Thursday, March 17, 2016

Ramban vs Rambam on the ta'am hamitzvah of korbanos; Chasam Sofer on what Shaul got wrong

What was the hava amina of Shaul in thinking that he did not have to finish the job with Amalek? Why did he think keeping the animals around for korbanos was a good enough excuse to ignore Shmuel's command to kill them? (There are a few posts from the previous years on this sugya as well.)  We're going to take a little detour to discuss the sugya of korbanos that our parsha of VaYikra is all about and then come back and see how the Chasam Sofer uses that as a springboard to understand Shaul's thinking and Shmuel's criticism of his actions.

There is a fundamental machlokes between Rambam and Ramban as to the ta’am hamitzvah of korbanos. Rambam writes that the dictionary definition of "worship" in the pagan world meant bringing an offering to the gods. The Jewish people did not live in a vacuum; they lived surrounded by these pagan societies from their first day as a nation.  It would have been impossible for them to give up that up form of worship cold turkey and do something else. Therefore, as a concession to circumstance, until they could be weaned off that behavior, G-d allowed Klal Yisrael serve him by bringing korbanos.  The korbanos served a utilitarian needed -- if not for korbanos,  there would have been too great a temptation to continue serving avodah zarah in order to worship just like everyone else.

Ramban disagrees and writes that the purpose of korbanos is to being a person closer to Hashem, not just as a bulwark against idolatry.  Adam haRishon brought a korban (according to Chazal), Kayin and Hevel brought korbanos, Noach brought a korban – there was no avodah zarah in their time. Why were they serving Hashem by bringing offerings? It must be, says Ramban, that korbanos have intrinsic value in their own right; they are a l’chatchila, not just a b’dieved concession.

(Meshech Chochma tries to answer this question and split the difference by distinguishing between korbanos brought on a bamah, that are just a concession to avodah zarah worship, and korbanos brought in the Mikdash, which were for the sake of coming closer to Hashem.   I don't understand how this sevara explains the Rambam, as the korbanos of Noach, Hevel, and the Avos were all bamah offerings, not offerings in the mikdash.)

Does the Mishkan exist for the sake of bringing korbanos, or are bringing korbanos part of what makes the Mishkan into a place of worship? Rambam opens Hil Beis HaBechira by telling us that the mitzvah to build a mikdash is to create a place “muchan l’hakriv bo korbanos,” i.e. the Mishkan is needed for korbanos, but Ramban writes that korbanos are needed as a means to kaparah so that the Shechinah can rest in the Mishkan, i.e. korbanos are needed for the Mishkan (
see post here). Perhaps this machlokes is l’shitasam. According to Rambam, korbanos are a bulwark against idolatry; they have nothing to do with hashra’as haShechina. According to Ramban, they share the same goal as Mishkan in enabling us to come closer to Hashem.

In light of this Rambam I think we can better understand a gemara in Megillah (12b).  The gemara reads the pasuk, “V’hakarov eilav Karshina Sheisar Admasa… sarei Paras u’Madai” (Esther 1:14) as referring to korbanos. Chazal darshen that “Karshina” is a reminder of the karim b’nei shanah, “Sheisar” is a reminder of the shtei torim, etc. The angels were asking Hashem to remember all those korbanos that Klal Yisrael used to bring. Why davka is it the zechus of korbanos that the angels evoked?  The gemara elsewhere criticizes Klal Yisrael for the mistake enjoying the lavish meal of Achashveirosh -- they got too caught up in the secular society around them (more on this sugya bl”n next week).  I think this is why the angels brought up the topic of korbanos.  According to the Rambam, the whole point of korbanos is to act as a bulwark against the temptation of avodah zarah. Who needs their offerings when we have our own?  Who needs to join in their culture when we have our own equivalent that is just as good?  The angels said to Hashem, “Don’t blame Klal Yisrael if they fell prey to outside culture. Remember when they used to have korbanos to protect them against that danger? Now they don’t have that protection, so what do you expect?” (See Maharal in Ohr Chadash for a different hesber.)

V’arvah laHashem minchas Yehudah v’Yerushalayim k’ymei olam ukshanim kadmaniyos.”  The gemara in Megillah says that the term "yehudi" is applied to anyone who rejects avodah zarah; there is no attraction to idolatry for a yehudi.  We pray, says the Chasam Sofer, that the korbanos of Yehudah (=yehudi) and the tzadikim of Yerushalayim should be like the korbanos of Adam, Noach, and the Avos, “k’shanim kadmaniyos,” like korbanos of old, offered purely l’shem shamayim to come close to Hashem, not just as a curb against idolatry, which they utterly reject.

Now we can come back to Shaul's error and Shmuel's response.  In classic Chasam Sofer fashion, he reads this whole machlokes Rambam/Ramban into the navi.  Shaul haMelech held like the Rambam. He thought the whole point of getting rid of Amalek was (as even Ramban writes with respect to the 7 Canaanite nations) to avoid the attraction of their culture. Therefore, Shaul reasoned that if he uses the animals as korbanos, which act as a bulwark against the temptation of avodah zarah, there is no longer a need to destroy them.

Shmuel responded, “Hachafeitz Hashem b’olos k’shmoa b’kol Hashem.” The purpose of korbanos is not just to avoid the temptation of avodah zarah – the purpose is to come closer to Hashem, to listen to the voice of Hashem, like the Rambam writes. “Ki chatas kesem – meri…” To think of the chatas just as a bulwark against avodah zarah (=kesem), that itself is an act of rebellion against Hashem. Therefore, since “ma’asta es dvar Hashem” by seeing the korbanos as just a means to an end and failing to recognize their intrinsic value, “va’yimascha m’melech,”  Hashem rejected the value of Shaul as king.


  1. The Meshech Chochma's point, it seems, is that a bamas yochid when there is a place of greater kedusha is indeed a concession to avodah zarah. If a person's intent was pure closeness to HaShem, the proper place would be at the place of greatest presence of the Shechina. The avoidance of that closeness is inherently slight avodah zarah.

    OTOH, the examples you gave of the Avos, etc., involved no concept of distance or avoidance. On the contrary, the focus was to bring the Shechina to the bamah. Consider what would have happened if, e.g. according to the Seforno, there had been no Mishkan in the midbar. In that case, a bamah would have had no taint of A"Z.

    And saying that thinking a chatas is just a bulwark again A"Z is itself an act of rebellion against HaShem is a rather strong indictment of the Rambam according the naive understanding of his shitta.

  2. Thank you for zeroing in on what Shaul was thinking. It always bothered me that he
    did not follow instructions and lost his rulership.

  3. Have a look in the Rambam Beis Habechira 2,2.

    We have a kabolo that the korbon of Odom, Noach, Kayin and Hevel were all in the beis hamikdosh. Beautiful according to the meshech chochmoh - they wanted a beis hamikdosh type korbon, no need for a bomo type korbon. Why else would noach travel from Har Ararato the mokom hamikdosh?

    1. That should be mokom hamikdosh, not beish hamikdosh.....