In the following verses, the Torah describes how Cain and Abel, the first two sons of Adam and Eve, brought offerings:
"After some time had passed, Cain brought an offering to the Compassionate One from the fruit of the ground. Abel, too, brought from the firstlings of his flock and from the best of them, and the Compassionate One turned to Abel and his offering. But to Cain and his offering He did not turn…" (Genesis 4:3-5)
This is the first account of offerings in the Written Torah. In his commentary on these verses, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes:
"We find an offering that is rejected, beside an offering that is accepted (and so we find later, at the dedication of the Dwelling Place: the offering brought by Aaron's sons, which was rejected, beside offerings that are accepted). We see, then, that never was absolute value attached to the offerings. This gives the lie to the notion crediting the prophets with being the first to have taught that offerings have only a relative value… Everything depends on the spirit in which the offerings or prayers are offered."
During the biblical period, when we began to prosper in our own land, some people began to view the offerings as a substitute for fulfilling all the ethical and spiritual precepts of the Torah – the Divine Teaching. Yes, there is a "mitzvah" – Divine mandate – to bring certain offerings, but some people forgot that the mitzvah to bring offerings was meant to strengthen our ability to fulfill all the other mitzvos in the Torah. In this spirit, Samuel, the Prophet, reminded King Saul: "Has the Compassionate One as much satisfaction in elevation offerings and feast offerings as in obedience to the Voice of the Compassionate One?" (I Samuel 15:22).
Unfortunately, there were disloyal members of our people who refused to heed the Voice of the Compassionate One, and they adopted the view of their pagan neighbors who felt that deliverance and success depended solely on the fat, the blood, the oil, and the incense of various offerings; thus, these disloyal Israelites felt free to ignore the other mitzvos of the Torah, as long as they brought offerings. Regarding such people, King Solomon wrote, "The offering of the wicked is an abomination" (Proverbs 21:27).
At a later stage of our history, when the wealthy ruling class of Judah rebelled against the mitzvos of the Torah which mandate support and justice for the poor and oppressed, these wealthy people would defend themselves by pointing to their many offerings, and to their lavish celebrations on the New Moon and the Sabbath. In response to their claim to "piety," the Prophet Isaiah proclaimed the following Divine rebuke:
"Why do I need your numerous offerings, says the Compassionate One? I am sated with elevation-offerings of rams and the fat of fatlings; the blood of bulls, sheep, and goats I did not desire ...Bring your meaningless flour-offering no longer, it is incense of abomination to Me. As for the New Moon and the Sabbath, and your calling of convocations, I cannot abide falsehood together with celebration of holy days…Wash yourselves, purify yourselves, remove the evil of your deeds from before My eyes; cease doing evil. Learn to do good, seek justice, vindicate the victim, render justice to the orphan, take up the grievance of the widow." (Isaiah 1:11,13,16,17)
"The blood of bulls, sheep, and goats I did not desire" – The classical commentator Rashi explains, "Since you are transgressing my Torah, the offerings of the wicked are an abomination."
"As for the New Moon and the Sabbath, and your calling of convocations, I cannot abide falsehood with celebration of holy days" - Rashi explains, "For these two things are incompatible: to call a convocation to gather before Me, and the iniquity that is in your hearts for paganism, and you do not take it out of your hearts."
Isaiah was not against offerings, nor was he against the celebration of the New Moon and the Sabbath. He was against the pagan attempt to turn these sacred rituals into substitutes for fulfilling the ethical and spiritual precepts of the Torah. In fact, his vision of the spiritual renewal during the messianic age includes offerings, as well the celebration of the New Moon and Sabbath, and the following prophecies can serve as examples:
"And the strangers who join themselves to the Compassionate One to serve Him and to love the Name of the Compassionate One to become servants unto Him, all who guard the Sabbath against desecration, and grasp My covenant tightly - I will bring them to My Holy Mountain, and I will gladden them in My House of Prayer; their elevation-offerings and their feast-offerings will find favor on My Altar, for My House will be called a House of Prayer for all the peoples." (Isaiah 56:6.7)
"It shall be that at every New Moon and on every Sabbath all humankind will come to bow before Me, says the Compassionate One." (Isaiah 66:23)
In this letter, we referred to certain hypocrites who brought offerings, while ignoring the ethical and spiritual teachings of the Torah; thus, it is only fair to mention that offerings were brought by many sincere people whose lives were in harmony with Torah teachings. The offering of the prophetess, Hannah, can serve as an outstanding example. She was barren for many years, and after the Compassionate One blessed her with a son, Samuel, she brought to the Sanctuary a thanksgiving offering (1 Samuel 1:24). She then sang a prophetic song of thanksgiving which our sages regard as one of the great spiritual songs of our people. It has allusions to the messianic future, and it also contains the following words of hope for the poor and/or oppressed:
"My heart exults in the Compassionate One…He raises the needy from the dirt, from the trash heaps He lifts the destitute, to seat them with nobles and to endow them with a seat of honor – for the pillars of the earth belong to the Compassionate One, and upon them He set the world. He guards the steps of those who devote themselves to Him with love, but the wicked are stilled in silence; for not through strength does man prevail." (1 Samuel 2:1,8,9)
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen
P.S. The above letter was inspired by the ideas expressed in Rabbi Hirsch's famous essay on the offerings which appears in Volume 4 of "Collected Writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch" (pages 98-105).