This Shabbat Jews throughout the world Jews read the opening chapters of the book of Leviticus known as the Torah portion of Yayikra.
These chapters discuss the commandment to bring both animal and grain sacrifices, for a variety of reasons, of which only one was for unintentional sins. We are also instructed to accompany each offering with salt (Leviticus 2:13).
At the same time, the Torah commands us to avoid cruelty to animals. In Genesis 9:4, we are forbidden from eating flesh torn from a living animal which is the epitome of cruelty. In addition to physical pain, we are commanded to avoid causing animals emotional distress (Deuteronomy 22:7 and Leviticus 22:28).
We are also commanded to care for animals. This includes resting them on Shabbat (Exodus 23:12), and not preventing animals from feeding when they work a field (Deuteronomy 25:4).
The importance of compassion for animals it poignantly stated by King Solomon, “A righteous man knows the needs of his animals” (Proverbs 12:10)
So how do we reconcile animal sacrifices with compassion for animals? Ultimately God prefers obedience over sacrifices as it says, “To do righteousness and justice is more desirable to the LORD than sacrifice” (Proverbs 21:3), and “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6).
However, sacrifices were given to the Jewish people to motivate them to come close to God when they stray. This is alluded to in the Hebrew wording in Leviticus 1:2. The verse reads, “A person who brings an offering.” The Hebrew word for “bring” is “ יקריב -Yakriv” and literally means to come close.
The sacrificial process served to inspire remorse and repentance by recognizing that unrestrained animal passions can distance us from God. The spiritual purpose of sacrifices was to provide a method to come close to God. As the prophets said, “Return to Me, said the Lord, and I will return to you” (Zechariah 1:3).
Since taking an animal life might be perceived as cruelty, sacrifices could only be offered in the Temple, a place of holiness that fostered proper intention and compassion. Also, the Torah’s method of ritual slaughter is meant to minimize pain and trauma.
The spiritual message of seeking closeness to God is an eternal message. Today when we lack a Temple, we retain the most essential elements of coming close to God, obedience, remorse and repentance. The motivating power of sacrifice is accomplished by prayer. As it says, “Offer your prayers in the place of sacrifices” (Hosea 14:2-3).
The eternity of the spiritual message of sacrifices is alluded to in the command to accompany sacrifices with salt. Salt has the unique quality of never spoiling and can also prevent other foods from going bad.
Therefore, the covenant of salt represents how our bond with God gives life, is eternal and will never be broken. This is stated beautifully in the following verses, “I will not reject them or spurn them to destroy them, annulling My covenant with them” (Leviticus 26:44), and, “The Torah is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it” (Proverb 3:18).
These are lessons we can use every moment of our life and one of the reasons we dip bread into salt before we eat. Remarkably, the Hebrew words for salt ( מלח ) and bread ( לחם ) contain the same letters.
Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz