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Mesechet Zevachim: Intent and Sacrifices

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on March 18, 2011)
Topics: Kodshim, Machshava/Jewish Thought, Mitzvot, Talmud, Zevachim

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One of the major themes of Zevachim – and the one that opens mesekhet Menachot as well- is that of intent.  The concepts of shelo li’shma, intending the wrong sacrifice, and pigul, intending to eat it at the wrong time, factor very heavily throughout the mesekhet.  Now, when we look at the verses this is quite surprising, since neither of these concepts is clearly present in the Torah.  The verses that deal with pigul, which appear in Vayikra 7:18, and also 19:7-8 are, at the pshat level, referring to eating notar, the korban meat after its time:

But the remainder of the meat of the sacrifice on the third day shall be burned with fire.  And if any of the meat of the sacrifice of his peace offerings is eaten at all on the third day, it shall not be accepted, nor shall it be credited to him who offers it; it shall be an abomination, pigul, and the soul who eats of it shall bear his iniquity.
(Vayikra 7:17-18).
According to Hazal, however, these verses refer to thinking about eating the meat at the wrong time, not actually doing so.  Intent is equivalent to action.
The same emphasis on kavanah, intent, is present in the case of shelo lishma.  The Torah is replete with requirements for the rituals of bringing korbanot, exactly where it is to be slaughtered, what is to be offered, how the blood is put on the altar, how one sacrifice differs from another, and so on.  What is never explicit in the Torah, however, is the need to have proper intent.  The derivations in the Gemara to show that this requirement exists (see Zevachim 4a and 7a) are certainly not pshat of the verses.  Nevertheless, once we have this requirement, its impact is huge.  If a Kohen has the wrong intent, then minimally this prevents the owner from fulfilling his or her obligation, and in the worst cases can fully invalidate the korban.
In contrast, the consequence of doing the rituals incorrectly is not nearly as severe.   Failure to do many of the rituals – not placing the blood on all the corners, not burning the entrails, not doing the tnufah, the waving, not doing the vidduy, the verbal confession, not eating the meat  – does not invalidate the korban and does not even prevent the owner from fulfilling his or her obligation.  In fact, we have a very unusual  hermeneutic principle by kodshim – we require shana alav ha’katuv li’akev –  that the verse repeat a requirement (or use a word such as “chukah”) in order for the requirement to be deemed necessary for the validity of the act.   This is never the case by non-kodshim mitzvot.  Normally, we assume that every detail that the  Torah mentions is required for the fulfillment of a mitzvah.  But with sacrifices this is not the case: we assume that the details are not necessary unless the Torah explicitly teaches us that they are.  That is, except for intent.  This detail, learned from a drasha and not from  an explicit verse, is assumed to impact the validity of the korban when not done properly, and a verse  is actually needed to teach that lacking it does not fully invalidate the korban (Zevachim 4b, and Tosafot, s.v. Aima).
The prioritizing of intent can also be seen by the amount of  mesekhet Zevachim that is devoted to issues of intent, in contradistinction to the amount of the mesekhet that is devoted to the details of the actions.   Considering that the Torah devotes all of its verses to the details of the rituals, this disproportionate treatment certainly stands out.
What is to be learned from the strong emphasis on intent, over and above that of action?  I believe that by internalizing the ritual of korban, Chazal are to a certain extent addressing the critique of the prophets:
… But to this man will I look, to him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembles at my word.  He who kills an ox is as if he slew a man; he who sacrifices a lamb, as if he cut off a dog’s neck; he who offers a meal offering, as if he offered swine’s blood; he who burns incense, as if he blessed an idol. For they have chosen their own ways, and their soul delights in their abominations.  (Isaiah 66:2-3)
What good are sacrifices if they do not lead to any internal transformation?  If a person does not become closer to God, does not improve his deeds, then the sacrifices are worthless.  As when Shmuel criticizes King Shaul for not destroying the flock of Amalek:
“But the people took of the booty, sheep and oxen, the best of the devoted property to sacrifice to the Lord your God in Gilgal,” [said Saul].
And Samuel said, Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen better than the fat of rams.  (Shmuel I, 15:21-22)
Where is the answer to these questions in all of tractate Zevachim?  I believe that the emphasis on intent, and its greater weight than the actions themselves, is Chazal’s answer to this question.  If intent matters so much, and so much more than action, then one will not be led astray to believe that bringing sacrifices and doing the rituals is all there is to drawing close to God.  The sacrifices are not magic, and they do not have an automatic theurgic effect on God.  They are a part of drawing close, and because the issue is drawing close, intent is key.
Consider what Chazal say regarding the mincha: אחד המרבה ואחד הממעיט ובלבד שיכוין לבו לשמים – whether one does a little (i.e., brings a mincha) or one does a lot (i.e., brings an animal sacrifice), what matters most is that one’s intent is to heaven (Menachot 110a).  That is – what is the key about sacrifices is the intent, and not the sacrifice itself!
In a way, what we have here is the internalization of the rituals of the korbanot – the focusing on the inner experience is the first step in transitioning from a world of korbanot to a world of tfillah.  And tfillah is defined by halakha as avoda she’b’lev – service of the heart.  This definition is so far reaching that poskim even wonder if one could fulfill his or her obligation to pray merely by thinking the words, since at its core this is a mitzvah of intent!
Now, although she’lo lishmo is a major concern by sacrifices, there is one place where it is not a concern at all – the learning of Torah and the doing of mitzvot:
Said Rav Yehudah in the name of Rav: “A person should always involve himself in the learning of Torah and the doing of mitzvot, even shelo li’shma, even for the wrong reason, because out of doing it for the wrong reason, one will come to do it for the right reason.”  (Pesachim 50b)
Torah and mitzvot are transformative in a way that sacrifices are not.  With sacrifices, the act in itself does not have significance, and, without the right intent, it can even be a source of leading a person into a false perception of his own religiosity.  Sacrifices need the proper intent to be valid.  Not so Torah and mitzvot.  These acts are not mere rituals.  The intellectual-religious engagement that comes through the learning of Torah, and the performance of mitzvot which evoke religious and moral values, are transformative even if done for the wrong reason.  Through doing these powerful acts, one will achieve even the right intent, and they will become fully religious acts, and bring about a strong, deep connection to God.