Ideas That Lie Beneath the Surface

The Book of Leviticus discussing sacrifices far more widely than any other section of the Bible. Most of us do not find the idea of sacrifices stimulating, indeed many people are repelled by the thought of them. But if you believe that it is possible to find ideas and insights below the surface text of the Bible, then it is instructive to try to investigate what we may be able to learn from the lengthy and complex descriptions of sacrifices. Particularly since sacrifice does not necessarily mean slaughtering animals. A sacrifice is the giving of something one values, or of oneself, for a higher purpose, for reconciliation or propitiation.

One of the most intriguing concepts in the whole sacrificial system is the concept of piggul. It is introduced in Leviticus 7,18 where we read that if someone delays eating eats their sacrificial meal until its allotted time has passed, the sacrifice will not be accepted, it has become piggul.

The Talmud (Zevachim 29a) expands on this idea, explaining that it makes no sense for a sacrifice to be acceptable when first offered but to become unacceptable because it wasn’t eaten in time. An act of worship can either be effective or ineffective, it cannot change from one to another.  Therefore, if the sacrifice is to become piggul it must necessarily have been so from the outset. The worshipper must have had the intention of eating it at the wrong time from the very beginning. Piggul, in other words, is a consequence of a state of mind. A sacrifice, or by extension any religious action, becomes piggul if it is offered with the wrong intention.

According to this analysis (with which, we should note, Rabbi Akiva disagrees) the validity of a ritual, depends on the intention of the person carrying it out. The Talmud has shifted the focus of the discussion from the gruesome practicalities of a physical sacrifice to the mental processes involved in performing a prescribed religious ritual.

The word piggul is hard to define. It only occurs four times in the Bible, twice in relation to sacrifices and twice in the sense of forbidden or unpalatable food. The Septuagint translates it as miasma, meaning defilement and this is the sense followed by in most English translations. Onkelos, the Jewish Aramaic translator gives it the sense of something so foul as to be shunned. S.R. Hirsch suggests that it may have the sense of separation. But whatever the word means, when applied to sacrifices it is, according to Talmudic reasoning, a consequence of improper intention.

Intention is a determining factor in all legal systems. An injury caused accidentally is treated differently from one caused intentionally. In respect of sacrifices, intention is even more important. Even for those who find value in sacrifices, a meaningless sacrifice is of no value at all. This is a refrain that repeats over and again in the books of the Prophets.  What matters is not meaningless sacrifice, but justice, mercy, love and an open heart.

© 2020 Harry Freedman Books