What’s All This About Korbanot?

Maftir for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – What’s all this about korbanot?

Steven G. Margolin
ALEPH Cantorial Student
Congregation Beth Israel of Chico

For some years now it has been my honor to chant the maftir, the last section of the morning Torah reading, at CBI on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. These readings are Bamidbar/Numbers 29:1-6 for Rosh Hashanah and 29:7-11 for Yom Kippur. The contents are quite similar. The calendar date for the holiday is given, with the directions to have a “holy assembly” and to refrain from “any act of work”. The central theme or focus of the holiday is presented with the utmost brevity (“you shall have a day of horn-blasting” for Rosh Hashanah and “you shall degrade yourselves” for Yom Kippur). All of that takes one or two verses. The rest of each maftir reading is a list of the contents of the korbanot, the sacrifices/offerings of animals and of flour and oil, along with the requisite libations, for the holiday. There are very similar sections in Numbers dealing with the regular daily korbanot and those for the Sabbath, the Rosh Hodesh celebration of the beginning of each month on the lunar calendar, and the holidays of Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot and Shemini Azeret.

So what is all this about korbanot? What is it about the offerings that the Torah devotes so many more words and verses to them than to what we think of as the essence of each holiday? Why might we still care about any of this?

I have taken probably less than a minute at each High Holiday service to introduce these maftir readings. I have noted that these are just lists of ingredients, the rest of the recipes appearing elsewhere in Torah (Exodus most notably). I have explained that the word korban (the plural is korbanot) has the sense in Hebrew of drawing near or being close (the root can even mean being inside of), which is rather different from the sense we get in English that “sacrifice” involves killing or giving something up. I have suggested that the korbanot might have been a profound multisensory experience for those in attendance that enabled them to feel close to God. I would like to expand a bit on those concepts.

The what, when and where of these observances are fairly straightforward. The list of ingredients is given, and there are plenty of details in Torah and other than Torah texts about how the korbanot were performed (or might have been performed, in the case of texts written after the actual practices had ceased with the destruction of the Second Temple), on what days and at what times of day. The Torah tells us that the korbanot rituals were carried out at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting in the Tabernacle, wherever the Israelites camped and then later in a fixed place in the Land of Israel, eventually within the precincts of the Temple in Jerusalem (the Tabernacle itself, along with the Ark, the Cheruvim and the other ritual objects, very likely having been inside Solomon’s Temple).

Why the korbanot rituals were performed is, for me, a more interesting question, and the possible answers to that question can explain why we still read about them and can still care about them.

An answer comes from the Torah (Shemot/Exodus 29:43-46). Richard Elliott Friedman, in his Commentary on the Torah (HarperCollins 2001), summarizes this answer.

Once these things [the Tabernacle, the priesthood, the korbanot] are
established, then: YHVH will meet with Moses and the people there, YHVH
will be present among the people, YHVH will be their God, and they will know
that YHVH is their God. It is one of the most crucial passages in the Torah.
It is the basis of all the law and most of the episodes that will come in
Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

But what is going on with the korbanot that makes that meeting with and knowledge of that Presence possible?

The place, the priestly vestments, the smells, the songs and such must have created sacred space. The cattle, sheep, flour, oil and wine offered must have been very valuable, so there is the very tangible act of giving something important in exchange for the experience of drawing near. We know that the blood of the animals was understood to contain the life force, and there were elaborate rituals to collect and sprinkle the blood, a way of giving that life force (or giving that life force back) to God. That giving or giving back used fire – flames and smoke rising.

We are drawn to fire, to watching matter consumed and energy released. We perceive that we can transform matter into energy, but that we cannot make the process run the other way. The place where the korbanot were offered up must have seemed like a portal or a meeting place between the physical world (in which we live and which we can to a significant extent control and transform) and the source of the energy and of the things we cannot create ourselves. Another description might be of a portal where we can send up our offerings and the flow of Divinity, the shefa, can come down. Rabbi Marcia Prager teaches that we have so “sanitized” this (and the process of death, another meeting place where a transformation occurs that we can effect in only one direction) that we no longer can access meeting places with the divine in the way our ancestors could.

The rabbis teach that our prayers substitute for the korbanot. In fact prayer, synagogues and communal worship away from the Temple coexisted with the Temple cult and the korbanot, most likely for quite some time before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. One reason given for the timing and morning-afternoon-evening schedule of Jewish prayer is that the prayer services correspond to the daily korbanot services. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (Reb Zalman) taught that the gradual evolution over time from what originally might have been human sacrifice to the prescribed korbanot to prayer in place of the korbanot is a series of “paradigm shifts” in our relationship with God, and that where we find ourselves in that relationship right now should not be taken to be an end point.

So what is all this about korbanot? From the perspective of offering, praying is an opportunity to offer to God something that for us is most precious; perhaps in our hectic lives we might be offering our time, or ourselves. Prayer in the synagogue hearkens back to the communal aspects of the Temple ritual, with chant and song, the pageantry of the Torah procession and reading, study with teachers and friends, and participation in community. Prayer, alone and with others, is a way to draw near, to be open to the flow of energy and of Divinity, to find God inside ourselves and within our community. Just like the korbanot.


This essay developed out of Rabbi Vivie Mayer’s course entitled “Three Set Times for Prayer”, which I was privileged to take during ALEPH “Smicha Week” in July, 2016. I am grateful to Rabbi Vivie for all of her teaching, which informs all of what I have written here, and for her sharing of the teaching she heard Reb Zalman give about the paradigm shifts from sacrifice to prayer to wherever we are heading. Rabbi Marcia Prager sat in on our class one afternoon, and the ideas about fire and portals are largely hers. I also am grateful to the ALEPH cantorial and rabbinic students with whom I took this course and from whom I learned so much and whose insights are all through what I have written.

The quoted translations of Torah are from Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah (HarperCollins 2001).

© Steven G. Margolin (2016). All rights reserved.

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