Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

Animal sacrifice, the central subject of Tractate Zevachim, feels very remote from the Judaism we practice today, and for good reason: Jews haven’t offered up sacrifices to God for almost 2,000 years. Yet as Daf Yomi readers proceed through Tractate Zevachim, I am beginning to understand how and why sacrifice was once so central to Jewish practice. After all, Judaism is a religion in which the physical and the spiritual are thoroughly intertwined: It is by doing (or not doing) certain concrete actions that we make the world sacred. These symbolic actions are often strange, considered in purely logical terms: It is by no means obvious why wearing fringes or avoiding certain foods should have anything to do with abstract ideas like holiness or goodness. But the Torah insists that it is precisely in these ways that Jews are supposed to manifest their allegiance to God.

Sacrifice is the ultimate example of a physical action with spiritual consequences. Killing a sheep or bull, draining its blood into a bowl, sprinkling the blood on the altar, and then burning or eating the animal’s flesh—why should these actions please God? Does the creator of the universe really take pleasure in the aroma of burnt flesh, like a hungry human being? This idea was very troubling to Maimonides, who maintained in the Guide for the Perplexed that sacrifice was merely the Torah’s concession to the superstitions of its day. Moses allowed the Israelites to perform animal sacrifices simply because they wouldn’t have been able to imagine worshiping God any other way, given that every pagan religion of their time followed the practice. The idea that God actually smells a sacrifice and enjoys it would have struck Maimonides as sheer blasphemy, since the first principle of his Judaism is that God does not have a body or senses.

The rabbis of the Talmud do not engage in this kind of theoretical speculation; their focus is always on the particular, on how to make the Torah’s laws effective in daily life. But this pragmatism comes to feel like its own kind of spirituality. The divine, the Talmud suggests, dwells in our world, which means that it has to accommodate itself to our needs and flaws. Tractate Zevachim is all about the recognition that, when human beings come together to slaughter animals, things will sometimes go wrong: An animal will wander into the wrong area of the Temple, or the blood will spill on a priest’s robe, or a burning limb will fall off the pyre. A realistic Judaism has to make provisions for what to do when the physical world fails to obey the strict laws of the spiritual world. Rather than see such ruptures as defeats—evidence that the physical can never achieve the perfection of the spiritual—the rabbis see them as opportunities. By extending the safety net of the law to cover moments of error and lapse, the Talmud brings them back within the orbit of the divine.

The last pages of Chapter Nine, which Daf Yomi readers read this week, take up several problems of this kind. This chapter has been all about exploring the nature and limits of the altar’s power to confer sanctity. Animal flesh and blood that is elevated onto the altar achieves a sacred status; but this power is limited, for as the rabbis said, “the altar only sanctifies items that are suited to it.” What items fall into this category? For instance, what about a burning ember from the pyre on which flesh is being roasted. Inevitably, some embers will fall out of the pyre onto the ground. Are they sacred items, since they were originally on the altar? If so, should they be placed back into the fire?

The mishna in Zevachim 86a says no: Embers do not need to be replaced. Here the law coincides with what makes practical sense: It would be difficult, even dangerous, for the priests to be forever putting embers back into a roaring fire. But what if a part of the animal itself falls off the fire, as must have happened from time to time? Say a partly burned sheep’s leg tumbles off the pyre: Should it be replaced so that it can burn completely? This is a classic Talmudic question, because it has to do with the definition of the essence of a ritual act. What exactly is being commanded in the mitzvah of a burnt offering? Is it that the flesh actually be burned, or only that it be put on the pyre? If the latter, for how long does a piece of flesh have to roast before the sacrifice is considered effective?

The rabbis decide that it is all a matter of timing. The Torah says, in Leviticus 6:2, that a sacrifice should burn “all night until the morning”; but the mishna rules that it is adequate if a sacrifice burns only until midnight. If it becomes dislodged before midnight, it must be returned to the fire, but if it falls after midnight, it does not. The Gemara immediately challenges this distinction: Why does it depend on time rather than on the actual state of the sacrificed animal? “If the limbs have substance, even after midnight the priest must return them to the fire,” the Gemara proposes, and vice versa: If a limb is fully burned before midnight, then if the bone or ash falls out of the fire, it shouldn’t need to be replaced. To split the difference, the rabbis decide that what is in question here is an intermediate case—how to deal with a limb that is “hardened” but not yet consumed by the fire. If such a half-burned limb falls off the pyre before midnight, it must be replaced.

Another question has to do with exactly what part of the altar confers sanctity. Is it only the altar proper, where the meat is burned, or does the ramp leading up to the altar also have this status? The mishna says that the ramp is itself sacred, and the Gemara grounds this in a close reading of the Torah text: The particle et, which in Hebrew indicates a direct object, is taken as an allusion to the ramp, though this certainly could not be deduced from a plain reading of the text.

A further question is whether the airspace above the altar is sacred, or just the actual surface of the altar. The Gemara reasons that, if the airspace was not sacred, this would create fatal obstacles to the sacrificial process, since it would mean that any time an animal was lifted off the surface it would become disqualified. Since the animal has to be lifted from the ramp onto the altar, it follows that the airspace is part of the altar’s sacred zone. But is this necessarily true, the rabbis wonder? What if you dragged the carcass up the ramp and onto the altar, rather than lifting it? In this way, it would never lose contact with the sacred surface. But no, this theory doesn’t work, because there was a gap between the ramp and the altar, which means that the animal would have to be lifted off the ground for at least part of the way.

Finally, the Gemara in Zevachim 88a poses one of those unlikely questions that are so typical of Talmudic reasoning. If the airspace over the altar is sacred, what would happen if you suspended a piece of meat over the altar by means of a pole? Is such an item considered to be sanctified or not? There is something almost flippant-sounding about the question, however, and the rabbis leave it unresolved, with the standard formula teiku, “let it stand.” Even in the Talmud, there comes a point at which it is fruitless to speculate further.


Adam Kirsch embarked on the Daf Yomi cycle of daily Talmud study in August 2012. To catch up on the complete archive, click here.