How Could The Torah Allow Animal Sacrifices?

Dear Jew in the City,

 I am troubled by the mitzvah of seir l’azazel (the scapegoat of the Yom Kippur service). We are taught to believe and hope and pray for a redemption and a third Beis HaMikdash. If these commandments were just for ancient time, why all the daily prayers for and reminders of those practices? I find it difficult to say these prayers and to honestly tell my children that the Torah is true and timeless.

Thank you,



Dear Rochel-

The purpose of the seir l’azazel is not to inflict pain on an animal; that’s an unfortunate consequence. Regarding nature, G-d told Adam two things: to subdue it (Genesis 1:28) but also to guard it (Genesis 2:15). We see that we are permitted to use nature but not to abuse it. Hurting an animal out of cruelty is absolutely prohibited (this possibly even includes hunting for sport). But for needs, like food, we are permitted to kill animals, as our needs supersede theirs. This is true not just for physical needs, but also for spiritual needs, such as sacrifices and the seir l’azazel.

Let me try a different approach – and this may blow your mind a little but here it is! In Moreh Nevuchim, the Rambam says that the Beis HaMikdash (Temple) was NOT the ultimate form of service that Hashem desired! Think about it: there was only one Temple. People could not offer sacrifices anywhere else. People could not train to be kohanim – you had to be born a kohein. Even if you lived in Yerushalayim, you couldn’t go to the Mikdash whenever you wanted – there were a dozen forms of tumah (ritual impurity) that would keep people from attending! (Marital relations, bodily emissions, corpses, certain dead vermin, etc.) If G-d wanted us to go to the Mikdash and to offer korbanos (sacrifices), He certainly made it challenging! Contrast this with shuls the way we have them now (and, by the way, shuls did exist in Bible times as well). Shuls are everywhere and we go to them all the time. Halacha minimizes going to the Beis HaMikdash and maximizes going to shul – clearly, going to shul is the thing G-d wants us to do more!

If this is the case, why did G-d command that the Beis HaMikdash be built at all? Why didn’t He just tell us to build shuls wherever we might live? The answer, the Rambam explains, is that the Mikdash was kind of a “halfway house.” The Jews were surrounded by cultures that had temples, priests and sacrifices – it was all they knew! If G-d said, “Effectively immediately, sacrifices, incense and libations are replaced by reciting Shemoneh Esrei and reading the Torah,” the people would not have been able to adjust. The Temple was designed to transition the Jews from the practices of an idolatrous society to the way we have davening now.

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
Educational Correspondent
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  • Avatar photo H F says on August 22, 2016

    I was reading a bit of Tacitus for Tish’ah B’Av, and it came to me just how unnatural our obsession with a child’s innocence really is.

    Tacitus, among his long criticisms of Jews’ otherness and strangeness, has a whole list of complaints, some further from the truth, some closer.

    He notes that Jews believe it a religious duty to procreate, and they forbid killing children. He sees this as a selfish interest in increasing their own numbers.

    A Roman father was absolute master of his children. If a baby was disabled, or a girl, or simply unwanted, he had every right to kill it, if he chose. (This sounds strange, perhaps. Try replacing the word ‘father’ with ‘woman’, and ‘children’ with ‘body’.)

    It would have never occurred to anyone in the entire civilized world, that the child of a father vanquished in battle is entitled to any more protection than the child of the general returning home to a triumph.

    Even so, the Torah forbids killing women and children of a vanquished foe. It makes only two exceptions.

    One is the case of nations who lay claim to our land. The other is the case of a nation that has attacked us without cause, motivated by a primeval hatred.

    It is unwise to attempt to have more mercy than the Merciful.

    Saul, King of Israel, could not understand the commandment for genocide against Amalek. The result was near genocide of the Jewish people.

    The civilized world today claims that it is wrong to perpetrate genocide against those who lay claim to our land. (Or even to humanely deport them to somewhere else.) This naturally results in an intractable conflict with no end of willing suicide warriors, causing untold suffering for all future generations.

    (This does not address the question of HOW, WHEN, and by WHOM this messy business should be dealt with. King Sha’ul was sent to war by a prophet. May Eliyahu Ha’Navi herald our Redeemer, speedily, in our days.)

  • Avatar photo Mitch says on November 18, 2021

    Thank you Rabbi Abramowitz for your detailed explanation. The question that is still open though, unless I missed it, is why will there still be sacrifices when the 3rd Temple is built? If the other Temples were to help with the transition, aren’t we sort of past that already?


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