THE BOOK OF VAYIKRA OPENS with the topic of voluntary burnt-offerings (olah). A person might sacrifice a bull, ram, he-goat or even a bird: And if one’s sacrifice to Hashem is a burnt-offering of the birds, then he shall offer his sacrifice of the turtledoves (HA’TORIM) or of the young doves (BNEI HA’YONAH). And the Kohen shall bring it near (V’HIKRIVO) to the Altar, and he shall nip off (U’MALAK) its head and make the Altar smolder with it, while its blood shall be drained out on the wall of the Altar. And he shall remove its crop with its feathers, and throw it near the Altar eastward, to the place of the ashes. And he shall split it apart at its wings; he shall not divide it in half; and the Kohen shall make the Altar smolder with it on the wood that is on the fire. It is a burnt-offering, a fire offering of pleasing fragrance to Hashem (Vayikra 1:14-17).
In addition to using them as voluntary burnt offerings, there are cases where birds are used as sin-offerings (5:7-10). They are also part of the purification process of the woman who has given birth (12:6-8); the metzora’ (14:21-22); one who has had an emission (15:14-15, 29-30); and the nazir (Bamidbar 6:10-11). Obligatory bird sacrifices are always a pair of birds, but voluntary bird sacrifices may be any number. Birds are never sacrificed as shelamim (peace offerings). Also, they are only private, never public, offerings (Temurah 14a). The birds need not be male, nor free of all blemish, as is the case with other animal sacrifices. However, a bird that has suffered the loss or atrophy of an entire limb is disqualified (Kiddushin 24b).
The Talmud ( Zevachim 64b ff.) describes the procedure for offering a bird, based on: And the Kohen shall bring it near (V’HIKRIVO) to the Altar, and he shall nip off (U’MALAK) its head Unlike animals, which are first slaughtered, and then brought to the Altar for offering, there is no transition for birds. The Kohen brings the bird to the southeast top corner of the Altar, for the “nipping-off” (melikah). Melikah must be done by a Kohen, “by his very self”, without utilizing a knife (see Rashi, 1:15).
Chizkuni (R. Chizkiya ben Manoach, mid 13th Century) adds, since the bird is brought up to the top of the Altar alive, it is impossible that it be slaughtered with a knife, because no metal tools may be raised (used) there: For your sword you have waved over it, and you have desecrated it (Shemot 20:22).
The Kohen thrusts his thumbnail through the back of the bird’s neck, severing the spinal cord, then cutting the trachea and esophagus. In the case of a burnt-offering, the head is severed, whereas it is not for a sin- offering.
The only types of birds used are turtledoves (TORIM) or young doves (BNEI YONAH). The TOR is mature, indicated by the color of its neck feathers having turned yellowish-red; the BEN YONAH, as the name suggests, is young and its feathers have not begun to change color.
Why does the Torah prescribe these birds?
Ramban says they are accessible, and thus they can be caught without hunting (cf. Vayikra Rabba 27:6). Furthermore, they are chaste and faithful, mating for life (Eiruvin 100b; Shir HaShirim Rabba 1:5): “So, Israel is attached to Hashem their G-d, and they do not cleave to another god forever” (this is adapted from Zohar III 241a). Doves never abandon their young, unlike other birds which will not touch chicks or eggs once they have been touched by a human. When young, they are more attached to the nest where they are reared than other birds are. They are very jealous however, so the only ones that are used are the immature ones, before they can mate.
Our Sages further regarded these birds as possessing a quality to be emulated: A person should always be among the pursued and not among the pursuers, since there is no more pursued among birds than turtledoves and young doves, and the text made them suitable for the Altar (Bava Kamma 93a; see Rambam, Laws of Deiot 5:13).
All sacrificed animals are prey, rather than predators: The Holy One, Blessed be He said: An ox is pursued by a lion, a goat by a leopard, a sheep by a wolf. Do not offer before Me the pursuers, but rather the pursued, as it says (Vayikra 22:27), An ox or a sheep or a goat that is born (Kohelet Rabba 3:19; Vayikra Rabba 27:5; Tanchuma Emor 9).
Based on the verse (Kohelet 3:15): And G-d seeks the pursued, the Midrash says: G-d always seeks [takes the side of] the pursued.
This is true, even if a tzaddik pursues a rasha! Hevel was pursued by Kayin, Noach by his generation, Avraham by Nimrod, Yitzchak by the Philistines, Yaakov by Esav, Yosef by his brothers, Moshe by Pharaoh, David by Shaul, Shaul by the Philistines, and Israel by the nations; in all, The Holy One, Blessed be He demands the blood of the pursued from the pursuers.
This is not to suggest that one should look for opportunities to be oppressed—low self-esteem is no basis for serving Hashem. But, when a pursuer steps forward, then the Torah’s message is clear: it is better to be counted among the pursued than to join the pursuers.
In Kad Hakemach, chapter on Robbery, Rabbenu Bachya (ben Asher ben Hlava, 13th Century) speaks of this attitude, not as a cause, but as the result of proper selfanalysis: “Even if one has fulfilled many commandments, he considers them to be few, but if he has committed one transgression he magnifies its significance and he is displeased with himself over it. One who has this quality of character will naturally choose rather to be the persecuted than the persecutor, for the persecuted come near to G-d.”
The foundation of all our service to Hashem is humility.