There is no area of Jewish law as regimented as that of sacrifices. There are strict rules as to the type of animal that may be brought, when and where they are to be brought, who can eat from the korban and for how long. The Torah regulates exactly what parts may be offered on the altar, what parts may be eaten by kohanim, by non-kohanim, by men and by women. There are detailed laws regarding the blood of the sacrifices, how one approaches the altar, and the exact order of the sacrificial service. 

This level of detail fits well according to the view of the Rambam that ideally there would have been no need for sacrifices, as ideal worship of G-d should stem from the heart and even more so, from the intellect. However, such a system could not work in practice, especially considering the historical era in which the Torah was given (see Guide to the Perplxed 3:32). While practically speaking, the Torah could not have banned sacrifices outright, it put many restrictions around them so that worship of G-d would take place in a controlled environment and not allow for each to worship as they please. 

These restrictions also flow naturally from the view of the Ramban that korbanot are an, perhaps even the, ideal way to worship G-d. It is precisely by being so detail-oriented that we display the importance we assign to the task at hand. If human kings and leaders, even diplomats, follow strict protocols, how much more must one do so when approaching the King of kings? 

While the philosophical approaches of these giants could not be more different, from a practical point of view, it matters little. The Torah spends much time detailing the laws of korbanot. And we ignore such at our own peril, something starkly illustrated by the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. Despite, or perhaps because of, their closeness to G-d, these two sons of Aharon were instantly killed for offering a sacrifice “that G-d had not commanded” (Vayikra 10:2).

Yet the above is not all. Not only must one be most meticulous in the actions of preparing and offering a korban, one must be equally careful regarding one’s thoughts during the process. There are four key avodot, sacrificial rites, in which an inappropriate thought during the avodah can disqualify the korban mincha. They are kemitza, taking a handful of flour; netinat b’kli, putting that handful in a designated vessel; holacha, walking with the vessel to the altar; and haktara, putting the flour on the altar. Once all that is done properly, the kohen—and in the case of a korban mincha, it is only the kohanim—can make the flour into “bread” and eat it. If, during any one of those four stages, one has in mind to eat the korban mincha outside of the Temple grounds or beyond its prescribed time, the korban is invalidated—even if, in fact, one were not to follow through on one’s thoughts. 

When it comes to korbanot, it is our thoughts that matter most[1].

Yet there is a fundamental difference between a korban invalidated because of improper thoughts regarding time, and one invalidated because of improper thoughts regarding place. 

If one performs the kemitza, or any of the other three crucial components of the korban, with the intent to eat it after the prescribed time, one would receive the punishment of karet, excision, if one actually ate the korban. However, if one’s intent was to eat the korban mincha outside of the Temple grounds, and then one followed through on that improper thought, one would violate a negative command, but not one that carries the punishment of karet (Menachot 12a). 

Why the difference between the sin of time and that of space?[2]

Apparently, the Torah wants to teach us that time is more important than space[3]. The Torah begins with the notion of time and hence, the first mitzvah given to the Jewish people was to sanctify time. The notion of zachor, memory, is a—perhaps the—central motif of Judaism. Whether it be our sojourn in Egypt, the Exodus[4], Shabbat, Sinai, or Amalek, it is the past that informs and guides us in the present and helps shape our goals for the future. It is Shabbat that is the fulcrum of Jewish life.

The Torah may sanctify space—and it is at the holiest of places that korbanot are brought—yet “G-d’s glory fills the earth.” The Land of Israel is a special land for a special people, but we survived, and many times thrived without a land. As Ahad Ha’am, one of the leading Zionist thinkers, famously noted, it is Shabbat that is the guarantor of Jewish survival. And this from a “secular” thinker!

While time is shared by all, space is limiting. Two people cannot occupy the same space at the same time[5].  

Space is physical; time is spiritual. We all have limited amounts of time, and we never know when our time will be up. We must sanctify the time that we are granted, allocating our time in the best possible manner. 


[1] This fits nicely with Rabbi Soloveitchik’s distinction between ma’ase hamitzvah and kiyum hamitzvah, the act required to fulfill a mitzvah and the fulfillment of the mitzvah itself; what we today might describe this as the letter and the spirit of the mitzvah, or the means and the end. As the Rav beautifully explained in a teshuva derasha (see Al Hateshuva, pages 37-45), the mitzvah of teshuva requires certain actions, i.e. confession, but the act is merely a mechanism to help us fulfill the key aspect of the mitzvah, i.e., repentance itself, which is fulfilled in our heart. Other mitzvot with this bifurcation include prayer, where words are but a means to divine worship; simcha, where the eating of meat and wine is a means to produce joy; mourning, where sitting on low stools and ripping clothes are but a means of expressing and inducting grief; kriat shema, where we say the words, but the actual mitzvah is acceptance of the yoke of heaven. The myriad actions of korbanot are of little significance unless they actually bring us closer, karov, to G-d. 

[2] To appreciate the difference between a regular prohibition and one with karet, all we need to note is the (theoretical) punishment the Torah prescribes. For the former, it is a maximum of 39 lashes (less if doctors feel such is too much); unpleasant, but when all is said and done, a temporary punishment with little or no long-term consequences. A penalty of karet (presumably only if violated a minimum of three times) means, at least according to the Rambam, loss of one’s share in the World to Come; in other words, eternal punishment. Crucially, teshuva is possible for all sins.

[3] This is the basis of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s classic work, The Shabbat.

[4] The Torah instructs us to both remember that we were slaves in Egypt and to recall the Exodus. The former is the impetus of the obligation to be kind and sensitive to the stranger—the most oft-repeated demand of the Torah—and the latter is the basis of so many of the mitzvot between man and G-d. 

[5] My father, z”l, would often explain that such is the meaning of the Mishna, “Do not judge another until you reach his place” (Pirkei Avot 2:4). Since it is literally impossible to ever be in another’s space, the Mishna’s fundamental teaching is that we should leave the judgment of others to G-d.