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in the bible

In the Bible various verbs are used to designate the act of sacrifice. Two of them, שחט and טבח, are used for the slaughter of animals for both secular (cf. Gen. 43:16; Num. 11:22) and sacred purposes, while the verbs זבח (hence the name of the talmudic treatise Zevaḥim, dealing only with the slaughter of animals for sacrifice, as distinct from Ḥullin, which deals with slaughter for food), העלה and הקריב are only used for sacrifice. The last word, as does its cognate noun korban, expresses the idea "to bring near."

Although libation of wine and meal offerings played a prominent role in the rituals, the most important sacrifices were those of animals. The surrender of a living thing was a major factor in nearly every kind of sacrificial ritual; that life was being forfeited was signified by the extraction of an animal's blood: "For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it for you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement, by reason of the life [that is in it]" (Lev. 17:11). The people were therefore forbidden to eat the blood (Lev. 17:10; also Gen. 9:4; Lev. 3:17; 7:26; Deut. 12:16, 23; 15:23), since life belonged only to God. The offering had to be the property of the person making the sacrifice (Lev. 1:2). Only domesticated animals raised for the purpose of providing food were acceptable, thus excluding both wild animals and work animals (contrast the allusions to slaying an ass at Mari, arm ii No. 37. 11.5–124). The sacrificial animal had to be without physical blemishes, which are defined and summarized in Leviticus 22:17–25 (see *Blemish). An animal could not be offered before it was eight days old (Lev. 22:26–30).

The sacrifices can be divided into various categories: propitiatory and dedicatory offerings, meal offerings, libation offerings, fellowship offerings, thanksgiving offerings, freewill offerings, and ordination offerings.

Propitiatory Offerings

Two sacrifices belong to this category, the sin offering (חַטָּאת , Ḥaṭṭaʾt) and the guilt offering (אָשָׁם, ʾasham).

sin offerings

The sin offering was suited to the rank and circumstance of the person offering it. The high priest brought a young bull (Lev. 4:3) as did the congregation (4:14), except, apparently, when a ritual infraction was involved (Num. 15:24). A nasi ("ruler") brought a male goat (Lev. 4:23), and a commoner a female goat (Lev. 4:28; Num. 15:27) or a lamb (Lev. 4:32). If he was poor, he could bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons (one of the pair served as a burnt offering; Lev. 5:7), or, in extreme cases, even merely a tenth of an ephah of fine flour (Lev. 5:11–13; cf. Heb. 9:22).

The offerer executed the symbolic act of laying his hand on the offering (Lev. 4:4, and passim), thus identifying it with himself. The animal was slain on the north side of the altar (Lev. 4:24, 29; 1:11). The high priest collected the blood of his own, or of the congregation's sacrifice, in order to sprinkle some before the veil and some on the horns of the incense altar there (Lev. 4:5–7, 16–18). On the Day of Atonement he took his and the people's sacrificial blood into the Holy of Holies (Lev. 16:14–15). From all the other animals the blood was applied to the horns of the altar of burnt offering (Lev. 4:18, et al.); that of the birds was sprinkled on the side of the altar (Lev. 5:9). The remaining blood was poured or drained out at the base of the altar (Lev. 4:7, and passim). The choice parts of the entrails – the fatty tissue (חֵלֶב, ḥelev) over and on the entrails, the two kidneys and their fat, and the appendage to the liver – were all consumed on the altar (Lev. 4:8–10, and passim). In the case of a bull for the priest or the people, the carcass and the remaining entrails were disposed of by burning outside the camp (Lev. 4:11–12, 21). This rule prevailed for the bull in the ordination rites of Aaron and his sons (Ex. 29:10–14; Lev. 8:14–17). Otherwise the priest received the edible flesh for food; it was to be eaten within the sacred precincts, and very strict rules of ritual purity governed its handling (Lev. 6:25–30; cf. 10:16–20).

A sin offering of one male goat was required at each of the sacred festivals: the New Moon (Num. 28:15), each day of Passover (Num. 25:22–24), Shavuot (Num. 28:30), Rosh Ha-Shanah (Num. 29:5), the Day of Atonement (Num. 29:11; besides the special sin offerings for that day), and each day of Sukkot (29:16, 19, and passim). The high priest brought a bull for himself and then offered one of the two goats on the *Day of Atonement. Rites of purification called for lesser sin offerings, lambs or birds, after childbirth (Lev. 12:6–8), leprosy (Lev. 14:12–14, 19, 22, 31), unclean issues and hemorrhages (Lev. 15:15, 30), or defilement during the period of a Nazirite vow (Num. 6:10–11; for the strictly individual cases requiring sin offerings see below).

guilt offerings

The guilt offering (Lev. 5:14; 7:1–7) was a special kind of sin offering (cf. Lev. 5:7) required when someone had been denied his rightful due; in addition to the reparation of the amount defrauded, plus a fine of 20% (Lev. 5:16–24), the guilty person had to bring a guilt offering. The animal prescribed was usually a ram (Lev. 5:15, 18; 19:21); the leper after cleansing and the defiled Nazirite brought a male lamb (Lev. 14:12, 21; Num. 6:12). The offerer's part in the ritual was probably identical to his part in the sin offering, but the priest sprinkled the blood around the altar (Lev. 7:2). The choice entrails were consumed on the altar as usual (Lev. 7:3–5). In the case of the cleansed leper, some of the blood was then applied to the tip of his (the leper's) right ear, thumb, and big toe (Lev. 14:14). As with the sin offering, the animal went to the priest as food (Lev. 7:6–7; 14:13). Ritual infractions, such as eating unlawfully of the "holy things" (Lev. 5:14–19; 22:14), required payment of the sum (or commodity) that had rightfully belonged to God, plus one-fifth of the amount concerned, and the fine was given to the priest (Lev. 5:16; ii Kings 12:17). The case of the leper can be assigned to this category, in that the Lord was deprived of the service due from the infected person so long as his disease kept him outside the pale of the ritually clean society (Lev. 14:12–18). Likewise, the Nazirite who became defiled during the course of his period of Nazirite separation had to bring a guilt offering in reparation for what he had pledged and not fulfilled (Num. 6:12).

On the social plane, swearing falsely with regard to violation of property rights through fraud could be atoned for only by the guilt offering and a 20% fine. Such acts included cheating in matters of deposit or security, robbery or oppression, denying the finding of lost property, or failing to testify (Lev. 5:20–25). Seduction of a betrothed slave girl (Lev. 19:20–22) was also a violation of property rights. In every case the guilty party had to confess his sin, make full restitution plus the fine of one-fifth, and offer the guilt offering. If the offended party was no longer alive and there were no surviving kinsmen, the payment went to the priests (Num. 5:5–10).

Dedicatory Offerings

The offerings in this category reflect the more universal idea of offering. The emphasis is on surrender of the gift to God (though only a handful of the meal offering was consumed on the altar). They represented the act of committal that should follow the repentance expressed by the sin and guilt offerings, thus opening the way to the fellowship or communal sacrifices that could follow.

Burnt Offerings

Burnt offerings (Heb. עוֹלָה ʿolah, "that which goes up") are referred to in Lev. 1:3–17; 6:1–6). The burnt offering consisted of a bull (Lev. 1:3–5), a sheep or goat (Lev. 1:10), or a bird (Lev. 1:14). The offerer brought the animal, laid his hand on it, and slaughtered it on the north side of the altar (Lev. 1:3–5, 11); the bird was then handed over to the priest (Lev. 1:15). The priest collected the blood, presented it before the Lord, and sprinkled it around the altar (Lev. 4:5, 11). In the case of a bird, he killed it by pinching the back of its neck and drained the blood out on the side of the altar (Lev. 1:15). There was emphasis on the flaying and dissection of the animal, the washing of its unclean parts, and the careful arrangement of all the pieces (except the crop and feathers of the bird) on the altar (Lev. 1:6–9, 12–13). The consumption of the whole was meant as re'aḥ niḥo'aḥ ("a pleasing odor") to the Lord. Only the hide was given to the priest (Lev. 7:8). The main administrative concern was for constant maintenance of the fire (thus the need for an uninterrupted supply of fuel) and the proper attire of the officiating priest during the ritual of renewing the fire each morning (Lev. 6:1–6). The burnt offerings were by far the most frequent sacrifices at the Israelite sanctuary.

The continual burnt offering (עוֹלָה ,עוֹלַת תָּמִיד, ʿolah, ʿolat (ha-) tamid, or simply ha-tamid) was made twice daily – a male lamb morning and evening (Ex. 29:38–42; Num. 28:18, and passim). The entire procedure for the morning sacrifice is vividly described in the Mishnah (Tamid; see sacrifices during the Second Temple period below). Two additional lambs were offered each Sabbath (Num. 28:9–10). No sin offerings accompanied these sacrifices. On the other hand, a sin offering of one goat was required along with the burnt offerings on the other holy days. On the New Moon, two young bulls, one ram, and seven male lambs were sacrificed (Num. 28:11–14). The same number of animals was required for each day of the Passover (Num. 28:19–24) and again on Shavuot (Num. 28:26–29). For Rosh Ha-Shanah and the Day of Atonement the standard was one bull, one ram, and seven lambs (Num. 29:2–4, 8), besides the special burnt offerings for the atonement ritual itself, which consisted of one ram for the high priest and one for the people (Lev. 16:3, 5, 24). The last of the annual festivals, Sukkot, was marked by a series of elaborate burnt offerings (plus one goat per day as a sin offering). On the first day the regulations called for 13 young bulls, two rams, and 14 male lambs (Num. 29:12–16). Each day thereafter the number of bulls was decreased by one until on the seventh day there were only seven (the number of rams and lambs remained the same; Num. 29:17–34). The eighth day saw a return to the amounts designated for Rosh Ha-Shanah and the Day of Atonement, i.e., one bull, one ram, and seven lambs (Num. 29:35–38; for the associated meal and drink offerings, cf. below). Various purification rituals also called for burnt offerings as well as sin offerings: after childbirth (Lev. 12:6–8), unclean issues (Lev. 15:14–15) and hemorrhages (Lev. 15:29–30), or after defilement during a Nazirite vow (Num. 6:10–11). Meal offerings were offered only for the cleansing from leprosy (Lev. 14:10, 19–20, 22, 31) and the completion of a Nazirite vow (Num. 6:14, 16). The burnt offerings, signifying complete surrender to God, were therefore associated with sin offerings in the process of atonement (as in the purification rites above; cf. also ii Chron.).

Meal Offerings (Lev. 2; 6:7–16)

A regular concomitant of the animal sacrifices was the meal offering (מִנְחָה, minḥah). Outside the ritual codes the term minḥah could refer to any gift or offering, including animals (Gen. 4:3–5; Judg. 6:18; i Sam 2:17), but in prescriptive texts it signifies a concoction of fine flour (solet), oil (shemen), and frankincense (levonah). Its form could be baked loaves (ḥallot), wafers (rekikim), or morsels (pittim); the offerings of firstfruits (bikkurim) were to be "crushed new grain from fresh ears" (Lev. 2:14). No leaven or honey was permitted (Lev. 2:11) on the cakes being offered, though those commodities were acceptable as a firstfruits offering (Lev. 2:12), in which case they went to the priests. The offerer was responsible for bringing the prepared loaves or wafers, etc. to the sanctuary. The priest burned one handful on the altar as its "invocation" (azkarah; Lev. 2:2 et al.), and the rest was his to eat (Lev. 6:9; 7:9). When the priest offered a meal offering for himself, it was wholly burnt on the altar (Lev. 46:15–16).

The meal offering normally accompanied every burnt offering, especially those in the sacred calendar (Num. 28–29, passim). The quantities were fixed according to the animal being sacrificed: three-tenths of an ephah and one-half hin of oil for a bull, two-tenths ephah and one-third hin for a ram, and one-tenth ephah plus one-fourth hin for a lamb (Num. 15:2–10). Other joyous occasions included the cleansing of a leper (Lev. 14:10, 20, 21, 31) and the successful consummation of a Nazirite vow (Num. 6:15, 19). That no meal offering accompanied the rites for cleansing after childbirth (Lev. 12:6–8), unclean issues (Lev. 15:14–15), or hemorrhages (Lev. 15:29, 30) may be accounted for by the fact that sacrifices of a more somber nature were intentionally made without a meal offering. On the other hand, peace offerings were always accompanied by such offerings (Lev. 7:12–14; Num. 15:4). One of each from the cakes and wafers went to the priest. The rest was to be eaten with the flesh of the sacrificial animal. Wheat flour was used for the meal offering, the only exception being the one-tenth of an ephah of barley meal required in the jealousy ritual; it was to have no oil or frankincense (Num. 5:15, 18, 25–26). A very poor person could bring one-tenth of an ephah of fine flour, also without oil or frankincense, as a sin offering (Lev. 5:11–13).

Libation Offerings (נֶסֶךְ, nesekh)

A libation normally accompanied burnt and peace offerings (Num. 15:1–10); the standard was one-fourth of a hin of wine for a lamb, one-third for a ram, and one-half for a bull. The expression "strong drink" (שֵׁכָר; shekhar), used with reference to the drink offering (Num. 28:7), is apparently only a synonym for wine (Ex. 29:40). The libation was considered an additional "pleasing odor" offering (Num. 15:7). As with the burnt offering, all was expended and nothing was given to the priest; the entire libation was poured out in the sanctuary (Num. 28:7). Drink offerings are specifically mentioned with the daily offering (Ex. 29:40–41; Num. 28:7) and with the offerings for the Sabbath (Num. 28:9) and the New Moon (Num. 28:14). Likewise, reference is made to them in connection with the days following Shavuot (Num. 29:18, 21, 24, 27, 30, 33, 37). The same may hold true for the Passover, firstfruits, and Rosh Ha-Shanah rituals (Num. 28:16–29: 11; cf. Ezek. 45:17). A libation was specified for the Nazirite's concluding rites (Num. 6:17), but not for the cleansing of the leper (Lev. 14:10–20). It never accompanied a sin or guilt offering alone.

Fellowship Offerings

This category consists of those offerings that expressed a voluntary desire on the part of the offerer. They were not required (except in the case of the Nazirite – Num. 6:17 – and Shavuot – Lev. 23:19–20) by explicit regulations, but were permitted on condition that the offerer had met with the requirements of expiation and consecration. Burnt offerings could accompany these sacrifices as an additional expression of devotion (cf. above).

Peace Offerings

The term "peace offerings" (the singular שֶׁלֶם, shelem, occurs only in Amos 5:22, otherwise pl. שְׁלָמִים, shelamim; Lev. 3; 7:11–36). This is the basic sacrifice of all communal offerings; the others are simply different types of the peace offering. In terms of "holiness," i.e., restrictedness, they were not so strictly defined as those discussed above. Any domesticated animal from the herd or flock, male or female (Lev. 3:1, 6, 12), was permissible. The usual rules of freedom from blemishes were in force. Unleavened cakes were also stipulated, at least for the thanksgiving (Lev. 7:12–13) and Nazirite offerings (Num. 6:15, 17, 19; see below). The presentation and laying on of the hand were the same as for other offerings, but instead of the animal being slaughtered on the north side of the altar, it was done at the door of the sanctuary, i.e., to the outer court (Lev. 3:1–2, 7–8, 12–13). The priest collected the blood and threw it against the altar as with the burnt offering (Lev. 3:2, 8, 13). The choice entrails were burnt for a "pleasing odor" (Lev. 3:3–5, 6–11 (including the fat tail of the sheep), 14–16 (cf. Lev. 7:22–25); 7:30–31). Certain portions of the offering were allotted to the priest; he was permitted to eat it in any ritually clean place and to share it with his family (Lev. 7:14 and 30–36), whereas the other sacrifices had to be eaten in the sanctuary compound (Num. 18:10–11). He received one of the cakes and the breast as a wave offering (cf. below), and the right thigh as a "contribution" from the offerer. This latter is the so-called heave offering; the technical term used, terumah (תְּרוּמָה), though developed from the root signifying "to be high" and meaning "that which is lifted up," did not represent a special type of presentation ceremony (in contrast to the wave offering, below).

Every peace offering culminated in a communal meal. Except for the portions burned on the altar or assigned to the priest, the sacrificial animal was given to the offerer. He used it as food for a communal meal for himself, his family, and also the levite in his community (Deut. 12:12, 18–19). This had to take place at the divinely appointed sanctuary (Deut. 12:6–7, 11–12, 15–19, 26; cf. i Sam 1:3–4), and very strict rules of purity had to be observed by the participants (Lev. 7:19–21). The meat of a thanksgiving offering had to be eaten on the same day as the sacrifice (Lev. 7:15), while that of the votive or freewill offerings could be finished off on the next day (Lev. 7:16–18). Whatever was left over from either kind had to be burned within a specific time. The peace offering was only specified in three instances, i.e., in the celebration of Shavuot (Lev. 23:19–20), in the ritual for completion of a Nazirite vow (Num. 6:17–20), and at the installation of the priesthood (cf. the ordination offering, below). Other public ritual occasions included the inauguration of the Tent of Meeting (Lev. 9:8–21) and of the Temple (i Kings 8:63; ii Chron. 7:7). National events that called forth the peace offering were: successful conclusion of a military campaign (i Sam 11:15), cessation of famine or pestilence (ii Sam 24:25), acclamation of a candidate for kingship (i Kings 1:9, 19), or a time of national spiritual renewal (ii Chron. 29:31–36). At the local level, they were sacrificed for the annual family reunion (i Sam 20:6) or other festive events, such as the harvesting of the firstfruits (i Sam. 9:11–13, 22–24; 16:4–5).

thanksgiving offerings (זֶבַח (הַ) תּוֹדָה, zevaḤ (ha-) todah)

The most frequently mentioned type of peace offering was the thanksgiving offering (Lev. 7:12–13, 15; 22:29) for blessings already bestowed (Ps. 56:13–14; 107:22; 116:17; Jer. 33:11). In many contexts the term thanksgiving offering is used as the virtual synonym for peace offering (e.g., ii Chron. 29:31; Jer. 17:26; cf. ii Chron. 33:16).

Wave Offerings (תְּנוּפָה, tenufah)

The priest's portion of the peace offering (cf. above) was "waved" before the Lord as a special act signifying that it was His. Then it went to the officiant as his personal share. This is reminiscent of the presentation of the ceremonial food to the Mesopotamian deity, after which it was given to the king. The basic difference seems to be that there the deity was considered to have partaken of the food and added his "radiance" to it, while in Israel the priest ate the divine portion as God's representative, thus showing that the offerer's food was being shared by Him. The same technical term was applied to offerings other than the communal sacrifices: the precious metals given for construction of the sacred artifacts (Ex. 35:22; 38:29), the guilt offering of the cleansed leper (Lev. 14:12, 21, 24), the sheaf of firstfruits (Lev. 23:15), the two loaves at Shavuot (Lev. 23:17, 20), and the levites themselves (Num. 8:11, 13, 15, 21).

Votive Offerings (נֶדֶר, neder)

This was usually a peace offering, and the flesh could be eaten on the second day but not the third (Lev. 7:16–17); but it could also be a burnt offering (Lev. 22:17–20). A specific example was the vow of a Nazirite which was consummated by a peace offering (Num. 6:17–20). In the broadest sense the vow included any kind of offerings or gifts promised to the Lord (Num. 30, passim).

Freewill Offerings (נְדָבָה, nedavah)

The minimum offering that one could bring to the holy convocations that took place on the three Pilgrim Festivals (ii Chron. 35:8; Ezra 3:5) was the freewill offering (Lev. 7:16; 22:18, 21, 23; Num. 15:3; 29:39; Deut. 12:6, 17). Like the votive offering, it could be a burnt as well as a peace offering (Lev. 22:17–24; Ezek. 46:12), and if it were the latter, the flesh could be consumed on the second day but had to be burned before the third (Lev. 7:16–17).

Ordination Offerings (מִלּוּאִים, millu'im)

The Septuagint interprets this sacrifice as one of "completion," or "perfection"; however, the same Hebrew term is used with regard to the "settings" of precious stones (Ex. 25:7; 35:9, 27; i Chron. 29:2), so perhaps the modern expression "installation" is more suitable. The ordination offering was intimately related to the concept of "filling the hand" (מִלֵּא יָד; milleʾ yad), which meant consecrating someone, or oneself, to divine service (Ex. 28:41; 29 passim; cf. Ex. 32:29, et al.), and it required a state of ritual purity and spiritual devotion (ii Chron. 29:31). The details of the ritual are spelled out in a prescriptive (Ex. 29:19–34) and a narrative-descriptive (Lev. 8:22–32) text. Moses appears in the role of the officiant, since Aaron and his sons were obviously not qualified to serve in their own ordination. He brought the ram of consecration and the priests laid their hands on it. Then Moses slew it and handled the blood in a special manner. It was applied by him to the tip of the right ear, thumb, and big toe of Aaron and of each of his sons; then the rest was thrown about the altar. The waving of this offering was also unique in its execution: the choice entrails, three of the accompanying cakes, and the right thigh were all placed in the hands of the candidates for priesthood and waved before the Lord; then they were all consumed together on the altar as a "pleasing odor." Though Moses did not receive the thigh, he was granted the breast, which he waved himself and took as his portion. Finally, the anointing oil mixed with blood from the altar was sprinkled upon the candidates and their garments. They were thus prepared to eat the remaining flesh of the ordination offering, which they had to boil at the entrance to the sanctuary. Like the votive offering, none was allowed to remain to the following day.

in biblical tradition and history

Age of the Patriarchs

The terminology used with regard to the patriarchal age is that of the Torah as a whole; it is unlikely that the same words in Genesis mean something different in the other Books of Moses. Thus, Cain and Abel each brought a "gift" (minḥah; Gen. 4:4f.), which was usually of a cereal nature, as brought by Cain (Lev. 2, et al.), but could also refer to an animal offering (i Sam. 2:17; 26:19). Noah offered up a burnt offering (ʿolah; Gen. 8:20ff.) and the pleasing odor of the sacrifice is stressed. Job is also depicted as making burnt offerings periodically (Job 1:5) and for specific purposes (Job 42:7–9). The Patriarchs normally are said to have "called on the name of the Lord," e.g., Abraham (Gen. 12:8, 13–4; 21:33) and Isaac (Gen. 26:25). The association of this phrase with the building of an altar shows that it refers to the approach to God through sacrifice. With Jacob the naming of the specific altar is stressed (Gen. 33:20; 35:7). Once Abraham is said to have offered an ʿolah (Gen. 22:13), but Jacob (Gen. 31:54; 46:1) offered zevaḥim. The most unusual sacrifices described in Genesis are the covenant ritual with the divided carcasses (Gen. 15:4ff.) and the almost consummated sacrifice of Isaac (Gen. 22; see *Akedah).

From Moses to Samuel

The covenant sacrifice inaugurating the relationship between the Lord and His people (Ex. 24:3–8) is not paralleled by specific rituals in the Mosaic liturgy. Burnt and peace offerings were first offered, and then the blood from them (not from a sin offering) was thrown half against the altar and half upon the people. In the land of Canaan the Israelites made sacrifices at various places, e.g., at Bochim (Judg. 2:1–5) and Ophrah (Judg. 6:24–26). The human sacrifice of Jephthah's daughter (Judg. 11:30–40) was hardly normative; instead it is pointed out as evidence of Israel's sad spiritual state at that time. The main center for sacrificial ritual was at Shiloh (i Sam 1:3ff.), where faithful Israelites came for an annual festive offering. That the ritual there was highly developed and detailed is proven by the explicit description of malpractice on the part of Eli's sons (i Sam 2:13–17) in taking their portion of the meat before the entrails were burned. However, Shiloh was not the only legitimate place of sacrifice; others included Beth-Shemesh (i Sam 6:14–15), Mizpah (i Sam 7:9), Ramah (i Sam. 7:17; 9:11–24), and Gilgal (i Sam. 10:8; 11:15; 13:9). Family and clan sacrifices were commonplace (i Sam. 16:2–5).

the monarchy

Under Saul the main center of worship was evidently Nob (i Sam. 21:1ff.), though private offerings were made at Shiloh (ii Sam. 15:12). Saul and David's families made peace offerings and held family feasts at the time of the New Moon (i Sam. 20:5, 24–25). David inaugurated a new cult center in Jerusalem at the threshing floor of Araunaḥ (Ornan; i Chron. 21:23–26), to which he moved the Ark (ii Sam. 6:17–18; i Chron. 16:2, 40). The horned altar had been located at Gibeon (ii Chron. 1:3; i Chron. 21:29) but was soon moved to Jerusalem (i Chron. 22:1). David is credited with a complete reorganization of the ritual and the attendant personnel (i Chron. 23:28–31).

With the dedication of Solomon's Temple, Jerusalem became the main focus of sacrificial ritual (i Kings 8:5, 62–65; ii Chron. 5:6; 7:4–8). Nevertheless, high places continued in use locally (i Kings 13:2ff.; 18:30–32; ii Kings 14:4; 15:4, 35; et al.). Jeroboam i of the northern kingdom established shrines at Dan and Bethel (i Kings 12:28–29); besides these famous sites in Israel, Beer-Sheba may have enjoyed a similar status in Judah (Amos 5:5). Various references show that sacrifices were offered regularly at Jerusalem (ii Chron. 13:10–11; 23:18; 24:14; ii Kings 12:5–17; 16:13–15). Sacrificing on the high places was also tolerated in Judah (ii Chron. 15:17; 20:33); Hezekiah abolished many of them (ii Kings 18:4) and seems to have reconstituted the Temple as a sacrificial center (ii Chron. 29:21–35; 32:12; cf. above). The high places returned under Manasseh (ii Chron. 33:3–4) and were again removed by Josiah (ii Chron. 34:3–13).

The Return to Zion

Offerings were reconstituted soon after the return (Ezra 3:2–7), and when Darius authorized the building of the Temple, he ordered that provisions be furnished for the cultus (Ezra 6:9–10). Henceforth, the Second Temple became the sole center for Judean sacrificial ritual (Ezra 6:17; 7:17; 8:35; 10:19; Neh. 10:33–37; 13:5, 9). At Elephantine in Egypt, a colony of Jewish mercenaries had maintained their own temple replete with meal offerings, incense, and burnt offerings. It had been standing long before 525 b.c.e., when Cambyses invaded Egypt, and was destroyed by jealous opponents in 410. In 407 the priest and his colleagues wrote to Bagohi, the governor of Judah, as well as to Helaiah and Shelemiah, the sons of Sanballat, governor of Samaria, asking them to exert their influence toward having the ruined temple rebuilt. Though they yearn for restoration of the entire sacrificial cultus, the reply suggests that they apply to Arsames for resumption of the meal offerings and the incense, which they did (Pritchard, Texts, 492). This tendency to permit worship at local shrines, but without animal sacrifice, may be reflected in the fact that the Jewish temple at Lachish (so-called Solar Shrine) had no altar for burnt offerings, while its pre-Exilic counterpart at Arad did. The Lachish temple was evidently built in the post-Exilic period and refurbished in the Hellenistic period (probably under John Hyrcanus, late second century b.c.e.; see also Temple of *Onias).

The Prophetic and Wisdom Literature

The prophets of the First Temple period often spoke out against sacrificial ritual (Amos 5:21–27; Hos. 6:6; Micah 6:6–8; Isa. 1:11–17; Jer. 6:20; 7:21–22). Righteous and just behavior, along with obedience to the Lord, is contrasted with the conduct of rituals unaccompanied by proper ethical and moral attitudes (Amos 5:24; Micah 6:8; Isa. 1:16–17; Jer. 7:23). It has thus been assumed by many scholars that the prophets condemned all sacrificial rituals. De Vaux has shown the absurdity of such a conclusion since Isaiah 1:15 also condemns prayer. No one holds that the prophets rejected prayer; it was prayer offered without the proper moral commitment that was being denounced; the same holds true for the oracles against formal rituals. Similar allusions in the Psalms, which might be taken as a complete rejection of sacrifice (e.g., 40:7–8; 50:8–15), actually express the same concern for inner attitude as the prophets. The wisdom literature sometimes reflects the same concern for moral and ethical values over empty sacerdotal acts (Prov. 15:8; 21:3, 27).

Certain other statements by Amos (5:25) and Jeremiah (7:22) have been taken to mean that the prophets knew nothing of a ritual practice followed in the wilderness experience of Israel. De Vaux has noted that Jeremiah clearly knew Deuteronomy 12:6–14 and regarded it as the Law of Moses. The prophetic oracles against sacrifice in the desert are really saying that the original Israelite sacrificial system was not meant to be the empty, hypocritical formalism practiced by their contemporaries. The demand by Hosea for "mercy and not sacrifice… knowledge of God more than burnt offerings" (Hos. 6:6; cf. Matt. 9:13; 12:7) is surely to be taken as relative, a statement of priorities (cf. also i Sam. 15:22). The inner attitude was prerequisite to any valid ritual expression (Isa. 29:13). Foreign elements that had penetrated the Israelite sacrificial system were, of course, roundly condemned by the prophets. Such was especially the case with Israel (Amos 4:5; Hos. 2:13–15; 4:11–13; 13:2) but also in Judah (Jer. 7:17–18; Ezek. 8; et al.).

[Anson Rainey]

second temple period

During the Second Temple period sacrifices were offered only in the Temple in Jerusalem, with the sole exception of the Temple of Onias in Egypt. The order of the sacrificial service in general followed that of the Bible. The only rigidly significant addition to the sacrificial order given in the Bible was the water libation on Sukkot (see below). After the sacrificial system came to an end with the destruction of the Temple, the rabbis saw in the theoretical study of the sacrifices a substitute for the actual offerings (Ta'an. 27b; Men. 110a) and devoted themselves to that study. Most of the discussion in the Mishnah and Talmud is post-Temple and is therefore largely academic. However, in the Talmud, particularly in tractate Tamid, full details of the sacrificial service are preserved. The fifth chapter of tractate Zevaḥim gives every detail of the places where the various sacrifices were slaughtered and eaten and the time allotted for their consumption. The rabbis divided the sacrifices into two categories: one was: kodshei kodashim (the "most holy"), which are so termed in the Bible (Ex. 30:10); for the others they coined the term kodashim kalim ("those of lesser sanctity").

The following is a detailed account of the sacrificial system and order of service. The high points of the sacrificial service were the two daily offerings, the tamid, one at daybreak and the other in the afternoon, which began and concluded each day's sacrifices. All other individual and public sacrifices were brought in between them. Although the Pentateuch does not mention any prayers which accompanied the sacrifices, liturgical additions were made during the Second Temple period. These included petitions, blessings, and readings from the Pentateuch. After the incense was offered, the priests recited the *priestly blessing as a single sentence (Tam. 7:2). Daily, the priests recited the *Shema and its blessings, the Ten Commandments, and the Avodah and Sim Shalom blessings from the *Amidah. On the Sabbath they added a blessing for the incoming watch of priests, the outgoing saying to the incoming, "May He who has caused His name to dwell in this house cause to dwell among you love, brotherhood, peace, and friendship" (Tam. 5:1; Ber. 12a). The levites played musical instruments and recited the daily psalm during the service (Tam. 7:4; Maim. Yad, Keli ha-Mikdash, 3:4–5). After the sacrifices, the representative ma'amad of Israelites prayed and read from the Pentateuch (see *Mishmarot and Ma'amadot). On the Day of Atonement, the high priest read from the Torah, concluding with eight benedictions (Yoma 7:1). On the Sabbath, festivals, and the New Moon, the additional *Musaf sacrifice was also offered. There were also specific services for the various holidays such as the *omer on Passover, the two wave-loaves of Shavuot, and the water-drawing ceremony of Sukkot.

Daily Service

The service began immediately after dawn, when the herald announced that "The priests should prepare for the service, the levites for song, and the Israelites for the ma'amad" (tj, Shek. 5:2, 48d). The first part of the service was the removal of ashes from the altar, since sacrificial meat was consumed on it all night. Those priests desiring to do this rose early and immersed themselves before the superintendent came. He usually came around dawn, and lots were then drawn to choose the priest to remove the ashes (see *Lots). The superintendent then took the key, opened the small door, and went from the Fire Chamber into the Temple court. The priests went in after him, carrying two lighted torches. They divided into two groups, one of which went along the portico to the east, while the other went along it to the west. They made an inspection to see whether all the vessels were in order, finally arriving at the place where the griddle cakes (Lev. 6:12–15) were made. There the two groups met and verified that all was in place. They then appointed the griddle cake maker to make the cakes, and instructed the priest who had won the lottery exactly how he was to clear away the ashes. When he had completed this task, the other priests hastened to wash their hands and feet in the laver. They then went up to the top of the altar, where they rearranged the unconsumed limbs and pieces of fat on special large blocks of wood which were brought up to the altar for that purpose. They then kindled the fire, and descended and went to the Chamber of Hewn Stone (Tam. 1:2–4; 2:1–5).

Lots were then cast to decide which of them should carry out the various duties associated with the sacrifice. A priest stationed on a roof would announce that the first light of dawn had illumined the whole of the sky as far as Hebron. The silver and gold vessels for the day's service were then arranged, and the sacrificial lamb which had been examined on the previous evening was again inspected by torchlight. They to whom it fell to clear the inner incense altar of ashes and to trim the candlesticks now proceeded toward the porch. The priest selected for slaughtering the tamid did not commence his duties before he heard the great gate that led to the sanctuary being opened. The priest who cleared the inner altar scooped up the ash in his fists and deposited it inside the ashbin. He then swept up what was left and departed. The priest who cleaned the candlesticks entered, and if he found the two western lights burning, he trimmed the rest, leaving these two burning. If he found that they had been extinguished, he trimmed them and kindled them from those that were still alight, and then trimmed the rest (but see Maim. Yad, Temidin u-Musafin 3:13 and Rabad ad loc.). Meanwhile the lamb was slaughtered and its blood sprinkled against the altar. The portions of the sacrifice were then prepared for the altar and left on the lower half of the ascent of the altar, together with the fine flour for the meal offering, the griddle cake offering of the high priest, and the wine for the drink offering. The priests then came down to the Chamber of Hewn Stone to recite prayers (Tam. 3:1–9; 4:1–3).

At this point the superintendent told them to pronounce one blessing, either the blessing for light or the Ahavah Rabbah (Ber. 11b). It was followed by the Ten Commandments, the three portions of the Shema, and three benedictions. These were: "True and Firm," Avodah, and the concluding Sim Shalom blessing of the Amidah (Tam. 5:1). On the Sabbath a fourth blessing was added for the incoming watch of priests. On the completion of the prayers, those who had never yet offered the incense cast lots for this privilege. All the priests were, however, permitted to cast lots for the right to take the sacrificial portions from the ramp (kevesh) to the altar. The incense was then placed in the sanctuary by the designated priest, assisted by another priest who brought glowing coals from the outer altar to the inner altar for this offering. Afterward they struck with the magrefah, a gong shaped like a shovel, between the porch and the altar. It caused a reverberation so loud "that it drowned conversation in Jerusalem." Priests would thus know that their colleagues were about to prostrate themselves and would rush to join them. Similarly, levites would hasten to join their fellow levites in the singing. All ritually unclean priests were made to stand at the eastern gate to show that it was not out of idleness that they were not serving in the Temple (Tam. 5:1–6; Rosh to 5:6).

Those who had been chosen to clear the inner altar and the candlestick led the procession back to the sanctuary. The ash-bin was removed, and only the westernmost lamp of the candlestick was left burning for the day, since from it all the lights were later kindled in the evening. The coals were then spread on the inner altar and the incense was scattered and burned by the designated priests. As each priest finished his duty, he prostrated himself and left the sanctuary. The high priest next went in and prostrated himself, followed by the other priests (Tam. 6:1–3; 7:1). While the incense was being offered, the ma'amad of Israelites present in the Temple also gathered together to pray. Apparently Jews outside the Temple also prayed at this time (cf. Judith 9:1).

All the priests who had completed their allotted tasks came and stood on the steps of the porch. They then pronounced the priestly blessing over the people as a single benediction, enunciating the ineffable Name of God. All apart from the high priest raised their hands above their heads during the blessing. The high priest did not raise his hands above the plate (ẓiẓ) on his forehead, since the Name of God was inscribed on it (Tam. 7:2; Sot. 7:6). When those assembled in the Temple heard the Divine Name pronounced, they prostrated themselves (Ecclus. 50:21; for the practice of praying daily in the Temple see Lam. R. to 3:9, no. 3). After this benediction, the limbs were lifted up to the top of the altar and thrown onto its fire, the meal offering was sacrificed, and the wine offering was poured out upon the appropriate places of the altar. Before the libation of the wine, a teki'ah, teru'ah, and teki'ah (see *Shofar) were sounded on the trumpets. During the libation, the cymbals were struck, and the levites chanted the daily psalm. At stated intervals in the psalm, a teki'ah was sounded and the public prostrated themselves. With the conclusion of the psalm, the service of the morning tamid was completed (Tam. 7:3–4; Suk. 5:5).

The offering of individual sacrifices was completed by half past the eighth hour of daylight, and the sacrifice of the concluding afternoon tamid then took place. It was slaughtered and offered up an hour later (Pes. 5:1). The ritual of the afternoon tamid resembled that of the morning lamb, except that the wood on the altar was not rearranged and the priestly blessing was not recited. Two new logs of wood were brought up by two priests to reinforce the flames (Yoma 26b). Oil was also added to the candlestick, and all seven lamps were kindled. Following the sacrifice of the afternoon tamid, the gates to the sanctuary and to the priestly court were closed. Nonetheless, a few priests still entered the court during the night, so that they could place the limbs from the day's sacrifices on the altar and continue to add wood to its fire (cf. Zev. 9:6; Ber. 1:1).

Sabbath Service

The sacrifices of private individuals were not offered on the Sabbath, but all work connected with the public offerings was permitted. In addition to the two tamid offerings, a Musaf sacrifice was also brought and the *shewbread set in order. After the Musaf, the watches of the priests were changed, although the new watch was already present for the morning tamid when it was blessed by the outgoing group of priests (Tosef., Suk. 4:24–25). A section of the Song of Ha'azinu (Deut. 32:1–43), which was divided into six portions, was recited while the Musaf was brought (rh 31a). The service of the new group of priests began with their arranging the new shewbread. Eight priests entered the sanctuary, two carrying the two rows of shewbread and two the two dishes of frankincense which accompanied the loaves. The other four removed the shewbread and frankincense of the previous week. Those who brought them in stood at the north side facing the south, and those who removed them stood at the south side facing north. They removed them in such a way that always one handbreadth of one overlay a handbreadth of the other, thus fulfilling "Before me always" (Ex. 25:30; Men. 11:7).

The Pilgrim Festivals

On the Pilgrim Festivals, the order of the Temple service was changed to accommodate the vast number of sacrifices which were brought. In addition to the festival's Musaf offering, there were also the festival peace offerings and whole offerings of those who made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem (Beẓah 2:4). In contrast to the daily practice of removing the ashes from the outer altar after dawn, this altar was already cleaned before midnight. The gates to the Temple court were opened at midnight, and by dawn the courtyard was filled with Israelites (Yoma 1:8; Jos., Ant., 18:29). The gates and curtains leading to the sanctuary were also left open, so that the pilgrims could see the Temple vessels (Yoma 54a; Jos., Ant., 3:128). For these festivals, priests from all parts of Ereẓ Israel came to the Temple, and they all shared equally in the holiday's sacrifices and in the division of the shewbread (Suk. 5:7).


The paschal lamb was unique in that it was offered by groups of Israelites rather than individuals. Between ten and twenty persons jointly brought one lamb (Pes. 64b; Jos., Wars, 6:425). To accommodate the large number of paschal sacrifices, the daily afternoon tamid on the eve of Passover was slaughtered at half after the seventh hour and offered up an hour later. After this, the Passover offering was brought (Pes. 5:1), and it was slaughtered in three groups. When the first group entered and filled the Temple court, its gates were closed and the shofar was sounded. The priests stood in rows and in their hands were basins of silver and gold. The basins were not mixed, each row being wholly silver or wholly gold. The Israelites slaughtered their own offerings and the priests caught the blood. The priest passed the basins filled with blood to fellow priests, each receiving a full basin and giving back an empty one. The priest nearest to the altar tossed the blood in one motion against the base of the altar. When the first group left, the second group came in; and when the second group was finished the third group came in. The rite was repeated for each group, and during the entire time *Hallel was chanted by the levites (Pes. 5:5–7). After the lamb was roasted, it was eaten after nightfall by the company which brought it as part of the Passover seder (Pes. 10:1–9). The size of the throng that participated in this ritual is emphasized by the Talmud, which relates that King Agrippa once took a census of the Jewish people. At his request, the high priest took a kidney from each paschal lamb, and 600,000 pairs of kidneys were counted, despite the fact that those who were unclean and on a distant journey were excluded from participating. Since there was not a single paschal lamb for which a minimum of ten people had not registered, they called it "the Passover of the dense throngs" (Pes. 64b). Josephus estimated from the number of lambs offered on the Passover before the outbreak of the Jewish War (65 c.e.) that more than 3,000,000 Jews gathered in Jerusalem for that Passover festival (Jos., Wars 2:280; cf. Wars 6:425).

The evening after the first day of Passover, preparations began for the bringing of the Omer on the next day. This was in accordance with the view of the Pharisees that "from the morrow after the day of rest" (Lev. 23:15) means after the first day of Passover, and not after the Sabbath that falls during Passover as the Sadducees advocated (Men. 65b–66a). The rabbis therefore insisted that the omer be reaped with much display to indicate that the Sadducees were mistaken in their interpretation (Men. 10:3). After the barley was reaped that evening, it was placed in baskets and brought to the Temple court. There it was prepared as fine flour, and the next day it was mixed together with oil and frankincense. A handful was removed by the officiating priest and burned on the altar, and the remainder was eaten by the priests. Soon after the omer was offered, the markets of Jerusalem were full of meal and parched corn of the new produce, though the sages disapproved (Men. 10:4–5).


The two leavened wave-loaves which were brought on Shavuot (Lev. 23:16–20) were divided among all the priests present in the Temple and not confined to those of the weekly watch. The rabbis added six days to the Shavuot celebration during which the Jewish pilgrims could offer their holiday sacrifices (Ḥag. 17a–b). Beginning with this holiday, *first fruits (bikkurim) were brought to the Temple. The bikkurim procession was led by an ox which was later sacrificed as a peace offering (Bik. 3:3).


Due to the large number of the Sukkot sacrifices (Num. 29:12–35), this holiday comprised eight of the 12 annual days on which the entire Hallel was recited and the flute played before the altar (Ar. 2:3; tj, Suk. 5:1, 55a). On each of the seven days of the festival, a libation of water was made together with the libation of wine at the morning service (Suk. 4:1). The water was drawn in a golden flagon holding three logs from the pool of Siloam. It was carried to the water gate of the Temple where a teki'ah, teru'ah, and teki'ah were sounded on the shofar. The officiating priest then took it up the ramp of the altar and turned to his left, where there were two silver bowls. One was for water and the other was for wine, and both libations were poured out simultaneously (Suk. 4:9). Since this water libation is not mentioned in the Bible, the rabbis declared that it was a Mosaic law from Sinai (Zev. 110b) or an institution of the prophets (tj, Suk. 4:1, 54b), and found homiletical justification for it in the Pentateuch itself (Shab. 103b). The water libation was offered at this time of the year "in order that the new rainy season would be blessed" (rh 16a). The Sadducees strongly opposed this innovation and totally denied its validity. The refusal of King Alexander *Yannai, Sadducean high priest (107–76 b.c.e.), to make the libation caused a bloody riot in the Temple. When he contemptuously poured the water on his feet, all those present in the Temple area pelted him with their etrogim (Suk. 48b; Jos., Ant., 13:372). Subsequently, the rabbis required the officiating priest to raise his hand when he poured out the water at the libation, so that it could be observed that he was properly discharging the precept (Suk. 4:9).

The New Year

The sacrifices offered on New Year followed the biblical description (Num. 29:2–6). The special New Year sacrifices were offered in addition to those of the New Moon and the two daily tamid sacrifices.

The Day of Atonement

For the Temple ritual on the Day of Atonement, see *Avodah.

Sacrifices from Non-Jews

Sacrifices could be accepted from gentiles (Lev. 22:25; i Kings 8:41–43), and this became common during the Second Temple period. The rabbis established as the rule that "what is vowed or freely offered is accepted of them, but what is not vowed or freely offered is not accepted of them" (Shek. 1:5). It was also ordained that, if a gentile sent a whole offering from a distant region without sending the accompanying drink offering, the latter was offered at the expense of communal funds (Shek. 7:6). Josephus records numerous instances of non-Jews sacrificing upon the altar (e.g., Jos., Ant., 13:242; 16:14), and declared that this sacred spot was "reverenced by all mankind" (Jos., Wars, 5:17). In addition to the sacrifices sent by gentiles, offerings were also made for the well-being of the non-Jewish rulers (e.g., Ezra 6:10; i Macc. 7:33). Sacrifices were later offered daily for the Roman emperor (Jos., Wars, 2:197), and at times the emperor himself contributed toward the cost of these sacrifices (Philo, On the Embassy to Gaius, 157). The destruction of Jerusalem was attributed to the refusal of the rabbis to accept an offering which contained a slight blemish, although it had been sent by the Roman emperor (Git. 56a). The revolt against Rome was signaled by the refusal of those who officiated in the Temple to sacrifice on behalf of the emperor (Jos., Wars, 2:409).

Cessation of Sacrifice

The importance which the Jews attached to sacrifice is evidenced by the fact that they continued to offer the daily tamid sacrifice throughout almost the entire period of the siege of Jerusalem. Despite the hardship and privations of this period and the famine which raged, the Temple service continued until the walls of the city were breached by the Romans on the 17th of Tammuz. The tamid sacrifice then had to be discontinued due to the lack of lambs and qualified priests within the Temple precincts (Ta'an. 4:6; Jos., Wars, 6:94). Three weeks later, on the Ninth of *Av, the Temple was destroyed by the Romans and the sacrificial system came to an end. (With regard to the question of the possibility of the reintroduction of sacrifice, and particularly the offering of the paschal lamb even after the destruction of the Temple, see *Temple Mount.)

later interpretations

Throughout the ages attempts have been made to find a spiritual meaning for the sacrificial system. The proposed explanations can be divided into three categories: the symbolic, juridical, and rational.


Philo devoted a treatise to the subject (De Victimis; see Spec. 1:112–256). He pointed out that only domesticated animals and the most gentle birds were suitable for sacrifice and that they had to be free of blemish, which he took as a symbol that the offerers must also be wholesome in body and soul. The Jew had to approach the altar with his soul purged of its passions and viciousness if the sacrifice was to be acceptable (Spec. 1:166/167, 257). The wicked would be rejected, even if they offered hundreds of sacrifices (Spec. 1:271). The rabbis stated that the sacrificial statutes indicated that God is with the persecuted. The ox is pursued by the lion, the goat by the leopard, and the lamb by the wolf. Therefore God commanded, "Do not offer those that persecute, but rather those that are persecuted" (Lev. R. 27:5). The requirement that fowl be offered with their feathers symbolized that a poor man was not to be despised. Therefore his offering was placed on the altar in its full adornment, despite the nauseating odor normally arising from the burning of feathers (Lev. R. 3:5). Salt, an indispensable ingredient of sacrifice, was symbolic of the moral effect of suffering, which purifies man and causes sins to be forgiven (Ber. 5a). Judah Halevi declared that the fire on the altar was kindled by the will of God, as a sign that the people found favor in His sight and that He was accepting their hospitality and offerings (Kuzari 2:26). Samson Raphael Hirsch explained that the Pentateuch required the person to lay his hands upon the head of the sacrifice to indicate that the "hands" that have become morally weakened "support" themselves on the resolution of the future betterment that is expressed by the offering (his commentary to Lev. 1:4). David Hoffmann declared that sacrifices are symbols of man's gratitude to God and his dependence on Him, of the absolute devotion man owes to God, as well as of man's confidence in Him (Introd. to commentary on Lev. (Heb. ed.), 64–67).


The juridical approach is put forward by Ibn Ezra (commentary to Lev. 1:1) and to some extent by Naḥmanides (commentary to Lev. 1:9). According to them, the sinner's life is forfeit to God, but by a gracious provision he is permitted to substitute a faultless victim. His guilt is transferred to the offering by the symbolic act of placing his hands on the victim. When observing the pouring out of the blood and the burning of the sacrifice, the person should acknowledge that, were it not for divine grace, he should be the victim, expiating his sin with his own blood and limbs (Naḥmanides to Lev. 1:9). Many Christian exegetes adopted this explanation and on it built the whole theological foundation of their Church.


Quite different is the rational view of sacrifice advocated by Maimonides. He rejected the symbolist position which discovered reasons for the details of the various sacrifices. Those who trouble themselves to discover why one offering should be a lamb, while another is a ram, are "void of sense; they do not remove any difficulties, but rather increase them" (Guide, 3:26). Maimonides held that the sacrificial service was not really of Jewish origin. It was the universal custom among all peoples at the time of Moses to worship by means of sacrifices. Since the Israelites had been brought up in this atmosphere, God realized that they could not immediately completely abandon sacrifice. He therefore limited its application by confining it to one place in the world, with the ultimate intention of weaning them from the debased religious rituals of their idolatrous neighbors. The new service stressed the existence and unity of God, "without deterring or confusing the minds of the people by the abolition of the service to which they were accustomed and which alone was familiar to them." Maimonides cited the experience of Israel, led not by the shorter way, but by the circuitous route through the land of the Philistines (Ex. 13:17). Likewise, through a circuitous road, Israel was to be led gradually and slowly to a deeper perception of religion and divine worship (Guide, 3:32). He gives the added remarkable parallel that it would be equally incomprehensible for anyone in his generation to suggest that prayer could be offered in thought alone, without the recitation of words.

Abrabanel strengthened the arguments for Maimonides' viewpoint. He explained that only within this framework can it be understood why the Torah limited the sacrificial service to one locality, while prayers may be recited in all places (Introd. to his commentary on Lev., 2d). Abrabanel cites a Midrash which states that the Hebrews had become accustomed to idolatrous sacrifices while in Egypt. To wean them from these idolatrous practices, God commanded, while tolerating the sacrifices, that they be offered in one central sanctuary. This was illustrated by the parable of a king who observed that his son loved to eat forbidden foods. The king then decided to serve him these foods daily, so that he would ultimately lose his desire for them and forego his evil habits (Lev. R. 22:8). D. Hoffmann later proposed a different explanation for this Midrash, declaring that the king insisted that the son was to eat exclusively at his table, so that he would only be served proper food and thus curb his appetite for forbidden foodstuffs (Introd. to commentary on Lev., p. 61).

With the destruction of the Temple and the automatic cessation of the sacrificial system, it was laid down that prayer took the place of the sacrifices. The Shaḥarit service was regarded as taking the place of the morning tamid and the Minḥah service, the afternoon tamid. On all occasions when an additional offering was brought, the Musaf prayer was introduced (Ber. 4:1, 7; 26b). One of the rabbis later declared that prayer was even more efficacious than offerings (Ber. 32b). Nevertheless, the rabbis never ceased to look forward to the rebuilding of the Temple and the reinstitution of sacrifice during the messianic era. An additional supplication was introduced at the end of the Amidah requesting "that the Temple be speedily rebuilt in our days… And there we will serve Thee with awe… Then shall the offering of Judah and Jerusalem be pleasant unto the Lord, as in the days of old, and as in ancient years" (Hertz Prayer Book, 157).

The Reform movement entirely abolished or modified the Musaf service and other liturgical references to sacrifice, since Reform Judaism no longer anticipated the restoration of this service. Some Conservative congregations also have rephrased references to the sacrifices, so that they indicate solely past events without implying any hope for the future restoration of sacrifice. Orthodox Jews nevertheless continue to pray for its reinstitution. Joseph *Hertz declared:

Moderns do not always realize the genuine hold that the sacrificial service had upon the affections of the people in ancient Israel. The Central Sanctuary was the axis round which the national life revolved. The people loved the Temple, its pomp and ceremony, the music and song of the levites and the ministrations of the priests, the high priest as he stood and blessed the prostrate worshippers amid profound silence on the Atonement Day (Hertz Prayer Book, 33–34).

The position of Orthodoxy was thus stated by Michael *Friedlaender:

The revival of the sacrificial service must, likewise, be sanctioned by the divine voice of a prophet. The mere acquisition of the Temple mount or Palestine by Jews, whether by war or political combinations, could not justify the revival. It is only the return of the Jews to Palestine, and the rebuilding of the Temple by divine command and by divine intervention, that will be followed by the restoration of the sacrificial service (The Jewish Religion (1913), 417; cf. Maim. Yad, Melakhim, 11:4).

[Aaron Rothkoff]

In the Kabbalah

The kabbalistic interpretation of the sacrifices is usually associated with the esoteric exposition of the tabernacle and the Temple, whose every detail has symbolic significance in the realm of the Sefirot, and with the connection between the individual Jew and the Jewish people as a whole and the divine world, both the good powers and the evil. In the Sefer ha-*Bahir, the earliest text of the Kabbalah, the sacrifices are explained as the process which symbolically unites the priest performing the sacrifices with the divine world. The Hebrew term for sacrifice, korban, is interpreted as coming from the root karev – to bring together, to unite. The ideas of the Bahir were explained and details added by *Isaac the Blind and developed by his pupil *Ezra b. Solomon and by *Azriel of Gerona. The mystical conception of the nature and purpose of sacrifice explains the act as a process which brings about the dynamic union of the divine powers, the Sefirot, and restores the soul of man and other created elements to their place of origin, that is to the Sefirah of which they had formed a part. The most detailed exposition of the symbolic meaning of the sacrifices is to be found in the *Zohar and in the writings of the subsequent kabbalists. It is possible that their detailed treatment of this subject had a polemical purpose – to oppose Maimonides' conception of sacrifice, which denied its intrinsic value and held that the practice originated in pagan customs which God conceded to the Jews after the exodus from Egypt, because they had not reached a high enough religious level to enable them to worship Him in a spiritual manner. The kabbalists, from the Bahir to the Zohar and onward, interpreted the sacrifices as spiritual worship of God in which material means are employed as symbols.

In the Zohar the unifying effect of the sacrifice is explained in three ways: it joins the upper and lower worlds, bringing together the believer and God Himself; it unites the Sefirot Ḥokhmah and Binah (the "father" and "mother"); and, most important, it brings about the union of masculine and feminine principles in the divine world – the Shekhinah, that is the Sefirah Malkhut, and her husband, the Sefirah Tiferet. This symbolic process is interpreted in great detail in the Zohar, especially regarding the sacrifices on the Day of Atonement. The material nature of the sacrifice, the use and slaughter of animals, is explained as a symbolic atonement for material sins. Because the evil powers in man are embedded in his flesh and blood, flesh and blood have to be sacrificed. More than that, the sacrifice frees the spirit of the animal, enabling it to rise to its divine root; the animals are symbolically connected with the animals described by Ezekiel in the throne-chariot, the *Merkabah. According to the Zohar and later kabbalists, the sacrifices are also significant in the cosmic fight between good and evil in the divine world. In one place it is stated that the flesh of the sacrifice is, in fact, intended for Satan, and God receives only the kavvanah, the religious intention of the person who gives the sacrifice. Most kabbalists consider that at least part of the sacrifice is given to the evil power, the sitra aḥra, to placate it. Other sacrifices are intended solely for the sitra aḥra, especially the scapegoat on the Day of Atonement. Its purpose is to drive the evil powers away from the holy union between Israel and God which is achieved on this day; it may also turn the Satan's enmity toward Israel into a more positive attitude and thus help achieve this union.

[Joseph Dan]


in the bible: J.H. Kurtz, Sacrificial Worship of the Old Testament (1863); C.F. Keil, Manual of Biblical Archaeology, 1 (1887), 246–482; 2 (1887), 1–101; A. Cave, The Scriptural Doctrine of Sacrifice (1890); G.B. Gray, Sacrifice in the Old Testament (1924); W.T. Mc-Cree, in: jbl, 45 (1926), 120–8; W.R. Smith, The Religion of the Semites (19273); E.O. James, The Origins of Sacrifice (1933); W.O.E. Oesterley, Sacrifices in Ancient Israel (1938); T.H. Gaster, in: Mélanges Syriens offerts à M.R. Dussaud, 2 (1939), 577–82; J.E. Coleran, in: CBQ, 2 (1940), 130–44; P. Saydon, ibid., 8 (1946), 393–9; H.W. Robinson, in: jts, 48 (1942), 129–39; D.M.L. Urie, in: peq, (1949), 67–82; H.H. Rowley, in: bjrl, 33 (1950), 74–110; G.R. Driver, in: jss, 1 (1956), 97–105; N.H. Snaith, in: vt, 7 (1957), 308–17; M. Haran, ibid., 10 (1960), 113–29; de Vaux, Anc lsr (1961), 415–510; B.A. Levine, in: jcs, 17 (1963), 105–11; idem, in: jaos, 75 (1965), 309–18; idem, in: Leshonenu, 30 (1966), 3–11; idem, in: Eretz-Israel, 9 (1969), 88–95; idem and W. Hallo, in: huca, 38 (1967), 17–58; Y. Aharoni, in: iej, 18 (1968), 157–69; A.F. Rainey, in: Biblica, 51 (1970), 485–98. second temple period: S.R. Hirsch, commentary to Leviticus; M.L. Malbim, commentary to Leviticus; D. Hoffmann, Das Buch Leviticus (1905); J.H. Hertz, The Pentateuch and Haftorahs; Leviticus (1932), 42–49; E. Levy, Yesodot ha-Tefillah (19522), 26–29, 37–59, 95–101; S. Schaffer, Ḥukkei ha-Korbanot (19683). in kabbalah: G. Scholem, Reshit ha-Kabbalah (1948), 141f.; I. Tishby, Mishnat ha-Zohar, 2 (1961), 194–215.

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Prayer is a form of communication with a deity or other spiritual being. Words addressed to a deity usually offer praise or seek guidance, blessing, forgiveness, fertility, victory, or protection. Like prayer, sacrifice is a form of communication with a deity for similar purposes. The word itself means "to make holy." As distinct from prayer, sacrificial offerings include objects of value and symbolic significance that are given to the gods to earn their favor. The gifts can take many forms, becoming sacred themselves through ritual consecration. The gods might be offered the most desirable foods or provided with the finest vessels, carvings, tools, and weapons. Historians, however, have often regarded blood sacrifice as the most powerful way to appease the gods. It was not unusual for societies to engage in both animal and human sacrifice, although the historical trend has been toward a sharp reduction in the latter.

Participants in blood sacrifice rituals experience a sense of awe, danger, or exaltation because they are daring to approach the gods who create, sustain, and destroy life. The buildup of tension prior to the blood sacrifice gives way to a festive sense of triumph and relief. Morale is strengthened by the ritual killing because the group has itself performed the godlike act of destruction and is now capable of renewing its own existence. The underlying philosophical assumption is that life must pass through death.

According to ancient rites of sacrifice, the sacrificial animal or human should be of high value. The gods would be offended by a sickly or inferior offering. In Old Testament tradition, Abel was obeying what was already an ancient tradition when he sacrificed the firstborn of his herds to God. Bulls were sacred to Egyptians more than 5,000 years ago, being associated with Taurus, a god with both animal and human features. For the Egyptians, then, the sacrifice of a bull was the gift of a demigod to the gods. In the years immediately preceding the emergence of Christianity some mystery cults switched from bull to human sacrifices, using the same ceremonies in which the victim was first honored as a god, then put to bloody death. Osiris, the legendary Egyptian ruler who, murdered, became the god of fertility, cast a long shadow over these proceedings. Biblical scholars have often commented that the death of Jesus had been prefigured by other events in which a person was raised to the status of a god and then sacrificed for the good of the people. The significance of blood as a link between Jesus and his followers is consistent with that tradition.

Sacrifice and Society

Human sacrifice is sometimes regarded as a bizarre practice carried out by a few scattered societies who either were uncivilized or exceptionally cruel and violent. However, there is persuasive evidence that the sacrificial impulse has been common throughout history and has played an important role in society.

The origins of blood sacrifice are lost in the mist of prehistory. Nevertheless, inferences can be drawn from archaeological research and from the practices and beliefs of people whose rituals continued into the historical period. The same societies usually performed other types of sacrifices as well, but these examples demonstrate the widespread use of ritual murder as an approved component of social policy.

Foundation and passage sacrifices. There is abundant archaeological evidence that many societies practiced both animal and human sacrifice to persuade the gods to protect their buildings and ensure safe passage through dangerous areas where their own gods might lack jurisdiction. Burials suggestive of sacrifice have been found in the sites of ancient bridges and buildings throughout Asia, Europe, and North Africa. It was widely believed that territories were under the control of local gods who might be angered by intrusions. Blood sacrifice at border crossings (often marked by rivers) and within buildings were thought to be prudent offerings. Sacrificial victims were also interred beneath city gates.

Children were often selected as the sacrificial offerings. Excavation of the Bridge Gate in Bremen, Germany, and several ancient fortresses in Wales are among the many examples of this practice. According to the Book of Kings, when Joshua destroyed Jericho he prophesized that the man who rebuilds Jericho "shall lay the foundation stones thereof upon the body of his first born and in his youngest son shall he set up the gates thereof." In rebuilding the city, Hiel later sacrificed his oldest and youngest sons in precisely this manner. The historian Nigel Davies observes that biblical accounts of foundation sacrifices have been supported by archaeological investigations:

In the sanctuary in Gezer were found two burnt skeletons of six-year-old children and the skulls of two adolescents that had been sawn in two. At Meggido a girl of fifteen had been killed and buried in the foundations of a large structure. Excavations show that the practice of interring children under new buildings was widespread and some were evidently buried alive. (Davies 1981, p. 61)

Foundation sacrifices dedicated to fertility (as, for example, in storage buildings) often involved infant and child victims. Captives, slaves, and criminals have also been selected as sacrificial victims on many occasions. That foundation sacrifices belong only to the remote past could be an erroneous assumption. In early twentieth-century Borneo an eyewitness testified that a criminal was buried alive in every posthole for a new building so that he might become a guardian spirit.

Attempts to Explain Blood Sacrifice

No one attempt to explain blood sacrifice seems adequate for the variety of forms and purposes associated with this practice in many societies over many years. Nevertheless, it is useful to consider the following accounts as informed attempts to explain the relationship between blood sacrifice and society.

Male bonding and collective killing. Hunters learned to cooperate with each other to improve their chances of success. This common purpose led to a sense of brotherhood, what is often called "male bonding" in the twenty-first century. Their mutual allegiances and rituals set them apart from others as they swore their oaths on blood and became the specialists in killing. Some theorists suggest that the basic forms of society were derived from the distribution of roles within the hunting group and their codes of loyalty. The structure of society in general has been modeled on male-bonded groups who relied on blood sacrifices to achieve their own survival and successor so upholds this theory that seems to seriously underestimate the contribution of women to the shaping of society.

Sacrifice reduces violence. It may seem peculiar to suggest that sacrifice reduces violence, but some anthropologists and historians have drawn this inference. Aggressive tensions within a society can lead toward violence against fellow members. Ritual sacrifices provide a relatively safe framework to keep violence within bounds while at the same time offering emotional release through killing substitute victims. This theory suggests that, at least in some circumstances, ritual killing of a designated victim can restrain the larger group from tearing itself apart.

Sacrificial companions to the next life. Many societies have considered their leaders as representative of their people both in this life and the next. It was important, then, to make sure that the ruler of the land (be it a king or otherwise) was accompanied to the afterlife with a retinue of loyal attendants. Rulers often had their concubines and servants (as well as household animals) entombed with them. Even distinguished ministers might be among the companions who were either entombed or immolated in order to serve their ruler after death. Examples include major archaeological finds in Egypt and China where the bodies of numerous attendants were discovered in chambers adjoining the royal coffin. There is evidence that elaborate ceremonies were conducted to honor the chosen companions prior to their deaths. It appears that the sacrificial victims often were given libations that provided a drug-induced insensitivity prior to their deaths.

The practice of burying the living with the dead encountered increasing criticism through the centuries. Eventually many societies shifted to symbolic sacrifices; for example, the later Egyptian practice of placing figurines (Shabti ) in the royal tombs. China, Japan, the Greek states, and other ancient civilizations also moved toward symbolic rather than actual sacrifice of companions upon the death of their rulers. Furthermore, with the development of Christianity and Islam, a life after death appeared more likely to be within reach of individuals other than royalty, therefore making voluntary sacrifice a less attractive proposition.

Sacrifice keeps the world going. The most sweeping theory is based on an interpretation of history that pictures the human condition as fearful and perilous, beset with threats to survival from starvation, attack, and events such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and floods that were taken to be the work of angry gods. Possessing limited knowledge and technology, societies tried to find a way of negotiating with rival, demanding, and frequently unpredictable gods if the world and their own lives were to continue. Sacrifice soon became a significant form of exchange with the gods, a sort of currency in an age before the establishment of a monetary system. In modern parlance, sacrifice was a way of doing business.

Human sacrifice was considered so crucial a measure that it persisted for some time even in societies that had become more complex and sophisticated. For example, the practice of sacrificing the eldest son was a salient feature of Mediterranean cults 5,000 years ago and still a powerful theme in Judaism and early Christianity. Sacrifice would be tamed slowly as societies developed more effective ways to manage their needs and cope with their environments. The gradual and still incomplete abolition of slavery throughout the world also reduced the supply of potential victims. And, again, the slow and still incomplete movement toward according full human rights to females eventually spared many the death of a sacrificial victim.

Controversies and Unsettled Questions

Many questions and differences of opinion continue to exist around the issue of human sacrifice. This situation is not surprising, considering the limits and ambiguity of some of the evidence and the strong emotions aroused by the subject.

Death does not always signify sacrifice. Bodies dating from the first and second centuries B.C.E. have been recovered from bogs in England, Denmark, Wales, and other Northern European sites. These have often been considered sacrificial victims because the bodies showed many signs of having been subjected to ritualistic treatment. More sophisticated examination of the remains, however, indicates that at least some of the bodies had been accorded high honors, not put to death by sacrifice or punishment. It is probable that other errors have been made in identifying sacrifice victims, although enough clear and substantial data are available to demonstrate that sacrifice has been a common practice throughout much of the world.

Why child sacrifice? One of the most dramatic episodes in Judeo-Christian Scripture begins with God's command that Abraham sacrifice Isaac, his son. Abraham sorrowfully prepares to obey, but God intervenes and provides a ram as a sacrificial substitute. The meaning of this episode has been the subject of intense discussion through the centuries, although it is most often interpreted as a celebration of faith on Abraham's part and mercy on the part of God. Another human sacrifice reported in the Bible has remained more difficult to interpret in a favorable light and, therefore, has received less attention. Jepthah pledged he would sacrifice the first living creature that he saw when returning home if God would grant him victory in an upcoming battle. The victorious Jepthah was greeted by his daughter upon returning home. True to his pledge, Jepthah made a burnt offering of his daughter (who is not given a name in the biblical account). Why would God intervene for Isaac but not for Jepthah's daughter? Was Jepthah pious or callous in carrying through with the execution? These questions continue to haunt scholars and ethicists.

How many people were sacrificed by the Incas and Aztecs? This question can now be answered with confidence. Yes, the Incas of Peru and the Aztec of Mexico put a great many people to ritualistic death. This proposition was doubted for some years, in part because this kind of mass slaughter was difficult to imagine. Evidence has become increasingly clear, however, that human sacrifice was a core feature of the Inca and Aztec cultures.

Remains of Inca sacrifices have been dated from as long ago as 5000 B.C.E., sometimes on the towering peaks of the Andes, sometimes in the coastal desert. Archaeological investigations have found evidence of human sacrifice into the sixteenth century, and this practice is thought to have continued for some time afterward. Tenochtitlan (predecessor to Mexico City) is known to have been the active site of human sacrifices long before Spanish forces arrived to witness these events firsthand: There were already huge collections of skulls on display.

Twenty-first-century historians tend to agree that human sacrifice was both a unifying event and an intense demonstration of religious beliefs for these powerful empires. The Aztecs believed that the "vital energies" of one person could be transferred to another person through drinking the blood and eating the flesh. The gods also craved flesh and blood, so human sacrifice benefited both Aztecs and their ever-hungry deities. Sacrifice was an integral part of their worldview in which the threat of death was ever present, a threat that had to be countered by extreme and relentless measures that would magically transform death into life. Discoveries since the mid-twentieth century confirm that many women were sacrificed in special rituals intended to renew the fertility cycle.

Peruvian sacrifices were also concerned with encouraging the gods to bless their fertility. For reasons that are not entirely clear, the priests appear to have sacrificed an extraordinary number of children. Also somewhat obscure are the reasons for their practice of decapitating their victims. Having left no written records, the Incas and other Peruvian cultures have also taken with them their secrets and mysteries.

Do human sacrifices still exist? A few scattered reports of ritualistic murders believed to be sacrificial appear in print occasionally, usually in American and European newspapers. The reports are brief and inconclusive; for example, one October 1999 Irish Times article read, "Police in the eastern Indian state of Bihar yesterday dug up the remains of two teenage girls allegedly killed by their father in a ritual human sacrifice this week." It is probable that at least some such killings are the work of deranged individuals rather than religious celebrants. It is also possible, however, that credible evidence of contemporary human sacrifice may come to light.

A controversial theory suggests that patriotism, war, and adherence to the flag are incitements to a disguised form of sacrifice. Generally, the homicide rate decreases when a nation is involved in a popular war. Although there are other ways to interpret this fact, it is a challenging thought that patriotism might be regarded as "a civil religion of blood sacrifice, which periodically kills its children to keep the group together" (Marvin and Ingle 1999, p. 315).

See also: Aztec Religion; Cannibalism; Children, Murder of; Gods and Goddesses of Life and Death; Hunting; Incan Religion; Osiris


Benson, Elizabeth P., and Anita G. Cook. Ritual Sacrifice in Ancient Peru: New Discoveries and Interpretations. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001.

Brown Burkett, Walter. Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.

Carrasco, David L. City of Sacrifice: The Aztec Empire and the Role of Violence in Civilization. Boston: Beacon Press, 1999.

Davies, Nigel. Human Sacrifice in History and Today. New York: William Morrow and Co., 1981.

Eliade, Mircea. A History of Religious Ideas, 3 vols., translated by Willard R. Trask. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

Foss, Martin. Death, Sacrifice, and Tragedy. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966.

Gennep, Arnold van. The Rites of Passage. 1900. Reprint, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960.

Girard, René. Violence and the Sacred. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.

"Girls Killed in 'Sacrifice.'" Irish Times, 23 October 1999, 14.

Green, Miranda Aldhouse. Dying for the Gods: Human Sacrifice in Iron Age and Roman Europe. Charleston, SC: Tempus, 2001.

Harris, Marvin. Our Kind. New York: Harper Perennial, 1990.

Hughes, Dennis D. Human Sacrifice in Ancient Greece. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Levenson, Jon D. The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993.

Marvin, Carolyn, and David W. Ingle. Blood Sacrifice and the Nation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Peires, J. B. The Dead Will Arise. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.

Read, Kay Almere. Time and Sacrifice in the Aztec Cosmos. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.

Ulansey, David. The Origin of the Mithrac Mysteries: Cosmology and Salvation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Westermarck, Edward. The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas. London: Macmillan, 1906.

Young, Dudley. Origins of the Sacred. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991.


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Sacrifice (Lat., ‘that which is made sacred’). The offering of something, animate or inanimate, in a ritual procedure which establishes, or mobilizes, a relationship of mutuality between the one who sacrifices (whether individual or group) and the recipient—who may be human but more often is of another order, e.g. God or spirit. Sacrifice pervades virtually all religions, but it is extremely difficult to say precisely what the meanings of sacrifice are—perhaps because the meanings are so many. Sacrifice is clearly much more than technique: it involves drama, ritual, and action, transforming whatever it is that is sacrificed beyond its mundane role: in general, nothing that is sacrificed has intrinsic worth or holiness before it is set apart; it is the sacrifice that gives it added value. Sacrifice has been understood as expiation of fault or sin; as propitiation of an angry deity; as apotropaic (turning away punishment, disaster, etc.); as purgation; as an expression of gratitude; as substitutionary (offering to God a substitute for what is rightly his, e.g. the first-born); as commensal, establishing union with God or with others in a community; as do ut des (‘I give in order that you may give’, an offering in order to evoke a gift in return); as maintaining cosmic order (especially in Hindu sacrifices); as celebration; as a means of coping with violence in a community; as catharsis; as a surrogate offering at the level of power and its distribution.

Amongst many particular theories, that of H. Hubert and M. Mauss, Sacrifice, Its Nature and Function (1898), has been influential. The purpose of sacrifice can be discerned, not in the analysis of beliefs, but in the social function served by sacrifice, i.e. the connection made between the sacred and profane worlds. Through sacrifice they interpenetrate and yet remain distinct, thereby allowing (or requiring) self-interest to be subordinated to the service of the social group. The methodology was extended by Mauss in the even more influential The Gift (1924; Eng. tr. 1954): gift-giving practices (especially potlatch: see ALMSGIVING), including extravagant feasts, seem at first to work against self-interest, but they establish social bonding and stability.


The general Heb. term, qorbān, has been taken to mean ‘bringing close’, sc., of humans and God. In ancient Israel, sacrifices were of various kinds. Sin-offerings (ḥatat) could be made by individuals, or collectively at the sacred festivals, and were offered in propitiation for sin; guilt offerings (asham) were a particular kind of sin-offering, to be made when, e.g., someone had defrauded another or when lepers were cleansed. Dedicatory offerings expressed dedication to God. Burnt offerings (ʿolah) were offered twice daily in the Jerusalem Temple as part of the regular ritual, with two additional lambs offered each Sabbath. Besides animal sacrifices, offerings of grain or loaves (meal offerings) accompanied burnt offerings and a libation was also poured out. In addition there were extra free-will offerings and peace offerings at Shavuʿot. Full details of the Temple ritual are preserved in the Talmud, tractates Tamid and Zevaḥim. After the Temple was destroyed by the Romans on 9 Av, 70 CE, the sacrificial system came to an end. Prayer took its place.


Ideas of sacrifice are attached primarily to Jesus' death, probably going back to his own words at least at the Last Supper. The writer to the Hebrews gives an elaborate treatment of Christ's once-for-all sacrifice as superior to the Old Testament cult. The fathers took up the biblical theme, stressing that Christ was a voluntary victim; a victim of infinite value; and also himself the priest. (See also ATONEMENT.)


The Arabic words aḍḥā, dhabaḥa, and naḥara refer to the slaughter of animals; qurbān (cf. Heb., qorbān) comes from the verb meaning ‘to draw near’ and implies an offering without slaughter. The major Muslim sacrifice occurs at al-ʿĪd al-Aḍḥā (‘the feast of the sacrifice’, also known as ʿĪd al-Kabīr, ‘the great feast’) which commemorates the offering by Ibrāhīm (Abraham) of a ram instead of his son. In addition, sacrifice may be performed at any time with the intention of drawing closer to God, and is particularly expected when a child is born (al-ʿaqīqah).


Sacrifice (yajña) is deeply involved among Hindus in the maintenance of cosmic order, and although it obviously has reference to the gods, it is distinct from the approach to God in pūjā (worship). In the early Vedic age, sacrifice was relatively simple, a way of bringing the power inherent in the natural order to bear in relevant ways. Hence there were also sacrifices at regular moments, such as morning and evening, new and full moon, etc. For these ceremonies, the gṛhapati (householder) is usually the officient, though he could call on a purohita if necessary. These offerings are known as gṛhyakarmāṇi, and are usually performed by the casting of milk, ghī (ghṛta), grain, etc., into the fire. In the later Vedic period, sacrifices became elaborately detailed, and a distinction was made between gṛhya sacrifices (which rested on smārta, i.e. oral tradition and memory) and śrauta sacrifices (those based on śruti). The Sāma Veda and Yajur Veda were composed for the purposes of sacrifice, and the Brāhmaṇas were compiled with a major purpose of explaining the meaning of the sacrifices. Whereas in the earlier sacrifices there had been a strong element of do ut des (see introductory paragraph), there now developed a sense that the gods were dependent on sacrifices and to an extent under the control of humans (or more specifically, of priests). The śrauta sacrifices are traditionally divided into two groups of seven, Haviryajñas (including Agnihotra, animal sacrifices, and Piṇḍapitṛyajña) and Somayajñas. Four groups of priests were required (headed by four chief priests): (i) Hotṛ, who invokes the gods by reciting verses from the Ṛg Veda; (ii) Udgātṛ, the chanter of sāmans; (iii) Adhvaryu, the performer of the sacrifice; (iv) the brahman, who supervises the whole procedure, making sure that no errors are made. Śrauta sacrifices also became prohibitively expensive, and only vestigial remains of them survive in practice, confined to symbolic acts like the pouring of a glass of water or the giving of a handful of rice. Occasionally, a larger sacrifice is organized (e.g. against the menace of nuclear war in 1957), but only a few brahmans now maintain the daily ritual and study which underlie the larger occasions.

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SACRIFICE. Sacrifice is the ritualistic and reverential slaughter, cooking, and distribution of meat. Conventional accounts of sacrifice stress the colorful and religious aspects of slaying an animal for the benefit of the participants' relationships with the gods. This understanding leads to the generalized use of the word "sacrifice" to mean giving up somethingincluding other foodsin anticipation of more valuable rewards.

From the viewpoint of a cultural outsider, sacrifice may seem a brutal or incomprehensible practice. Yet historically, sacrifice has been a common practice in many tribal and agrarian societies, as have food offerings, in a more general sense. Sacrifices serve various functions: the ancient Chinese text Li chi describes ceremonies that summon spirits from above to restore social harmony. Maintaining environmental balance is also a common sacrificial motive. Sacrifices are important in the doctrines of Hindus, Jews, Christians, and Muslims: they enable participants to share a table with their deity, give thanks, atone for sins, or appease angry forces. For example, Muslims believe that the animal slaughtered at the Id al-Adha (Festival of Sacrifice) at the conclusion of their pilgrimage to Mecca will carry them to Paradise.

Social scientists have explained that dramatic rituals encourage group solidarity. The act of coming together to present gifts helps to bind members of a group together as well as any blood oath can. According to Scottish anthropologist W. Robertson Smith in The Religion of the Semites (1889), sacrifice originated in a meal shared between people and their god. French sociologist Émile Durkheim and his associates asserted that sacrifice constantly renews group consciousness of the sacred and that the all-powerful god which society worships is itself.

Ceremony promotes social cohesion, but such theories are incomplete because they do not explain why cohesion important in the first place. As stated earlier, the underlying action of a sacrifice is the coming together for the slaughter and distribution of meat. This core social action is elaborated on cultural and religious levels. The animal is not lost but is allocated to the group according to precise rules. In groups that perform sacrifices, animals are valuable enough food to warrant special attention, typically at a festival, and often the animals are large enough to warrant wider dispersal than within an immediate household. This dispersal typically takes place at some central place such as a temple.

Early Jewish celebrations of Passover traditionally required the sacrifice of one lamb for each household or for distribution among several small households; the lamb was then eaten with unleavened bread and bitter herbs (Exodus 12:128). This ritual is a seasonal festival that, on one level, recalls the nomadic origins of the Hebrews, who would annually gather to celebrate increased flocks. On another level, however, Passover recalls the escape from Egypt after Moses had cursed the Egyptians to suffer the death of their first-born males. To avoid this curse, the Hebrews placed on their door posts a sign made from the blood of sacrificial lambs.

Gods have traditionally played key roles in food distribution. Each temple-state in ancient Mesopotamia had its own deities who lived in the ziggurat and who were fed offerings from the surrounding farms. This tribute not only supported the temple bureaucracy and artisans but also fed the poor of the region. In other places, this type of food redistribution also took place in kingdoms that were under the leadership of warrior rulers. For example, the ancient leader King Solomon oversaw the apportioning of 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep at the dedication of his temple. These sacrifices served as a vast round of public meals, which were shared by "all Israel . . . a great assembly" from distant places. These meals also lasted for quite some time, as Solomon dismissed the crowd on the eighth day (1 Kings 8:6266).

The role of the mageiros in ancient Greece also illustrates the social centrality of sacrifice. This same word was used for priest, cook, and butcher (which might bewilder the modern mind). Nevertheless, the common link among these individuals was that each of them was responsible for the cutting up of meat, the priest wielding his cleaver (or machaira ) ritualistically, the butcher commercially, and the cook artistically.

Aztec priests gained notoriety for sacrificing human victims. In The Sacred Cow and Abominable Pig, the anthropologist Marvin Harris argues that such "warfare cannibalism" occurs when captives have greater value as meat than as slaves (pp. 199234). Yet many claims of human sacrifice are often suspect, as they can be misrepresentations of others as "less civilized." For example, some people in the ancient world mistook Christians for cannibals because they spoke of their savior as a sacrificial lamb and of their eucharistic bread and wine as his flesh and blood.

Because the acquisition and distribution of meat are so fundamental in society, they have been surrounded by many different relationships, rituals, and meanings. The allocation can become so formalized, the portion of food "lost" to the gods so large, and sacramental feelings so profound that the process may no longer resemble sharing. In addition, many accounts have overemphasized religious meanings at the expense of focusing on the sacrificial process of cooking offerings. However, a gastronomic interpretation of sacrifices need not diminish the importance of the ties among people, natural forces, and gods that sacrifices represent. On the contrary, taking the sharing of food under serious consideration arguably grounds the religious aspects of sacrifice and increases their relevance.

In much of the world, the act of slaughtering meat has been removed from plain view to the city outskirts. It has shifted from the butcher's shop to behind a supermarket wall. The final carving of joints now tends to be kept to the kitchen, and the image of cattle is separate from that of hamburgers. Greater sympathy with ceremonial sacrifice may help reconnect meat-eaters with their metabolic universe. A keener sense of the sacred when eating meat might help counterbalance tendencies toward instant gratification, conspicuous consumption, viewing animals as commodities, and the increasingly unbalanced distribution of the world's resources. If animal-devouring gourmets do not entirely embrace such religious impulses as atonement, propitiation, divine commensalism, and thanksgiving, they might nevertheless remember that to "immolate"from the Latin for 'sacrifice'is to sprinkle with a condiment.

Arguing for a more materialist reverence that brings the sacred back into the kitchen, Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon advises cooks to remember that they inhabit "bloody ground and holy ground at once." In his recipe book and "culinary reflection," The Supper of the Lamb, he confronts the dilemma of the "bloody, unobliging reciprocity in which life lives by death, but still insists that death is robbery" (pp. 4552).

See also Anthropology and Food ; Aversion to Food ; Christianity ; Disgust ; Fasting and Abstinence ; Feasts, Festivals, and Fasts ; Hinduism ; Islam ; Judaism ; Meat ; Pig ; Religion and Food ; Sheep ; Sin and Food ; Taboos .


Capon, Robert Farrar. The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969.

Detienne, Marcel, and Jean-Pierre Vernant. The Cuisine of Sacrifice among the Greeks. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Harris, Marvin. The Sacred Cow and the Abominable Pig: Riddles of Food and Culture. New York: Touchstone, 1987. Originally entitled Good to Eat, 1985.

Symons, Michael. "Cutting Up Cultures." Journal of Historical Sociology 15, no. 4 (December 2002).

Symons, Michael. "The Kitchen of the Gods." Australian Religion Studies Review 11, no. 2 (Spring 1998): 114125.

Michael Symons

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Theme Overview

Many religious ceremonies have included sacrifice, the act of giving up something of value and offering it to a deity or god. Worshippers may make a sacrifice to win the favor of the deity, to give thanks, or to maintain a good relationship with the god. Myths from around the world contain many examples of sacrifices in which animals, humans, and even gods shed blood or die. Sometimes the sacrifice is linked with creation or with the continuation of life on earth. People also make offerings of precious items, such as flowers, wine, and incense, or a portion of the fruit or grain collected during a harvest.

Major Myths

Many creation myths involve self-sacrifice by gods or ancient beings. In an early Hindu myth, Purusha (pronounced POOR-uh-shuh) is the primal being who allows himself to be dismembered so that creation can take place. His eye becomes the sun , his head the sky, his breath the wind, and so on. Purusha became a symbol of the acts of sacrifice that kept the heavens stable. The mythology of the Aztecs of central Mexico told how two of the gods formed the universe by splitting a goddess in half, so that one part of her became the sky and the other part became the earth. The Aztecs performed large-scale rites of human sacrifice as a way of repaying the goddess and the other deities for the violence and sacrifice of creation. In Norse mythology, Odin (pronounced OH-din), the chief of the gods, made a kind of self-sacrifice by hanging on the World Tree Yggdrasill (pronounced IG-druh-sil) for nine days to gain magical knowledge. For this reason, the Norse sometimes sacrificed war captives to Odin by hanging them, and Odin became known as the god of the hanged.

Sacrifice is often an act of worship or obedience. In the book of Genesis in the Bible, God tells Abraham to take his son Isaac to the top of a mountain and sacrifice him. Abraham builds an altar and prepares to sacrifice his son when a voice from heaven tells him to stop, saying, “Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” Turning around, Abraham notices a ram caught by its horns in a bush. He releases Isaac and sacrifices the ram instead.

Some myths present sacrifice as a way of setting right the relationship between people and gods. The Kikuyu (pronounced kee-KOO-yoo) people of Kenya in eastern Africa tell of a time when no rain fell for three years. The crops dried up, and the people asked their magician what they should do. After performing a magical ceremony, he told them to bring goats to buy a maiden named Wanjiru. The next day everyone gathered around Wanjiru, who began to sink into the ground. When her family tried to help her, those around gave them goats, so the family let her sink. As Wanjiru sank inch by inch into the ground, rain began to fall. By the time she disappeared into the ground, the rain was pouring down. Afterwards, a young warrior who loved Wanjiru went to the place where she had disappeared. Letting himself sink into the underworld , he found Wanjiru, brought her back to the surface, and married her.

Sacrifice may be linked to divination, or foretelling the future. The Druids of ancient Britain sacrificed both animals and humans in the belief that they could read the future in the victims' dying movements or in the patterns of their intestines. In the story of Sunjata (pronounced soon-JAH-tuh), told by the Mandingo people of Mali in West Africa, a king sacrificed a bull in order to fulfill a prophecy, or prediction. A hunter predicted that if the king agreed to marry a hideous young woman, their child would become a great ruler. In Central America, the Mayan Vision Serpent ceremony—held to consult with the dead and determine the future—included offerings of blood drawn from the king.

Sacrifice in Context

One type of sacrifice involves the offering of blood or life. According to one theory, the practice of blood sacrifice was based on the belief that life is precious, and therefore valuable to the gods. When freed from an earthly body, it was believed, life returned to its sacred source. In ancient Rome, a person performing a sacrifice said to the god, “Be thou increased by this offering.” The idea behind this type of sacrifice was not pain, suffering, or death. Rather, life was being returned to the divine world so that the gods, in turn, would continue to give life to the human world.

Other theories provide different explanations for blood sacrifice. One suggests that it began as a form of magic. Another says that sacrifice may have been viewed as a symbolic meal that the community shared with its deity, or as a reenactment of creation myths. Still another theory claims that sacrifice may have been seen as a way of focusing and controlling aggression within the community.

Hunting peoples generally sacrificed game animals, while herding and farming peoples used domestic animals, such as sheep, goats, chickens, and catde. Certain types of animals were regarded as the most appropriate sacrifices for particular purposes or for particular deities. Dark-colored animals, for example, might be offered to deities of the underworld (land of the dead), while an all-white animal might be seen as the best gift for a sky god.

The sacrifice of humans has occurred in many parts of the world. There is also evidence that in some communities animals were eventually substituted for human victims. The method of slaughter generally involved either blood (flowing freely or offered in a ceremonial vessel), fire (to carry the sacrifice to the god), or both. Sometimes, however, the person to be sacrificed was strangled, hanged, or drowned.

A special person, such as a ruler, priest, head of household, or older member of the community, usually supervised or carried out the sacrifice. The sacrifice was made in front of a group—it was too important an act to be performed privately. Special rituals, such as ceremonial bathing or fasting, often accompanied the sacrifice. The sacrificial offering might be placed on an altar or before a statue of a deity or burned in a sacred fire so that the smoke would carry its scent to the heavens.

Sacrifice in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

The theme of sacrifice is found throughout the art and literature of many cultures. The actual physical sacrifice of another living thing, however, is somewhat less common in modern art and literature. The short story “The Lottery” (1948) by Shirley Jackson is perhaps one of the best modern examples of mythic sacrifice in literature. Another example is the sacrifice of Asian, the lion lord in the C. S. Lewis novel The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950); this was also featured in the 2005 film adaptation of the novel. Mayan sacrifice is depicted in the 2006 Darren Aronofsky film The Fountain, starring Hugh Jackman as a Spanish conquistador.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

The idea of human sacrifice is based on the notion that the death of one—or a few—will result in better conditions for the rest of those living. In other words, the tragedy of the death(s) is outweighed by the greater good accomplished for society. Do you think this is a valid reason? Why or why not? What about those who willingly risk their lives for the good of society, such as police officers and soldiers?

SEE ALSO Aztec Mythology; Odin; Sunjata; Yggdrasill

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Many religious ceremonies have included sacrifice, the act of giving up something of value and offering it to a deity. Worshipers may make a sacrifice to win the favor of the deity, to give thanks, or to maintain a good relationship with the god. Myths from around the world contain many examples of sacrifices in which animals, humans, and even gods shed blood or die. Sometimes the sacrifice is linked with creation or with the continuation of life on earth. People also make offerings of precious items such as flowers, wine, and incense or a portion of the fruit or grain collected during a harvest.

deity god or goddess

Meaning and Methods of Sacrifice. One type of sacrifice involves the offering of blood or life. According to one theory, the

* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.

practice of blood sacrifice was based on the belief that life is precious, even divine. When freed from an earthly body, life returned to its sacred source. In ancient Rome, a person performing a sacrifice said to the god, "Be thou increased by this offering." The idea behind this type of sacrifice was not pain, suffering, or death. Rather, life was being returned to the divine world so that the gods, in turn, would continue to give life to the human world.

Other theories provide different explanations for blood sacrifice. One suggests that it began as a form of magic. Another says that sacrifice may have been viewed as a symbolic meal that the community shared with its deity or as a reenactment of creation myths. Still another tells that sacrifice may have been seen as a way of focusing and controlling aggression within the community.

Hunting peoples generally sacrificed game animals, while herding and farming peoples used domestic animals such as sheep, goats, chickens, and cattle. Certain types of animals were regarded as the most appropriate sacrifices for particular purposes or for particular deities. Dark-colored animals, for example, might be offered to deities of the underworld, while an all-white animal might be seen as the best gift for a sky god.

The sacrifice of humans has been known in many parts of the world. There is also evidence that in some communities animals were eventually substituted for human victims. The method of slaughter generally involved either blood (flowing freely or offered in a ceremonial vessel), fire (to carry the sacrifice to the god), or both. Sometimes, however, the person to be sacrificed was strangled, hanged, or drowned.

A special person, such as a ruler, priest, head of household, or older member of the community, usually supervised or carried out the sacrifice. The sacrifice was made in front of a groupit was too important an act to be performed privately Special rites, such as ceremonial bathing or fasting, often accompanied the sacrifice. The sacrificial offering might be placed on an altar or before a statue of a deity or burned in a sacred fire so that the smoke would carry its scent to the heavens.

underworld land of the dead

rite ceremony or formal procedure

primal earliest; existing before other things

cosmos the universe, especially as an orderly and harmonious system

Mythic Sacrifices. Many creation myths involve self-sacrifice by gods or primal beings. In an early Hindu myth, Purusha is the primal being who allows himself to be dismembered so that creation can take place. His eye becomes the sun, his head the sky, his breath the wind, and so on. Purusha became a symbol of the acts of sacrifice that kept the cosmos stable. The mythology of the Aztecs of central Mexico told how two of the gods formed the universe by splitting a goddess in half, so that one part of her became the sky and the other part became the earth. The Aztecs performed large-scale, violent rites of human sacrifice as a way of repaying the goddess and the other deities for the violence and sacrifice of creation. In Norse* mythology, Odin, the chief of the gods, made a kind of self-sacrifice by hanging on the World Tree Yggdrasill for nine days to gain magical knowledge. For this reason, the Norse sometimes sacrificed war captives to Odin by hanging them, and Odin became known as the god of the hanged.

Sacrifice is often an act of worship or obedience. In the book of Genesis in the Bible, God tells Abraham to take his son Isaac to the top of a mountain and sacrifice him. Abraham builds an altar and prepares to sacrifice his son when a voice from heaven tells him to stop, saying, "Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son." Turning around, Abraham notices a ram caught by its horns in a bush. He releases Isaac and sacrifices the ram instead.

Some myths present sacrifice as a way of setting right the relationship between people and gods. The Kikuyu people of Kenya in eastern Africa tell of a time when no rain fell for three years. The crops dried up, and the people asked their magician what they should do. After performing a magical ceremony, he told them to bring goats to buy a maiden named Wanjiru. The next day everyone gathered around Wanjiru, who began to sink into the ground. When her family tried to help her, those around gave them goats, so the family let her sink. As Wanjiru sank inch by inch into the ground, rain began to fall. By the time she disappeared into the ground, the rain was pouring down. Afterwards, a young warrior who loved Wanjiru went to the place where she had disappeared. Letting himself sink into the underworld, he found Wanjiru, brought her back to the surface, and married her.

prophecy foretelling of what is to come; also something that is predicted

Sacrifice may be linked to divination, or foretelling the future. The Druids* of ancient Britain sacrificed both animals and humans in the belief that they could read the future in the victims' dying movements or in the patterns of their intestines. In the story of Sunjata, told by the Mandingo people of Mali in West Africa, a king sacrificed a bull to acknowledge a prophecy. A hunter predicted that if the king agreed to marry a hideous young woman, their child would become a great ruler. In Central America, the Mayan Vision Serpent ceremonyheld to consult with the dead and determine the futureincluded offerings of blood drawn from the king.

See also Aztec Mythology ; Druids ; Odin ; Sunjata ; Yggdrasill.

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sacrifice [Lat. sacrificare=to make holy], a type of religious offering, or gift to a superior or supreme being, in which the offering is consecrated through its destruction.

The Nature of Sacrifice

Sacrifices may be performed on a regular basis, according to established patterns of daily, monthly, or seasonal acts, or on special occasions, notably at important times in an individual's life (birth, puberty, marriage, death), and in the face of extraordinary conditions. The purpose of the act is either to establish or sustain a proper relationship with the god or gods. Sacrifices may simply express homage and veneration, or they may give thanks for good fortune. Sacrifices of supplication are intended to provoke good fortune, and sacrifices of expiation are offered to appease the divine wrath kindled by humanity's transgression of other arrangements. Humans have been known to sacrifice anything that they have ever used or produced; the oblation may be left exposed; poured, if liquid, into the ground; or burned.


The Paleolithic evidence for sacrifice is unclear, and it has not been observed in contemporary hunter-gatherer societies. It has been observed, however, in pastoral and agricultural societies. In simpler societies, anyone is usually permitted to offer a sacrifice, but in more complex societies, this right is generally reserved for either a religious specialist or a person of high political rank. Often, the sacrificial cult is linked to the legitimacy of a king or emperor, as in classical Japan, China, Sumeria, Egypt, and Rome; sometimes, struggles for control over this cult lead to conflict between priests and kings.

Biblical accounts of sacrifice begin with Cain's sacrifice of the fruit of the ground, not acceptable to God, and Abel's rightful sacrifice of the firstlings of his flock. The release of Abraham from the vow to sacrifice Isaac has been read as an argument against human sacrifice in Hebrew tradition, evidenced elsewhere in the story of Jephthah's daughter. After their Temple was destroyed by Romans in AD 70, the Jewish sacrificial cult was replaced by other activities; among present-day Samaritans, however, the paschal lamb is still sacrificed at the time of the Passover. In the New Testament, the symbolization of Jesus by the sacrificial lamb is frequent. In the ancient liturgies, the Eucharist is regarded as a real continuation of this sacrifice of Calvary; hence Roman Catholics call the Mass "the holy sacrifice."

Other ancient cultures of the Middle East, Asia, and Europe also had religions with sacrificial rituals. Perhaps the most fully developed was that of the Vedic religion in India, as worked out in great detail in the Brahmanic texts (see Hinduism). The Maya and the Aztec developed a particularly bloody and elaborate ritual of human sacrifice. Human sacrifice in simpler forms (e.g., cannibalism, head-hunting, killing of prisoners) has also been widespread. The practice of human sacrifice is rare in recent years, although survivals do exist in some parts of the world, and even animal sacrifice has become widely reviled. In the United States, practitioners of Afro-Caribbean religions such as voodoo and Santería have been subject to law enforcement restrictions on animal sacrifice, but in 1993 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it was a constitutionally protected practice as a religious rite.


See R. J. Daly, Christian Sacrifice (1978); H. Hubert and M. Mauss, Sacrifice (tr. 1964, repr. 1981); M. I. Siddiqui, Animal Sacrifice in Islam (1981); W. Burkert, Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth (1983); U. M. Vesci, Heat and Sacrifice in the Vedas (1986); N. Davies, Human Sacrifice in History and Today (1988); P. Tierney, The Highest Altar: The Story of Human Sacrifice (1989).

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sacrifice The Greek myth of the origin of sacrifice links it with the aftermath of Prometheus' attempt to trick Zeus by dividing the meat of an ox into two packages and trying to persuade Zeus to pick the one that had the tempting exterior, but that contained only the bones of the beast. In animal sacrifice, it was to be these bones which were burned on the altar as the divine share: the human sacrificers and onlookers then divided out the meat according to their degree of participation in the ritual. In the classical world, animal sacrifice was a daily necessity, reminding people of a lost past in which they had once shared food with the gods, but simultaneously acting to keep up communication between the human and the divine worlds. The Christian innovation of the ‘one, true, pure, immortal sacrifice’ of the son of God thus built on classical notions of the necessity of sacrifice, but also completely overthrew them by its insistence that no further animal sacrifices were necessary.

Not all sacrifice takes the form of animal sacrifice. Bloodless offerings of cakes, fruit, and bread were also common in antiquity. In all sacrifices fire was used to consume the parts which were being dedicated to the gods; a holocaust is a sacrifice in which the chosen offering is entirely consumed by the flames.

In the late nineteenth century, scholars of religion and sociologists tried to find a general theory of sacrifice. In his Lectures on the Religion of the Semites (1894), W. Robertson Smith proposed that totemism was the basic form of sacrifice, in which the clan shed the blood of its totem animal, then consumed it in a communal meal. The great French sociologist Émile Durkheim went further, arguing that sacrifice not only bonded the members of a social group, but acted to make the group aware of its common identity and thus, in a sense, to create the group. The anthropologist René Girard saw sacrificial violence as the basis of human culture; the classical scholar Walter Burkert links it to man the hunter who, by hedging around the slaughter of animals with the observation of strict ritual practices, attempted to allay his unease about whether the animal kingdom permitted him to take the lives of its members.

The problem with all such ‘grand theories’ of sacrifice is that they cannot always take account of individual societies' different myths and practices. However, a comparative approach can be illuminating; for example, the Greek myth of the Bouphonia (Ox-slaying) suggests that the beast to be sacrificed must agree to its role, and the story of the sacrifice of Christ also makes much of the need for the sacrificial victim to be aware of his role and willing to take it on. In classical Greek sacrificial ritual, the ox was even supposed to nod its head in consent, although this was often achieved by sprinkling water on its head to make it shiver.

Human sacrifice, like cannibalism, tends to be an accusation levelled by a society against its most feared enemies, or a marginal group within it. The Romans accused the Carthaginians of sacrificing children; Christian communities from the Roman Empire onwards have accused Jewish communities of it, while Roman pagans accused the Christians of exactly the same offence. But, as the ultimate victims, human beings make perfect sense in extremis. In the biblical story, when God tested Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his only son Isaac, the command did not seem unreasonable, and the last-minute substitution of a ram became evidence that ‘The Lord will provide’. In myth and drama, the Greek leader Agamemnon thought his daughter Iphigenia was an appropriate sacrifice to ensure a good wind for the fleet sailing to Troy; in many versions of the myth, the goddess Artemis substituted an animal for Iphigenia. In ancient Rome, the burial alive of two Gauls and two Greeks was performed when the city was believed to be in serious danger.

Helen King

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sac·ri·fice / ˈsakrəˌfīs/ • n. an act of slaughtering an animal or person or surrendering a possession as an offering to God or to a divine or supernatural figure: they offer sacrifices to the spirits. ∎  an animal, person, or object offered in this way. ∎  an act of giving up something valued for the sake of something else regarded as more important or worthy: we must all be prepared to make sacrifices. ∎ Christian Church Christ's offering of himself in the Crucifixion. ∎ Christian Church the Eucharist regarded either (in Catholic terms) as a propitiatory offering of the body and blood of Christ or (in Protestant terms) as an act of thanksgiving. ∎  Chess a move intended to allow the opponent to win a pawn or piece, for strategic or tactical reasons. ∎  (also sac·ri·fice bunt or sac·ri·fice hit) Baseball a bunted ball that puts the batter out but allows a base runner or runners to advance. ∎  (also sac·ri·fice bid) Bridge a bid made in the belief that it will be less costly to be defeated in the contract than to allow the opponents to make a contract. • v. [tr.] offer or kill as a religious sacrifice: the goat was sacrificed at the shrine. ∎  give up (something important or valued) for the sake of other considerations: working hard doesn't mean sacrificing your social life. ∎  Chess deliberately allow one's opponent to win (a pawn or piece). ∎  Baseball advance (a base runner) by a sacrifice. ∎  [intr.] Bridge make a sacrifice bid.

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571. Sacrifice (See also Martyrdom, Self-Sacrifice.)

  1. Adrammelech and Anammelech Sepharvaite gods to whom children were immolated. [O.T.: II Kings 17:31]
  2. Akedah biblical account of God commanding Abrahams offerings. [Jewish Hist.: Wigoder, 17]
  3. Burghers of Calais they sacrificed themselves to save city from British siege after Battle of Crécy (1346). [Fr. Hist.: EB, II: 447]
  4. Idomeneus Cretan king sacrifices his son to fulfill a vow. [Gk. Myth.: Benét, 492]
  5. Iphigenia slain to appease Artemis wrath. [Gk. Myth.: Walsh Classical, 156]
  6. Moloch god to whom idolatrous Israelites immolated children. [O.T.: II Kings 23:10; Jeremiah 7:3132, 32:35]
  7. Moriah site intended for Abrahams offering up of Isaac. [O.T.: Genesis 22:2]
  8. Norma priestess betrays her vows and sacrifices herself in atonement. [Ital. Opera: Bellini Norma in Benét, 720]
  9. Tophet site of propitiatory immolations to god, Moloch. [O.T.: II Kings 23:10; Jeremiah 7:3132]
  10. suttee former practice of self-immolation by widow on husbands pyre. [Hinduism: Brewer Dictionary, 1049]