The wealthy woman of Shunem who regularly hosted the prophet Elisha for a meal when he came to her town said to her husband, “I am sure it is a holy man of God who passes our way regularly (tamid).” The rabbis take her words out of context to derive a general rule about hospitality:
Anyone who hosts a sage in his home and lets him enjoy his possessions, Scripture considers it as if he sacrifices the regular (tamid) daily offerings. (Berakhot 10b)
This is just one of dozens of Talmudic statements that equate mitzvot, whether pious rituals or a kind deeds, with Temple offerings. The rabbis turned to such comparisons to cope with the loss of the Second Temple in 70 CE that was the central site of divine service, considered necessary for preserving God’s providential presence in the world and for procuring divine mercy and atonement. A dialogue between two sages contemporary with the Temple’s destruction encapsulates the trauma of its loss as well as the possibility of continuity:
One time, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai was leaving Jerusalem and Rabbi Joshua was walking behind him and he saw the Temple destroyed. Rabbi Joshua said: “Woe is to us that the Temple is destroyed, the place that atoned for the sins of Israel.”
Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai responded, “My son, we have a means of atonement equivalent to it. What is it? It is acts of loving-kindness, as the verse states, For I desire goodness, not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6). (Avot of Rabbi Natan A 4)
Rabbi Joshua here voices the common view of most Israelites and Jews in antiquity that God required the sweet savor of incense and entrails to arouse his favor and forgiveness. Priestly groups like the Sadducees and Dead Sea Sect simply could not imagine how they could survive religiously in the long term without the Temple. The rabbinic movement, however, led by Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, taught that hospitality and generosity not only replace sacrifice, but are an even better path towards fulfilling God’s will:
Rabbi Elazar said: One who performs acts of charity is greater than one who sacrifices every offering, as it is stated: “To perform charity and justice is more desired by the Lord than an offering” (Proverbs 21:3). (Bavli Sukkah 49b)
This approach, though innovative for its time, was more of a revival of the biblical prophetic voice than a completely new revolution. Hosea, like nearly every biblical prophet, negated the value of sacrifice and championed social justice instead. While the prophets and the rabbis both share a similar message, they employ different rhetorical strategies. The prophets, living while the Temple was standing, devalued sacrifice as a necessary step to promote righteousness. They hammer home the obvious point that God does not eat bull’s meat and they deride the false reliance of evildoers on the atonement of a sin-offering, which only encourages them to continue in their hypocritical ways.
The rabbis, who by contrast lament the loss of the Temple, uphold the theoretical value of sacrifice but offer good deeds as a worthy and even preferable replacement. They need not worry about hypocrites offering sacrifice as license to further transgression, since sacrifice was not available in any case. Instead, they could build on the perceived power of flesh offerings to prop up their own set of most-valued deeds. The rabbis had a talent for teaching their adherents using language and analogies that could be readily understood.
In this vein, the sages teach: “Anyone who makes available forgotten sheaves, the corners of the field, or the poor man’s tithe, Scripture considers it as if the Temple is standing and he offers sacrifices in it” (Sifra Emor 10, 13); “One who prays in a synagogue it is as if he has sacrificed a pure meal offering” (Yerushalmi Berakhot 5:1); “Prayer takes the place of sacrifice” (Berakhot 26a); and “As long as the Temple was standing, the altar would atone for Israel. Now, a person’s own table atones for him” (Bavli Berakhot 55a).
This rhetorical strategy that considers mitzvot as if they were sacrifices produces a particularly striking formulation at Berakhot 17a:
When Rav Sheshet would fast, he would recite this after his prayers: Master of the Universe! It is revealed to You that when the Temple was standing, a person who sinned would bring a sacrifice from which they only sacrificed its fat and its blood and that would atone for him. Now, I sat in fasting and my fat and blood have diminished. May it be Your will that my fat and blood that diminished should be as if I have sacrificed it to you on the altar and may I be accepted by you.
Rav Sheshet prays that the pounds of flesh he lost while fasting should replace an animal offering in the Temple. At its origin, animal sacrifice itself symbolically substitutes for human sacrifice in the sense that an individual who believes he needs to give over his life to God can offer a goat or a ram in his stead (see the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22). With that in mind Rav Sheshet’s metonymy succeeds in coming full circle to recover the quintessential act of sacrifice as self-sacrifice.
Through these statements, the Talmudic rabbis accomplish a return to the biblical prophetic vision of what devotion and piety really mean. The prophets all expressed God’s desire for a contrite soul who walks humbly, promotes justice, and supports the impoverished and persecuted. They recognized a need for rituals, symbols, and cultic deeds as means to concretize people’s commitment to those ideals. However, generations of prophets never succeeded in halting the tendency for those activities to become idolatrous ends in and of themselves.
The rabbis turned the trauma of the Temple’s loss into an opportunity to emphasize those deeds that promoted prophetic ideals more directly and were less susceptible to corruption. Hosting a guest, giving charity, prayer, and a Shabbat meal at one’s table are all acts of inherent worth in the good that they accomplish for the performer and for society. While the rabbinic liturgy certainly pays lip service and more to the rebuilding of the Temple, their legislation and teaching reveal that sacrificial restoration might actually a step backwards. No animal fat on an altar can outdo losing a pound of one’s own flesh in fasting, and no gift to God would be more desirable to Him than providing sustenance to the poor. If the inspiration of the prophets continues to resonate with us today, it is in large part due to the long-term vision and educational program of these Talmudic sages.