Where Do You Sacrifice the Animals?

This model of 1st c. Jerusalem, complete with Temple (in the foreground) stands at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
This model of 1st c. Jerusalem, complete with Temple (in the foreground) stands at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

“Rabbi, can we see where you sacrifice the animals?”

A group from a local Christian church was touring the synagogue. I explained that we don’t sacrifice animals anymore. We haven’t sacrificed animals since the destruction of Herod’s Temple in year 70 of the common era. Our rules said we could only do that in the Temple in Jerusalem, so once that building was gone, we had to find a new way to stay connected with the Divine.

I don’t think he believed me, but it is the truth.

In a Reform synagogue, not only do we not sacrifice animals, we are no longer hoping to rebuild the Temple. We agree with Maimonides, who wrote in about 1190 in The Guide for the Perplexed that what God wanted from us was prayer, not sacrifices. The sacrifices had been instituted, he wrote, because we saw other people in the ancient world making sacrifices to their gods, and so God gave us a limited program of sacrifice: only certain animals, and only in one place. That program was meant to move us towards prayer as worship. Maimonides never wrote “so don’t bother to rebuild the Temple” but that became the position of the Reform Jews of the 19th century.

Instead of the sacrifices in the Temple, Jews say a prayer every day at the times appointed for the sacrifices. That prayer, often called “the Amidah” [standing prayer] is a series of short blessings said without a pause or interruption. Rather like the pyre on the altar that they replace, these prayers are layered one upon another in a particular prescribed order. For Orthodox Jews, the Amidah includes a prayer for rebuilding the temple, but in the Reform version, that prayer becomes a prayer that God will “pour out Your spirit” upon us, instead.

There are some people so interested in rebuilding the Temple that they have built elaborate models of it, and others who are trying to develop a red heifer so that the new Temple could be properly purified.

I think there are enough mitzvot that need doing in the world without rebuilding the Temple. I am reminded of the words of the Prophet Hosea, and other prophets as well:

For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings. – Hosea 6:6

The Temple was one of the wonders of the world in its time. Today, that space is occupied by someone else’s house of worship since the year 703. Meanwhile, Jews have moved on to a new, more portable form of worship, the layered daily Amidah, and the shorter Amidah for Shabbat. Personally, I’m glad.

What about you? Would you like to see the Temple rebuilt? Why or why not?

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at http://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

10 thoughts on “Where Do You Sacrifice the Animals?”

  1. I love how we have moved on from the Biblical days of sacrificing animals. How grand the Temple in Jerusalem must have been! I love seeing the model, but seriously, I do not want to see it rebuilt. Rebuilding the ancient Temple would be an indescribable leap backwards! In our times, the building of great large synagogues is something of a problem for me. As the buildings become more architecturally important and the membership becomes large, the struggle to create community and to have an enriched congregational life, including a focus of prayer (in word and deed) versus sacrifice (dues and fundraising?) becomes more challenging.

    1. It’s the same for any house of worship, I think. Like those mega-churches that are always fundraising and putting on high-tech shows and going on cable TV asking for money. The building and the prestige becomes more important than the prayer and fellowship.

      You can’t know a fraction of everyone in a megachurch or mega-synagogue. Sure, you’ve got an impressive building and everyone’s heard of your congregation, but can you talk to the preacher/rabbi without an appointment? Will the ladies’ auxiliary be bringing casseroles from people who actually know and care about your problems? Etc.

    2. Buildings can be a burden. My own community resides in a historically significant structure. It is expensive to maintain even though it is very beautiful.

      I have served communities that had no building, that rented rooms for worship. That’s a different set of problems.

      We have to strike a balance between a building that serves the community and a community that spends too much of its energy and resources maintaining a building!

  2. Your post reminded me of studying the building of the temple by David, and the Lord’s response. He was content with being in the tent, at the center of his people, available to them for worship and prayer and forgiveness. The miskan is a beautiful place! A place of community.

    Thank you for sharing!

  3. I have also always thought that the sacrifice of animals was a temporary “bridge” for us as we evolved and got better at prayer and worship. Plus restricting the sacrifices to certain animals prevented what some offerings escalated to in other faith systems, which was the sacrifice of children or women as offerings to their god or gods. I’m glad to know my beliefs line up with those in the Reform system!

  4. It makes sense that things have changed. The Jews were originally a few small illiterate tribes in the desert, and now they’re a world-wide cosmopolitan educated people. God led them from icky blood sacrifices (and as Diane says, there were human sacrifices back then too!) to the pureness of prayer. Becoming more elevated. There are a lot of things we all did 2000 years ago that we don’t do any more, like accept slavery. If something’s powerful enough to create the whole universe, it knows us hairless apes need to be taught things in stages. The certain-animal sacrifices were training wheels for the transition to the bicycle of Amidah.

    The people who want to rebuild the Temple are just delusional. You can’t go tearing down the mosque on the site (destroying other people’s houses of worship is another thing we frown upon nowadays). So why worry about whether you’ve got a red heifer and how many cubits long something has to be? It wouldn’t be exactly like the old one, since no one knows what it looked like, and nobody has a clue of what the Holy of Holies part entailed. Would it, in fact, be the Temple, existentially speaking?

    I wouldn’t mind seeing some sort of 3-D virtual reconstruction of the Temple when that technology gets a little better. It would be magnificent, I’m sure.

  5. What’s stunning to me is that the guy who talked with you truly believed that you, & Jews worldwide, sacrifice animals! Sacrifice on a large scale! Where did he think you got these animals?!; from the meat market?! Amazon?!

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