Parashat Tzav, First Aliyah, based on Abravanel’s World of Torah by Zev Bar Eitan
Bible Studies with Don Isaac Abarbanel and the Ramban. Sacrifices in the Tabernacle: Sin offerings, guilt
offerings, and peace offerings. Abarbanel asks: Does God even want sacrifices? What does the Torah’s
sequence of the offerings teach about God?
“And God spoke to Moses saying. Command Aaron and his sons saying,
this is the law of the burnt offering…”
Don Isaac Abarbanel asks what appears to be a question of style, better of an inconsistency of style.
Regarding the sequence of the Tabernacle’s sacrifices, he makes a simple observation. Earlier in
Leviticus, where the subject of offerings is broached, the section pertaining to peace offerings is
followed by sin offerings, and then guilt offerings. Yet, here in our section, verses begin with sin and guilt
offerings prior to moving on to peace offerings. Why?
Here is Abarbanel’s answer. Early in Leviticus, God says to Moshe: “Speak to the Children of Israel.” That
section discusses the divine commandment to bring sacrifices. And the Hebrews complied, bringing their
offerings. But here something else is going on. “Command Aaron and his sons saying…”
Here the verses focus on practice, meaning the emphasis rests on the men who will actually do or carry
out Tabernacle service. Performers or agents of execution were the priests. Some sacrifices had been
the domain of the high priest, while other types fell to rank-and-file priests. Hence, “Command Aaron
and his sons saying…”
At the lead were verses concerning burnt offerings, owing to its most lofty status. Of all the varied types
of offerings, these are the Creator’s most beloved. That explains why Leviticus begins with verses
discussing burnt offerings. Top of the top. We may view it as if the Maker extends a wish or a hope. How
wonderful it would be if Hebrews only brought this altruistic type! Indeed, it is God’s prayer that Jews
would not sin and thus not need to bring either sin or guilt offerings, as they imply misdoing.
In contrast, we find the earlier section that discusses peace offering before sin and guilt sacrifices, as
opposed to our section, whose order is flipped (first sin and guilt and then peace offerings). The
Ramban, a classic Bible commentator responds as follows. In the Temple times, all sacrifices fell into one
of two broad categories: most holy and ordinary holy offerings. In the sacrifice pyramid, per se, the most
holy were the burnt, sin, and guilt offerings. Underneath them were peace offerings.
But there is more to the various offering types than what meets the eye. Abravanel explains. In the
beginning of Leviticus, we find this sequence: burnt offerings, gift offerings, peace offerings, with sin
(and guilt) offerings trailing last. This order bespeaks God’s traits, always putting the right foot forward,
in a manner of speaking. Except for sin/guilt sacrifices, all other offerings highlight the positive. This
reflects the Maker’s preference; He desires idealistic folks who bring gifts to the Temple out of love and
for good occasions, good cheer.
Put differently, whenever God is faced with two options – positive and negative – He naturally favors the
positive and good. Consequently, the order of sacrifices begins with altruistic and favorable ones. They
are the goodwill offerings (burnt, gift, and peace). They exude love and idealism. Next is the sin offering,
an obligatory sacrifice suggesting remedying a wrong. Fear of God as a motivator places a distant second
place to those ushered in with affection.