Maimonides on Korbanot: Alien Import, or Mesorah?

Rabbi Pinny Rosenthal

National Director of Development

Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus


Maimonides’ position on Korbanot [Temple sacrificial system] is contentious. Michael Friedländer, author of the first English translation of the Guide to the Perplexed [1881], records that the Bodleian Manuscript [2240, 3a], contains a document signed by Josselman and other Rabbis, declaring that they accept the teaching of Maimonides as correct, with the exception of his theory about angels and sacrifices. Nachmanides, in his commentary on the Chumash, criticizes Maimonides position harshly. Nachmanides writes, “And behold, these words are worthless, they make a big breach, raise big questions, and they make the Table of God polluted.” [Nachmanides, Commentary of the Torah 1:9] 

In modern times, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his famous 1836 book, The Nineteen Letters, blames Maimonides approach for fueling the fires of the Reform movement, by allowing them to claim that the Torah sacrificial system, 

“was mainly designed as a protest against the polytheistic sacrificial usages then prevailing; how absurd it is, to fill three or four folios with investigations concerning the manner of offering sacrifice, the part which might be used, the persons who might officiate, and the permissible times! Do you not see, that all this is only mind-destroying priest-craft?” [Letter 18]

What is Maimonides controversial position on Korbanot?

In the Guide to the Perplexed, [3:32], Maimonides explains that the commandments of God, like processes of Nature, take a developmental path. A baby animal first nurses from her mother’s milk and slowly adapts to independently eating solid foods. Similarly, when the Jewish people were liberated from Egypt and charged to be a “Kingdom of Priest and Holy Nation,” through a knowledge of God they were unable to go from Egyptian idolatry to a refined intellectual monotheistic divine service. As Maimonides states, 

“…the custom which was in those days general among all men, and the general mode of worship in which the Israelites were brought up, consisted in sacrificing animals in those temples which contained certain images, to bow down to those images, and to burn incense before them…. It was in accordance with the wisdom and plan of God, as displayed in the whole Creation, that He did not command us to give up and to discontinue all these manners of service; for to obey such a commandment it would have been contrary to the nature of man, who generally cleaves to that to which he is used;….. For this reason God allowed these kinds of service to continue; He transferred to His service that which had formerly served as a worship of created beings, and of things imaginary and unreal, and commanded us to serve Him in the same manner….” [Guide 3:32]

For many years, I believed, that Maimonides position on Korbanot was his own. This year, my chavrutah, Rabbi Yoni Sacks, showed me Rabbi Yosef Kapach’s edition of his translation of The Guide to The Perplexed, where he cites a midrashic source for Maimonides position on Korbanot. The midrash in Vayikrah Rabbah [22:8] states as follows:

 “Rabbi Pinchas in the name of Rabbi Levi stated: This is comparable to a king’s son who strayed and was accustomed to eat non-kosher meat. The king declared, “let him always eat at my table and on his own he will eventually become disciplined.” Similarly, because Israel was attached to idolatry in Egypt and would bring their sacrifices to the goat-demons, as it is written (Leviticus 17:7) "No longer shall you sacrifice to goat-demons,” which refer to the shedim they sacrificed to (Deuteronomy 32:17) "and they sacrificed to shedim", and those shedim refer to the goat-demons, as it says, (Isaiah 13:21) "and the goat [demons] shall prance there." And they would offer sacrifices on high places and retribution would befall them, the Holy One blessed be He said, “let them offer sacrifices before Me at all times in the Tent of Meeting and they will be separated from idolatry and be saved.” This is the meaning of what is written (Leviticus 17:3-7): “Any man of the House of Israel who slaughters an ox or sheep or goat... and does not bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting as a sacrifice to God.... that man will be cut off from among his people… so that they no longer offer their sacrifices to the goat-demons that they are wont to stray after."

This midrash, written by the rabbis of the Talmud, strengthens the Maimonidean idea that Korbanot were instituted by God to help remove the Jewish people from their deep idolatrous roots.  Maimonides was not engaged in a some “new” contextualizing of the laws of the Torah, but was rather expanding on well-established ideas of the Tradition.