The Torah portion, or parasha, this week is called Vayikra which is also the name of the third book of Torah commonly known as Leviticus. Leviticus is often called “Torat Kohanim“, literally “teaching of priests”, and begins with verses 1:1-5:26. The parasha focuses on the various kinds of sacrifices or offerings:
The first category of offerings, is the olah, the burnt offering, which was given when someone neglected to do a mitzvah. The olah was offered in its entirety upon the altar, with no special benefit going to the person who brought it. Offerings, which were to be brought from the herd or the flock, had to be a male without blemish. Similarly, it could have been a bird – a turtledove or a pigeon. Grain could also be offered as a sacrifice. Perhaps the idea behind this variety of offerings is that sacrifices were not just for the rich; people of all financial levels had access to the Temple service.
The second category of sacrifices is the shelamim, from the word shalem or wholeness. This is usually translated “offering of well-being,” and can be brought from the male or the female of the flock. Some parts of the animal were offered up to God by the priests and other parts were eaten. Blood and certain fats could not be eaten, however; sacrifice-based laws still remain in effect today for foods that Jews do not eat.
The third category of offering is the chatat or sin offering, for sins committed accidentally or unknowingly. Various types of offerings are available if a priest sinned, or the leader of a community, a chieftain or an individual Jew had sinned. Various other sins and guilt offerings are mentioned, in particular, the sin of a witness who withholds information.
There are a couple of things we can learn from this passage. First, a variety of options were available for different types of sacrifices so that anyone, regardless of economic circumstances, could participate and worship God. God only requires people to give from what they have, and their gift does not need to be compared to others. Second, the Hebrew word for “sacrifice” is korban, which means to “get close”. If we want to get close to another person or to God, there is some level of sacrifice we make to have that happen. They may be sacrifices of time, money, or personal resources, and these will vary depending on who we make sacrifices for.