Noach’s Sacrifices

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by R. Gil Student

From a philosophical perspective, why did Noach bring sacrifices?

And Noach built an altar to God and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt-offerings on the altar. (Gen. 8:20)

Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 3:32) famously argues that a primary reason for animal sacrifice was to wean the Jewish people from idolatry. Rather than sacrifice animals to idols, they could only offer sacrifices to God in a specific place for specific reasons.

Ramban (Lev. 1:9) vehemently objects. He points out that, according to Rambam, sacrifices have no inherent value. Yet the Bible seems to contradict that in a number of places. Most importantly, it renders the sacred acts a meaningless ruse. Rather, Ramban contends, sacrifices have great importance to each individual, reminding sinners of the severity of their transgressions. Why, asks Ramban, did Noach offer sacrifices? If God wants to wean people from idolatry, Noach has already rejected it.

Ritva (Sefer Ha-Zikaron, ch. 9) responds to Ramban’s objections on multiple levels. From a textual perspective, he points out that Ramban quotes from the wrong place in Moreh Nevukhim. Beyond that, he responds to Ramban’s detailed concerns. Regarding Noach’s sacrifices, Ritva suggests that Noach’s counterparts worshipped idols by offering animal sacrifices. Recognizing God as the only power, Noach directed that service to God rather than to idols. In doing so, he anticipated the Torah’s attempt to direct similarly the Jewish people’s worship away from God and toward idols.

Abarbanel (Introduction to Lev., p. 12) writes that Noach burned animals as sacrifices to God as a form of self-sacrifice. He burned the various parts of the animals’ bodies as if he was offering his own limbs, blood and soul. (As an alternative, he suggests the same as the Ritva above.)

More recently, Rav Yosef Shaul Nathanson (Divrei Shaul, Gen. 8:20) connects Noach’s sacrifices to his divine permission to eat meat. Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 3:39) explains that bikkurim, the first fruits, are brought to the Temple because all first things should be sanctified and given to God (or the priests). Rambam explains that this is intended to instill in people the traits of generosity and patience, particularly when it comes to physical desires. Similarly, when Noach finally had the opportunity to eat meat, he delayed that gratification by first offering it to God.

According to Ritva, Noach was reaching out to God in what was then the standard form of worship. According to Abarbanel, Noach was sending a message of contrition and humility. While according to Rav Nathanson, Noach was delaying gratification and thanking God.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

One comment

  1. The Or Sameiach presents an answer, but it’s not really in the Rambam, it’s more like a new position that draws from both the Rambam and the Ramban. He suggests that the weaning bit was the role of bamos, but qorbanos at the beis hamiqdash are a rei’ach nikhoach, and for entirely different reasons. And that’s why the weaning period had a clear end with the building of bayis rishon.

    The Abarbanel (Vayiqra 1:1) goes out to prove that qorbanos are a concession to human nature, citing the numerous nevi’im (Shmuel I 15, Tehillim 50, Yishayahu 1, Yirmiyahu 7) about Hashem not needing qorbanos, and Menachos 10 “Whoever toils in Torah needs neither sin offering, nor burnt offering, nor guilt offering nor minchah.” He even goes so far as argying that the Ramban agreed qorbanos were a concession.

    However, if one if one looks closely at the Rambam’s language in the Moreh Nevuchim, I think the Narboni’s peshat (Moreh 3:32) is compelling, and it avoids the Ramban’s question altogether. By speaking of concessions to human nature, the Rambam isn’t talking about accommodation.

    The first plane of mitzvos are those that teach the Truth.
    The second are mitzvos that wean us away from falsehood.

    WRT qorbanos, it’s a human limitation that leads us to falsehood. We seek to express relationships with tangible gifts. If we were less frail and physical beings, we could address our need to give through talmud Torah, tefillah, etc… As a concession to human nature, Hashem specified an expression of this will to give something physical. It gives us a way to be lead away from concepts of deity that actually need or want
    appeasement gifts.

    This 2nd plane isn’t about living with the limitation — it’s about overcoming it. (In contrast to an eishes yefact tohar, where Chazal explain the law as being a necessary concession to the realities of war.) As opposed to the ideal mitzvah, which would exist to expose man to the truth regardless of the errors that come naturally to humans.

    The Narbonni’s position brings me to a meta-observation… The need to give gifts to others was seen by the medieval philosophical rishonim as a concession to human nature. Because from a philosophical perspective, there is little reason for Noach to have brought a sacrifice. However, how many people today believe that our mission in life is definable in terms as abstract and cerebral as internalizing philosophical ideas? As opposed to, say, an emotional connection to the Divine, or a character that emulates His. Perhaps the answer to the question inheres in dropping the “philosophically speaking”; or at least move to a philosophical analysis of qorbanos on the experiential plane…

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