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In the Talmud, Minds Full of Torah Instead of Bowls Full of Sacrificial Blood

Daf Yomi: Could Judaism ever go back to now-alien-seeming rituals from before the destruction of the Temple?

Adam Kirsch
August 27, 2013
Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock
Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock
Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock
Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock

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

Reading Daf Yomi this week, I learned the answer to a question I had been wondering about since starting Tractate Pesachim. Why is the name of the tractate Pesachim, in the plural, rather than just Pesach? The reason, it turns out, is that in early editions of the Talmud there were actually two tractates on Pesach, which were later combined into one. The first tractate was made up mostly of the chapters we have been reading so far, the ones that deal with disposing of chametz and other aspects of Passover observance. The second tractate consisted of the material we began to read this week, dealing with the protocols for offering the Passover sacrifice in the Temple.

The Talmud, and rabbinic Judaism as a whole, have a deeply paradoxical relationship with the Temple. On the one hand, the Temple in Jerusalem is the only divinely authorized location for worship and sacrifice; Judaism as it is described in the Torah, especially in the books of Exodus and Leviticus, cannot be practiced without a Temple and a priesthood. That is because the heart of Israelite worship consisted of the slaughter of animals and the offering of their blood. According to Pirkei Avot, avodah, the Temple service, is one of the three pillars on which the world rests, along with Torah and deeds of kindness. Even now, Jews continue to mourn the destruction of the Temple—as we did this summer on the fast day of Tisha B’Av—and to look forward to its reconstruction.

At the same time, however, rabbinic Judaism was able to come into being only in the Temple’s absence. Everything we now think of as integral to classical Judaism—the study of texts, the synagogue, the liturgy, the Talmud itself—emerged as a response to the destruction of the Temple and the discontinuation of its sacrifices. After two thousand years, we have grown so accustomed to Judaism without a Temple that, if we think seriously about it, the prospect of rebuilding the Temple must seem deeply alien.

Just how alien becomes clear once we read the marvelously vivid description, in Pesachim 64a, of how the pesach, thePassover sacrifice, was actually carried out in the Temple. The people were divided, we read, into three shifts—those who came latest would sacrifice last, so that getting into the third shift was held to be a sign of laziness. The Mishnah describes what would happen next:

The first group entered, and the Temple courtyard was filled. They closed the gates of the courtyard. They sounded a tekiah, a teruah, and again a tekiah. The Kohanim stood rows upon rows, and in their hands were silver bowls and gold bowls. … The bowls did not have wide bases, but pointed bottoms, lest they set them down and the blood congeal. An Israelite would slaughter [the sacrifice, either a goat or a sheep], and a Kohen would receive its blood [by catching the spurting blood in one of the metal bowls]. Then he would hand it to his fellow, and his fellow to his fellow. … The Kohen nearest the Altar would throw it with one toss opposite the base.

On one of the holiest days of the Jewish calendar, then, the holiest site in the Jewish universe was an enormous slaughterhouse. Imagine the bellowing of the animals, the spray of blood from their necks, the jostling of bowls brimming with blood, the splatter as the blood was hurled against the altar. And that is before we even get to the description of the flaying and butchering of the animals, which would then be eaten for the Passover meal. “Iron hooks were fixed into the walls and into the pillars, on which they suspended and flayed,” the Mishnah goes on. If all the hooks were taken, two men would hold up a wooden staff and suspend the carcass from that, while the butchering went on just inches from their faces.

How many of these sacrifices were performed at one time? In the Gemara, we hear a story that one year King Agrippa—whether the first or the second is not clear; both reigned in the first century C.E.—ordered the high priest to count the number of offerings, as an indirect way of taking a census of the population. The high priest “took a kidney from each one” of the offerings, and when he counted them there were 1.2 million kidneys. This seems manifestly impossible: How could the priests possibly have slaughtered so many beasts in one place in one day? But if ancient statistics are always unreliable, the number does at least jibe with those given for the Jewish population in Josephus’ The Jewish War. However we interpret the figures, we have to imagine a scene of extreme carnage. “It is a credit to the sons of Aaron,” we learn in Pesachim 65b, “that they walk in blood up to their knees.”

When you go to Temple on Rosh Hashanah and hear the shofar, then, remember that the blast of the ram’s horn was not meant to be heard in an air-conditioned sanctuary full of well-behaved people in nice clothes. It was meant to resound above the cries of slaughtered animals, mingling with the words of the Hallel, which the Israelites would recite as the sacrifices took place. And those sacrifices were not metaphorical or symbolic: The blood of the slaughtered animal was itself supposed to atone for the sins of the people. Unless it was splashed on the altar in just the right way, the Talmud makes clear in its long discussions, God would not accept it.

Reading about the Passover offering in such detail, I could not help but wonder how far the Talmudic description matched what actually went on the Temple. After all, the Mishnah was not written down for a century after the Temple was destroyed, and the Talmud not for another few hundred years after that. Is the detail of the gold and silver bowls a tradition faithfully handed down over the generations, or an invention of the rabbis, whose imagination of grandeur conjured up such accoutrements?

Perhaps what matters most is not whether the rabbis were right in every detail but the sheer fact that they continued to learn and debate the details of Temple procedure, even though they would never see a sacrifice performed in their lifetimes. They argue at length, for example, about whether a Passover sacrifice offered in the name of a group of people is still valid even if some of those people turn out to be ritually ineligible to eat it—because they are too old or sick, or carry tumah, or are uncircumcised.

This seems like the very definition of a hypothetical discussion; but to the rabbis, it wasn’t necessarily so. After all, they believed with certainty that one day the Messiah would come and rebuild the Temple, and then all the knowledge they had so carefully preserved would once again come into practice. In the meantime, studying the laws of the Temple would be a replacement for the Temple itself: Instead of bowls full of blood, the rabbis offered up minds full of Torah. Once Judaism made that exchange, however, it’s hard to imagine ever going back—which may explain why, except for a few fanatics, Jews today have no intention of trying to build a Third Temple.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

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