burnt offering]; nor does it explain the logic of the progression from one type of korban to the next.  In our shiur, we begin with a technical analysis of its internal progression - but those conclusions will help us arrive at a deeper understanding of the purpose of korbanot in general.

An Outline for Parshat Vayikra  

In our study questions, we suggested that you prepare an outline of chapters one thru five, by identifying the primary topic of each individual 'parshia'.  The following table summarizes our conclusions.  Before you continue, study it carefully (with a Chumash at hand), noting how the section titles provide an explanation of the progression of its topics.

[Note how each 'parshia' corresponds to one line in our chart.  Note also that each asterisk ('*') in the outline marks the beginning of a new 'dibra', i.e. a short introduction for a new instruction from God to Moshe [e.g. "va-yedaber Hashem el Moshe..."].      Note as well how the outline suggests a short one-line summary for each parshia, as well as a title for each section.  See if you agree with those titles.]


PARSHAT VAYIKRA - THE KORBAN YACHID ===================================

I) Korban Nedava - Voluntary offerings (chaps. 1-3)

A. Olah  (the entire korban is burnt on the mizbeach)

  1. 'bakar' - from cattle
  2. 'tzon' - from sheep
  3. 'of' - from fowl

B. Mincha (a flour offering)

  1. 'solet' - plain flour mixed with oil and 'levona'
  2. 'ma'afeh tanur' - baked in the oven
  3. 'al machavat' - on a griddle
  4. 'marcheshet' - on a pan (+ misc. general laws)
  5. 'bikkurim' - from wheat of the early harvest

C. Shelamim (a peace offering, part is eaten by the owners)

  1. bakar - from cattle
  2. tzon - from sheep
  3. 'ez' - from goats

[Note the key phrase repeated many times in this unit: "isheh reiach nichoach l-Hashem."]

II) Korban Chova - Mandatory Offerings

A. Chatat (4:1-5:13)

For a general transgression [laws organized according to violator]:

  1. 'par kohen mashiach' (High Priest) - a bull
  2. 'par he'elem davar' (bet din) - a bull
  3. 'se'ir nassi' (a king) - a male goat
  4. 'nefesh' (layman)  a female goat or female lamb

For specific transgressions ('oleh ve-yored'):

  1. a rich person - a female goat or lamb
  2. a poor person - two birds
  3. a very poor person - a plain flour offering

B. Asham (5:14-5:26) - animal is always an 'ayil' (ram)

  1. 'asham me'ilot' - taking from Temple property
  2. 'asham talui' - unsure if he sinned [Note the new dibbur at this point]
  3. * 'asham gezeilot' - stealing from another

[Note the key phrase repeated numerous times in this unit: "ve-chiper alav... ve-nislach lo."]

Let's explain why we have chosen these titles.

Two Groups: Nedava & Chova

First and foremost, note how our outline divides Parshat Vayikra into two distinct sections: 'korbanot nedava' = voluntary offerings and 'korbanot chova' - mandatory offerings.

The first section is titled "nedava", for if an individual wishes to voluntarily offer a korban to God, he has three categories to choose from:

  1. An OLAH - a burnt offering [chapter one];
  2. A MINCHA - a flour offering [chapter two]; or
  3. A SHELAMIM - a peace offering [chapter three]

Note how these three groups are all included in the first "dibbur" - and comprise the "nedava" [voluntary] section.

In contrast, there are instances when a person may transgress, thus obligating him to offer a sin offering - be it a "chatat" or an "asham" (depending upon what he did wrong).

The two categories (chapters 4 and 5) comprise the second section, which we titled "chova" [obligatory].

The Chumash itself stresses a distinction between these two sections not only the start of a new dibbur in 4:1, but also the repetition of two key phrases that appear in just about every closing verse in the parshiot of both sections, stressing the primary purpose of each respective section:

  • In the nedava section: "isheh reiach nichoach l'Hashem" ["an offering of fire, a pleasing odor to the Lord" - see 1:9,13,17; 2:2; 3:5,11,16];
  • In the chova section: "ve-chiper a'lav ha-kohen... " ["the kohen shall make expiation on his behalf..." -  see 4:26,31,35; 5:6,10,13,16,19,26]

With this background in mind, we will now discuss the logic behind the internal structure of each section, to show how (and why) the nedava section is arranged by category of offering and the type of animal, while the chova section is arranged by type of transgression committed, and who transgressed.

Nedava - Take Your Pick

If an individual wishes to offer a korban nedava, he must first choose the category that reflects his personal preference.  First of all, should he prefer to offer the entire animal to God, he can choose the olah category; but should he prefer (for either financial or ideological reasons) to offer flour instead, then he can choose the mincha category.  Finally, should he prefer not only the animal option, but would also like to later partake in eating from this korban - then he can choose the shelamim category.

Once the individual has made this general choice of either an ola, mincha, or shelamim - next, he can pick the subcategory of his choice.

For example, should one choose to offer an olah - which is totally consumed on the mizbeach - then he must choose between cattle, sheep, or fowl.

The Torah explains these three options (in the first three parshiot of chapter 1), including precise instructions concerning how to offer each of these animals.

Should the individual choose a mincha - a flour offering - instead, then he must select from one of the five different options for how to bake the flour, corresponding to the five short parshiot in chapter two.  In other words, he can present his offering as either flour (mixed with oil), or baked in an oven ("ma'afe tanur), or fried on a skillet ("al machavat"), or deep fried ("marcheshet").  Should the flour offering be from the wheat of the early harvest ("minchat bikkurim"), it must first be roasted and ground in a special manner (see Ibn Ezra 2:14).

Finally, should he choose the shelamim option- a peace offering - then he must select between: cattle ("bakar"); sheep ("kevasim"); or goats ("izim") - corresponding to the three individual parshiot in chapter three.

It should be noted as well that the laws included in this korban nedava section also discuss certain procedural instructions.  For example, before offering an olah or shelamim, the owner must perform the act of 'smicha' (see 1:4, 3:2,8,13).  By doing "smicha" - i.e. resting all his weight on the animal - the owner symbolically transfers his identity to the animal.  That is to say, he offers the animal instead of himself (see Ramban).

One could suggest that the act of smicha reflects an understanding that the korban serves as a 'replacement' for the owner.  This idea may be reflective of the korban olah that Avraham Avinu offered at the akeida - when he offered a ram in place of his son - "olah tachat bno"  (see Breishit 22:13).

Chova: If You've Done Something Wrong

As we explained earlier, the second category of Parshat Vayikra discusses the "korban chova" (chapters 4 & 5) - an obligatory offering that must be brought by a person should he transgress against one of God's laws.  Therefore, this section is organized by event, for the type of sin committed will determine which offering is required.

The first 'event' is an unintentional transgression of 'any of God's mitzvot' (see 4:2 and the header of each consecutive parshia in chapter 4).  Chazal explain that this refers to the unintentional violation ('shogeg') of any prohibition of the Torah - that had the person transgressed intentionally ("meizid"), his punishment would have been 'karet' (cut off from the Jewish nation).

[This offering is usually referred to as a 'chatat kavua' (the fixed chatat).]

Should this transgression occur ("b'shogeig"), then the actual animal that must be brought depends upon who the sinner is.  If the kohen gadol (high priest) sins, he must brings a bull ("par").  If it is the political leader ("nasi"), he must bring a male goat ("se'ir").  If it was simply a commoner, he must bring either a she-goat or lamb ("se'ira" or "kisba").

[There is also a special case of a mistaken halachic ruling by the 'elders' [i.e. the 'sanhedrin' - the supreme halachic court], which results in the entire nation inadvertently sinning.  In this case, the members of the sanhedrin must bring a special chatat offering - known as the "par he'elem davar shel tzibur".  See 4:13-21.]

In chapter five we find several instances of specific transgressions that require either a "chatat" or an "asham".

The first category begins with a list of three specific types of transgressions, including - the case when a person refuses to provide witness (see 5:1), or should one accidentally enter the Temple (or Mishkan) while spiritually unclean ('tamei' / see 5:2), or should one not keep a promise (to do/ or not to do something) made with an oath ('shevu'at bitui' / see 5:4).

Should one transgress in regard to any one of these three cases (detailed in 5:1-4), the specific offering that he must bring depends on his income.  If he is:

  1. Rich - he brings a female lamb or she-goat;
  2. 'middle class' - he can bring two birds instead;
  3. poor - he can bring a simple flour offering.

Interestingly, this korban is categorized as a "chatat" (see 5:6,10,13), even though the Torah uses the word "asham" [guilt] in reference to these acts (see 5:5).  It makes sense to consider it a "chatat", because in the standard case (i.e. if the transgressor be rich) - the offering is exactly the same animal as the regular chatat ‑ i.e. a female goat or sheep.

Furthermore, note that these pesukim (i.e. 5:1-13) are included in the same "dibbur" that began in 4:1 that discussed the classic korban "chatat", while the new "dibbur" that discusses the korban "asham" only begins in 5:14!

The rabbis refer to this korban as an "oleh ve-yored" [lit. up and down] as this name relates to its graduated scale - which depends entirely upon the individual's financial status.

One could suggest that the Torah offers this graduated scale because these specific transgressions are very common, and hence it would become rather costly for the average person to offer an animal for each such transgression.

The final cases (from 5:14 till the end of the chapter) include several other categories of transgressions - that require what the Torah refers to as a korban asham - a guilt offering.  In each of these cases, the transgressor must offer an ayil [a ram], including:

  • when one takes something belonging to hekdesh ('asham me'ilot'/ 5:14-16)
  • when one is unsure if he must bring a chatat ('asham talui'), i.e. he is not sure if he sinned.
  • when one falsely denies having illegally held possession of someone else's property ('asham gezeilot' / 5:20-26), like not returning a 'lost item' to its owner.

The General Title - Korban Yachid

We titled the entire outline as korban yachid - the offering of an individual - for this entire unit details the various types of korbanot that an individual (='yachid') can (or must) bring.  Our choice of this title reflects the opening sentence of the Parsha: "adam ki yakriv..".- any person should he bring an offering to God..." (see 1:2).

The korban yachid stands in contrast to the korbanot tzibbur - the public offerings - which are offered by the entire congregation of Israel (purchased with the funds collected from the machatzit ha-shekel).  The laws relating to korbanot tzibbur we first found in Parshat Tetzaveh in regard to the daily "olat tamid" offering.  They continue with the special offering that the nation brings (collectively) on the holidays, as detailed primarily in Parshiyot Emor (Vayikra chapter 23) and in Parshat Pinchas (Bamidbar chapters 28-29).

Which Should Come First?

Now that we have explained the logic of the internal order of each section, we must explain why the laws of korban nedava precede those of korban chova.  Intuitively, one would have perhaps introduced the compulsory korban before the optional one.

One could suggest that Parshat Vayikra begins specifically with the korban nedava since these korbanot in particular reflect the individual's aspiration to improve his relationship with God. Only afterward does the Torah detail the korban chova, which amends that relationship (when tainted by sin).  Additionally, perhaps, the korban nedava reflects a more ideal situation, while the obligatory sin-offering seeks to rectify a problematic situation.

We may, however, suggest an even more fundamental reason based on the 'double theme' which we discussed in our study of the second half of Sefer Shemot.

Recall from our previous shiurim that the mishkan served a dual purpose:

A) to perpetuate the experience of Har Sinai (emphasized by Ramban); and B) to atone for chet ha-egel (emphasized by Rashi).

(A)  Reenacting Har Sinai

Recall how the covenantal ceremony that took place at Har Sinai (when Bnei Yisrael accepted the Torah) included the public offering of "olot" & "shelamim" (when the declared "na'aseh ve-nishma"/ see Shemot 24:4‑7).  In fact, in that ceremony we find the very first mention in Chumash of a korban shelamim, suggesting a conceptual relationship between the korban shelamim and Har Sinai.

[Note also that Chumash later refers to the korban shelamim as a 'zevach' (see 3:1 & 7:11).  The word zevach itself is also used to describe a feast, generally in the context of an agreement between two parties.  For example, Lavan and Yaakov conduct a zevach after they enter into a covenant ('brit') agreeing not to harm each other (see Br. 31:44-54).  Today, as well, agreements between two parties are often followed or accompanied by a lavish feast of sorts (e.g. state dinners, weddings, business mergers, etc.).  Therefore, one could suggest that by offering a zevach shelamim, an individual demonstrates shows his loyalty as a joint partner in a covenantal relationship with God.]

The korban olah also relates to Ma'amad Har Sinai, based not only on the above parallel, but also based on a key phrase - "isheh reiach nichoach l-Hashem" - that the Torah uses consistently in its description of the korban olah.  [See 1:9,13,17.]

This exact same phrase is also found in the Torah's description of the "olat tamid", the daily congregational offering, as inherently connected to Bnei Yisrael's offerings at Har Sinai:

"Olat tamid ha-asuya BE-HAR SINAI, le-reiach nichoach isheh l-Hashem" (see Bamidbar 28:6).

Similarly, in Parshat Tetzaveh, when the Torah first introduces the olat tamid and summarizes its discussion of the mishkan - we find the exact same phrase:

"... le-reIach nichoach isheh l-Hashem... olat tamid le-doroteichem petach ohel mo'ed..." (Shemot 29:41-42)

Hence, by offering either an olah or a shelamim - the efficacious reminders of Ma'amad Har Sinai - the individual reaffirms the covenant at Har Sinai of "na'aseh v'nishma" - the very basis of our relationship with God at Ma'amad Har Sinai.

[One could also suggest that these two types of korbanot reflect two different aspects of our relationship with God. The olah reflects "yirah" (fear of God), while the shelamim may represent "ahava" (love of God).]

Recall also that the last time Bnei Yisrael had offered olot & shelamim (i.e. before chet ha-egel) was at Har Sinai.  But due to the sin of the Golden Calf, God's shechinah had left Bnei Yisrael, thus precluding the very possibility of offering korbanot.  Now that the mishkan is finally built and the Shechina has returned (as described at the conclusion of Sefer Shemot), God's first message to Bnei Yisrael in Sefer Vayikra is that they can once again offer olot & shelamim, just as they did at Har Sinai - at not only as a nation, but also as individuals.

This observation alone can help us appreciate why the very first topic in Sefer Vayikra is that of the voluntary offerings - of the korban olah & shelamim, and hence it makes sense that they would precede the obligatory offering of chatat and asham.

(B) Korban Chova - Back to Chet HaEgel

In contrast to the 'refrain' of 'isheh reiach nichoach' concluding each korban nedava, we noted that each korban chova concludes with the phrase "ve-chiper alav ha-kohen... ve-nislach lo".  Once again, we find a parallel to the events at Har Sinai.

Recall our explanation that Aharon acted as he did at "chet ha-egel" with the best of intentions; only the results were disastrous.  With the Shechina present, any transgression, even should it be unintentional, can invoke immediate punishment (see Shemot 20:2-4 & 23:20-22).  Nevertheless, God's attributes of mercy, that He declares when He gives Moshe Rabbeinu the second "luchot", now allow Bnei Yisrael 'second chance' should they sin - i.e.  the opportunity to prove to God their sincerity and resolve to exercise greater caution in the future.

We also find a textual parallel in Moshe Rabbeinu's statement before he ascended Har Sinai to seek repentance for chet ha-egel: Recall how Moshe Rabbenu told the people:

"Atem chatatem chata'a gedola… ulai achapra be'ad chatatchem" (Shemot 32:30; read also 32:31-33).

Later, when Moshe actually receives the thirteen /middot ha-rachamim' on Har Sinai along with the second luchot (34:-9), he requests atonement for chet ha-egel:

"... ve-salachta le-avoneinu u-lechatoteinu..." (34:9).

This key phrase of the korban chova - "ve-chiper alav... ve-nislach lo" - may also relate to this precedent of God's capacity and willingness to forgive.  The korban chova serves as a vehicle by which one can ask forgiveness for sins committed "b'shogeg" and beseech God to activate His "middot ha-rachamim" [attributes of mercy] to save them for any punishment that they may deserve.

Therefore, we may conclude that the korban nedava highlights the mishkan's function as the perpetuation of Ma'amad Har Sinai, while the korban chova underscores the mishkan's role as means of atonement for chet ha-egel.

Who Needs the 'Korban'?

With this background, one could suggest that the popular translation of korban as a sacrifice may be slightly misleading.  Sacrifice implies giving up something for nothing in return.  In truth, however, the 'shoresh' (root) of the word korban is k.r.v., 'karov' - to come close. Not only is the animal brought 'closer' to the mizbeach, but the korban ultimately serves to bring the individual closer to God.  The animal itself comprises merely the vehicle through which this process is facilitated.

Therefore, korbanot involve more than dry, technical rituals; they promote the primary purpose of the mishkan - the enhancement of man's relationship with God.

In this sense, it becomes rather clear that it is the individual who needs to offer the "korban" - as an expression of his commitment and loyalty to his Creator.  Certainly it is not God who needs to consume them!

For the sake of analogy, one could compare the voluntary offerings [the korban nedava] to a gift that a guest brings to his host..  For example, it is only natural that someone who goes to another family for a shabbat - cannot come 'empty handed'.  Instead, the custom is to bring a small gift, be it flowers, or wine, or something sweet.  Certainly, his hosts don't need the gift, but the guest needs to bring something.  But the reason why they are spending quality time together is for the sake of their relationship. The gift is only a token of appreciation - nonetheless a very important act.

Tefillah Keneged Korbanot

In closing, we can extend our study to help us better appreciate our understanding of "tefilla" [prayer before God].

In the absence of the Beit haMikdash [the Temple], Chazal consider 'tefillah' as a 'substitute' for korbanot.  Like korbanot, tefilla also serves as a vehicle through which man can develop and strengthen his relationship with God.  It is the individual who needs to pray, more so that God needs to hear those prayers

As such, what we have learned about korbanot has meaning even today - as individual tefilla should embody both aspects of the korban yachid: nedava and chova.

Tefilla should primarily reflect one's aspiration to come closer to God - an expression of the recognition of his existence as a servant of God.   And secondly, if one has sinned, tefilla becomes an avenue through which he can amend the tainted relationship.

Finally, tefilla, just like the korbanot of the mishkan, involves more than just the fulfillment of personal obligation.  Our ability to approach God, and request that He evoke His "middot ha-rachamim" - even should we not be worthy of them - should be considered a unique privilege granted to God's special nation who accepted the Torah at Har Sinai, provides an avenue to perfect our relationship.  As such, tefilla should not be treated as a burden, but rather as a special privilege.