Parshat Emor: The Korban Olah

“And Hashem said to Moshe, saying, Speak to Aharon and to his sons and to all Bnai Yisrael say to them: Any man whatsoever from the house of Yisrael, or from the converts among Yisrael, who offers up his sacrifice for any of their vows (or for any of their donations that they may offer up to Hashem as an Olah offering) to be favorable for you, [it shall be] an unblemished male – from cattle, from sheep, or from goats. Any [animal] that has a blemish, you shall not offer up, for it will not be favorable for you. And if a man offers up a Shelamim offering to Hashem for declaring a vow or as a donation from cattle or from the flock to be accepted, it shall be unblemished. It shall not have any blemish in it.” (VaYikra 22:17-21)

The above pesukim explain one of the qualifications required of an animal that is offered as a sacrifice. The passages explain that the animal must be free of any blemish. These disqualifying blemishes are various deformities and injuries. The passages discuss four types or variants of sacrifices. The passages explain that the requirement that the animal be unblemished applies to an Olah and to a Shelamim sacrifice. The passages also explain that the requirement applies to offerings brought as a vow or as a donation. What are these four variants?

An Olah offering is a sacrifice that is burned in its entirety on the altar. No portion is consumed by the person bringing the offering or by the kohen – the priest. In contrast, a portion of the Shelamim sacrifice is burned on the altar. However, the remainder of the animal is given for consumption to the person who brings it and to the kohen. Our passages explain that any animal offered as either a Shelamim or an Olah offering must be free of any blemish.

The Olah and Shelamim offerings may be brought by an individual either as a vow or as a donation. What is the difference between a vow and a donation? First, it is important to note that these terms are misleading. Both an offering brought and a “vow” and an offering brought as a “donation” are bought in response to a vow. However, it is the specific wording of the vow that determines whether the sacrifice is regarded as a “vow” or a “donation.” If a person pronounces that he will bring a sacrifice – an Olah or Shelamim, then the sacrifice he will bring is a “vow” – a neder. But if the person specifies the animal by saying, “this animal is an Olah”, then the sacrifice will be regarded as a donation – a nedavah.[1] So, both a neder and nedavah involve a vow. Both are sacrifices brought in response to a vow. They only differ in the manner in which the vow is formulated. If the person merely declares that he will bring an Olah, then the sacrifice is a neder. If he specifies the animal, then the sacrifice is a nedavah.

An Olah and a Shelamim can be brought as a neder or as a nedavah. So, in total, four types of sacrifices are included in the above passages: an Olah brought as a neder, an Olah bought as a nedavah, a Shelamim brought as a neder, and a Shelamim brought as a nedavah.

It is clear that the Torah finds it necessary to explain in detail the extent of the prohibition against offering a blemished sacrifice. The Torah does not limit itself to a general statement of the prohibition, “Do not offer a blemished animal as a sacrifice.” Instead, the Torah specifically applies the prohibition to the Olah and Shelamim offerings and to the neder and nedavah. Why are these detailed instructions required?

Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno explains that the Torah must specifically inform us that a blemished animal is disqualified for use as a Shelamim. If the Torah had not specifically mentioned that the animal is disqualified, we would assume that it could be used as a Shelamim. Why would we make this assumption? Sforno notes that the Shelamim sacrifice does not have the same level of sanctity as the Olah sacrifice. This results in an important difference between an Olah and a Shelamim. Only a male animal may be used as an Olah sacrifice. For a Shelamim sacrifice, an animal of either gender is acceptable. Because there is no gender requirement for a Shelamim, one would assume that a blemished animal is also acceptable. Therefore, it is necessary for the Torah to explain that, despite the absence of a gender requirement, the animal brought as a Shelamim must be unblemished.[2]

The Sforno’s comments are difficult to understand, yet, one aspect of his analysis is clear. The Shelamim sacrifice does not have the level of sanctity as the Olah offering. It is reasonable that one might erroneously assume that because the Shelamim has a lesser degree of sanctity, a blemished animal can be used. However, Sforno adds a troubling element to his explanation. He adds that an animal of any gender can be used for a Shelamim sacrifice. Because there is no gender requirement, one might assume that a blemished animal is acceptable! What is the connection between the two issues of gender and blemishes? Why would one assume that if gender is not specified, then blemishes are acceptable?

It seems that according to Sforno, the Torah regards gender as an element of perfection in a sacrifice. In other words, the Olah is more sacred than the Shelamim. The Olah must be a male animal. The Shelamim sacrifice does not have a gender requirement. This implies that gender is a perfection required in the Olah that is not required in the Shelamim – a sacrifice of lesser sanctity.[3]

Now, Sforno’s reasoning is begins to emerge. Sforno explains that a person might conclude that because a Shelamim offering does not have gender requirement, a blemished animal is also acceptable for this sacrifice. Why would one make this error? Now, we can answer this question. One might reasonably conclude that the Olah cannot be blemished because the animal must have all forms of perfection – even gender. But the Shelamim sacrifice is not required to be perfect; it has no gender requirement. Therefore, a blemished animal is acceptable. In other words, perfection of the animal used for the sacrifice is either required or not required. If there is a gender requirement, then perfection is required and a blemished animal in unacceptable. But one might conclude that if there is not a gender requirement, then perfection is not required. If perfection is not required, then a blemished animal should be acceptable!

We have explained Sforno’s comments. But there is one issue that Sforno does not discuss. Why does the Torah disqualify a blemished animal from use as a Shelamim sacrifice? Why is any gender acceptable but a blemished animal unacceptable?

In order to understand the Torah’s position, it will be helpful to begin with an analogy. A gentleman walks into a men’s clothing store to purchase a suit. The store sells designer suits and off-brand suits. A salesperson approaches the customer and asks whether he is interested in a designer suit or the store’s off-brand products. The customer responds that an off-brand suit will be adequate for his needs. It is a slow day at the store; so, the salesperson continues to service the customer. The salesperson explains that the store also carries seconds – suits that have small defects. The salesperson asks the customer whether he is interested in purchasing a second. The customer declines. The salesperson is somewhat surprised. He cannot understand why the customer is interested in purchasing an off-brand item but will not consider a second. Is there any explanation for the customer’s behavior and attitudes?

The customer is making a simple distinction. He does not care about designer labels. He recognizes that the designer suit is a better product. He knows that the workmanship is of higher quality and that the pattern and cut of the suit are more contemporary. But these “perfections” are not relevant to him. The off-brand suit does not have these “perfections” but neither is there anything wrong with the product. However, the second is not merely lacking an element of “perfection.” The customer regards the second as damaged. Damaged is unacceptable.

Now let us return to our question. There is no gender requirement for a Shelamim sacrifice. Sforno explains that gender is regarded by the Torah as a form of perfection. However, this does not imply that absence of the preferred gender is a blemish. We return to the analogy: The customer regards the designer label as an element of perfection but does not regard the off-brand suit – a product lacking this element of perfection – as damaged. A blemish is not merely the absence of an element of perfection. A blemish is the presence of damage and defect. We can now understand the Torah’s position. The Torah does not require that the Shelamim sacrifice have the elements of perfection required in an Olah. However, the Torah prohibits the blemished animal. The blemished animal is not merely lacking an element of perfection – it is damaged or defective. It is this damage or defect – not lack of perfection – that disqualifies it for use.

[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 22:18.

[2] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer VaYikra, 22:21.

[3] I have no doubt that some readers will stop reading at this point. They will conclude that Sforno – at least as here explained – is a male chauvinist and his comments do not deserve further attention. However, I ask those readers who are considering abandoning this analysis to give Sforno the benefit of the doubt. His conclusion is likely the result of halachic considerations rather than a personality flaw. A discussion of these considerations extends beyond the perimeters of this analysis.