Parashat Vayikra begins the Torah’s third book, Leviticus. Among the rabbis it was known as Torat Cohanim because it contains the laws of sacrifice, serving as an instruction manual for the priests to offer the daily service. For many modern Jews, the Torah readings about the sacrificial system are offputting, so it is worthwhile to consider what our ancestors intended when they brought sacrifices.
Today we think of minchah as the afternoon service but when the Temple stood it referred to the meal offering. In his book On Sacrifice, Professor Moshe Halbertal notes that minchah means something which is brought forward. Through an offering a person seeks to establish a bond with God; the sacrifice’s function is meant to be a replacement for the sinner.
God created the universe, a feat no human being can share. The Torah creates a hierarchy in which human beings are beneath God in the order; as a result, people and God can not function in an equal reciprocal relationship, giving gifts with an expectation of a corresponding return. Offerings are not gifts, Halbertal writes, rather they function as a simple and regimented gesture in which a penitent acknowledges gratitude or atonement or desire for forgiveness through a small return to God from God’s creation itself.
For a millennium the sacrificial system, the centre of Jewish worship, operated almost uninterrupted. When the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, the Jewish people lost the vehicle to express their closeness to God.
Bereft of the means of worship, the Sages proposed prayer as an alternative to sacrifice; blessings would now be the Jews’ offerings to God. “R. Abbahu said: ‘How are we to compensate You for the bullocks we used to offer to You? Our lips will pay by means of the prayer we offer to You’” (Pesikta deRav Kahana).