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It is important to note that in Judaism, sacrifice was never the exclusive means of obtaining forgiveness, and was not in and of itself sufficient to obtain forgiveness. For some transgressions sacrifice was not even effective to obtain forgiveness.
Jews believe that sacrifice is the least important way to gain forgiveness from G-d. Repentance is more important. Very few sins required sacrifice (per Leviticus). For example., the animal sacrifices are only prescribed for unwitting or unintentional sin (Leviticus 4:2, 13, 22, 27; 5:5, 15 and Numbers 15:30). The one exception is if an individual swore falsely to acquit himself of the accusation of having committed theft (Leviticus 5:24-26). Intentional sin can only be atoned for through repentance, unaccompanied by a blood sacrifice (Psalms 32:5, 51:16-19).
This is re-enforced: "And you shall call upon Me, and go, and pray to Me, and I will hearken to you. And you shall seek Me, and find Me, when you shall search for Me with all your heart" (Jeremiah 29:13).
Given its relative unimportance even in Biblical days, what comprised an acceptable Jewish sacrifice?
Many people think that Jewish sacrifice required blood sacrifice. This is not true. The primary commandment about blood is that it shouldn't be eaten. (Leviticus 17:10) "And any man from the house of Israel, or from the aliens who sojourn among them, who eats any blood, I will set My face against that person who eats blood, and will cut him off from among his people." This can be paraphrased: "Don't eat blood." The next phrase (Leviticus 17:11) goes on to say, "For the soul of the flesh is in the blood and I have assigned it for you upon the altar to provide atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that atones for the soul." This explains why blood is not to be eaten, and that when it is used as part of a sacrifice it must be sprinkled on the altar of the Temple. Note that it doesn't say, "blood is the only way to atone" it says that you shouldn't eat the blood because its only use is for sacrifice. Since this is a little confusing lets use an example: we can say that all little boys are people, but does that mean that all people are little boys?. So Leviticus says "Don't eat blood. You can use it for sacrifice," but it doesn't say that blood is the only acceptable sacrifice.
What is an acceptable sacrifice? Well, we know what isn't: the Torah strictly forbids human sacrifice, unlike most religions of the Biblical era.
What kind of sacrifices were allowed? Throughout the Book of Leviticus, only distinct species of animals are permitted for use in blood sacrifices. There is also atonement by a cereal offering (Leviticus 5:11-13), atonement by gold (Num. 31:50), and atonement by the burning of incense: "So Moses said to Aaron, 'Take a censer and put fire in it from the altar, put incense on it, and take it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them; for wrath has gone out from the L-RD." (Numbers 17:11). Remember that prayer and repentence must accompany sacrifices.
There were two kinds of offerings that related to sin:
Chatas, a sin offering: A chatas was only brought for sins whose punishment is an early death caused by G-d where the person's violation wasn't willfull, but could have been prevented with more care. Criminal negligance. There were also national chatas offerings, e.g. if everyone followed a ruling of the High Court, the Sanhedrin, which in retrospect was in error. There is also a chatas brought on other situations: one was brought by the nation each month, by someone at the end of his nazarite vow (to atone for not fully partaking of G-d's world), and other relatively rare cases.
Asham, a guilt offering: There are two instances where one brought an asham. The first is where one is uncertain whether one is supposed to bring a chatas. The second is someone who stole from or caused financial damage to another. He repays the injured party, in many instances with a penalty fine. However, he needs not only forgiveness from the other person, but also from G-d. That is achieved with the asham.
When Jews were not near the Temple (they lived too far away, or were captives as in Babylon) sacrifice was not done by them. King Solomon said that even in the days of the Temple prayer could be used by those away from the temple to obtain forgiveness (I Kings 8:46-50). Synagogues from the time of the Temple have been excavated by archeologists. They were used, as they are today, for prayer. Once or twice a year sacrifices were sent to the Temple from these Synagogues. Now that there is no Temple there are no sacrifices. In accordance with the words of Hosea, we render instead of bullocks the offering of our lips (Hosea 14:3); i.e., prayer and repentence.
The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.
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Daniel P. Faigin <email@example.com>