Maimonides’s View on Sacrifices

Despite some ambivalence Maimonides felt about the institution of animal sacrifices,  the great Jewish philosopher argues that animal sacrifice can reflect a noble impulse that pushes one to give one’s very best in areas that go far beyond the cultic sector.

For example, Maimonides considers Abel’s sacrifice as a paradigm for all types of voluntary charitable giving. Every sacrifice must be given as an act of love and devotion; indeed, the absence of these qualities invalidates and cheapens the religious experience. Without the cultivation of the giving spirit, no virtue is possible. Although this is not a strict requirement in the legalistic sense, nevertheless the one who is truly concerned about becoming close to God must go beyond mere perfunctory worship. Maimonides writes:

Anyone wishing to become personally worthy of merit should overcome the urge toward selfishness and make it a point to always offer one’s best and finest, so that his offering will be most exemplary. The Torah says: “and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions” (Gen. 4:4). The same rule ought to apply to every kind of offering: whatever one gives should come from the finest and very best. The house of prayer that one builds must be nicer than one’s own personal dwelling; the same spiritual principle ought to be applied to other areas of one’s devotional life, e.g., with respect to the poor, one feeds the hungry with one’s very best and tasty foods on one’s table; the naked should be clothed with very finest of one’s wardrobe, and one should always dedicate the very best of all one’s possessions—even as the Torah states, “All fat belongs to the Lord” (Lev. 3:16). [1]

For Maimonides, God’s choice of Abel’s sacrifice was not based at all on what each person offered, but was instead predicated on the motive of the participants. In other words, the central issue that is raised in the story of Cain and Abel story was not so much about the quality of the sacrifice as it was about the personality of the one offering the sacrifice. Cain and Abel represent the distinction between selfless worship and selfish worship. From Cain’s sacrifice, the reader may discern how even spiritual worship can degenerate into an act that is perfunctory in purpose and in scope. Toward the end of Maimonides’s life, he focused considerable attention on this specific theme. Maimonides felt that Cain’s sacrifice failed because he was miserly in his giving; he withheld his best. He writes:

He has ordained that all the offerings be perfect in the most excellent condition, in order that the sacrifice should not come to be held in little esteem and that what was offered to His name, may He be exalted, be not despised, as it is written “‘When you bring blind animals for sacrifice, is that not wrong? When you sacrifice crippled or diseased animals, is that not wrong? Try offering them to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you?’ says the Lord Almighty” (Mal. 1:8).[2]

[1] Guide to the Perplexed 3:46.

[2]Guide to the Perplexed 3:46.