l'ilui nishmat R' Avraham ben Yona Ya'akov
“He called (Vayikra) to Moshe” (1; 1)
The Ba’al HaTurim on this verse explains that the letter aleph of Vayikra is small so that it will look like the word vayikar (happened). Moshe wanted to have the language of happenstance which shows that G-d just came incidentally to the prophet, like it says regarding Bilam (Bamidbar 23; 4) “G-d happened (vayikar) upon Bilam”. Therefore Moshe asked G-d to write a small aleph in the Torah.
This is a very difficult comment of the Ba’al HaTurim. We find many times that the word Vayikra is used regarding Moshe. For example in Yitro (Shemot 19; 3), Mishpatim (Shemot 24; 16). In addition, why would Moshe want to be similar to Bilam in this regard? Especially as the Sages learn the word vayikar to imply many disgusting things – look at Rashi there, and the Zohar parshat Balak page 210b.
However we can explain the hint of the small aleph according to a comment of the Shach on Yoreh Deah 245; 8 in the name of the Kol Bo. He writes in the name of ‘the Rabbis said’ that we begin teaching children from Vayikra, because G-d has said, let the pure children come and learn the section that deals with purity. Perhaps it is to this that the small aleph alludes (to the small children learning (aleph means to learn).
The Shach and the Kol Bo didn’t bring the source for this custom. We should point out where it comes from. It says in the Midrash Tanchuma on parshat Tzav (14): Rabbi Asia said, why do the children begin learning from Vayikra? Because all the sacrifices are written in it. Since they are pure and don’t know the taste of sin, therefore G-d said that they should begin learning the section that deals with sacrifices. Let the pure ones come and involve themselves with the process of purification (through sacrifices) and I will consider it as if they were standing and offering the sacrifices before Me. This teaches you that since the destruction of the Temple when we have no more sacrifices (which keep the world in existence), if it were not for the children learning the parshiot of sacrifices the world would not be able to exist.
It is therefore correct that the Shach brought this statement in the name of the Kol Bo in the name of ‘the Rabbis said’, since it is in fact from Rabbi Tanchuma the author of that Midrash. He was one of the great Amoraim mentioned many times in both the Yerushalmi and the Midrash Rabba.
Look also regarding this at the Zohar on parshat Vayechi (234b) and on parshat Tzav (239a) on the verse “This is the Torah of the Olah, the Mincha and the Chatat” (7; 37).
Regarding this custom of beginning to teach the children from Vayikra the Shach writes that this is still the custom today (and he lived t the beginning of the 17th century). However, nowadays, we have lost this custom, along with so many of the ancient and beautiful customs of earlier generations, and they shall never be heard of or seen again.
“When a person from you will bring a sacrifice” (1; 2)
The idea of sacrifices, their reasons and their purpose, seems on a surface level very difficult for us to grasp and understand. On the whole topic of sacrifices the Rambam gives an explanation in the third section of Moreh Nevuchim (Guide for the Perplexed) in chapter 3. In summary he understands that the sacrificial rites were because it was difficult for the Israelites to abandon the customs of the surrounding nations which they had been living with for hundreds of years. These nations all offered all kinds of sacrifices to their gods, therefore G-d commanded us with ‘kosher’ sacrifices that would be acceptable to Him in order to wean us from them. This idea of the Rambam’s seems similar to an idea presented in the Talmud (Temura 27a): If there is a permitted way of doing something a person won’t choose to do it in a forbidden way. They would prefer the holy and proper way of doing it.
The Ramban in Parshat Bereishit (4; 3-4) attacks the Rambam. He writes: this will shut the mouth of those who are very confused about the purpose of sacrifices. By ‘confused’ he means this Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim, since he was the first of the commentaries to speak about this issue in this way (apart from that hint in the Talmud). The reason that the Ramban objects to Rambam’s understanding is simple. In the times of Cain and Abel there were no other people in the world (apart from Adam and Eve), yet they offered sacrifices which were pleasing to G-d. Therefore the idea that sacrifices are a response to the idolatry of the nations doesn’t make sense.
Furthermore the Talmud in Shabbat (28b) says that Adam also brought a sacrifice when he was the only person in world.
Even though this appears to be a very strong attack, but in reality it is not a valid challenge at all. We will explain this shortly. Now we will just point out that this is not a claim against Rambam, since he wasn’t the one who invented this idea. Rather it is explicit in the Midrash Rabba on Acharei Mot on the verse “each man that will slaughter an animal” (17; 3):
Each person from the house of Israel who will slaughter an ox, sheep or goat within the camp, or outside the camp and not bring it to the Ohel Moed as a sacrifice in the Mishkan, it will be considered like murder for that person. Rabbi Pinchas said in the name of Rabbi Levi by way of analogy: this is like a prince who became very disgusting and would eat meat that was diseased or decaying. The king said, ‘if only he would eat at my royal table regularly he would become repulsed by those foods’. So too with Israel, who were desperate to chase after idols while they were in Egypt, and they used to offer sacrifices to the demons and other forbidden things. This led them to suffer all kinds of punishments. G-d said, ‘if only they would bring sacrifices to my Ohel Moed they would be separated from idolatry and be saved from punishment.
It couldn’t be more clear that the words of the Rambam are simply the ideas of this Midrash. It is unfortunate that the Rambam didn’t bring his source for this, which would have saved him from so much criticism and so many attacks.
The Midrash is similar to the words of the Mechilta (although there it is abbreviated) on the verse “Draw and take for yourselves a sheep and offer the Pesach sacrifice” (Shemot 12; 21). What does it mean ‘to draw’? Withdraw from your idolatry (i.e. from sacrificing to idols) and offer the Pesach sacrifice to G-d.
Even more than this, the basic idea of the Rambam is in the Torah itself in Parshat Acharei Mot. After it finishes discussing the obligation to bring sacrifices to the Ohel Moed it states: “You shall bring them there so that ou shall no longer offer sacrifices to the demons which you lust after”. What could be more explicit than that?
It is also clear from the Talmud (Temura) on the verse in Pinchas “Be careful to offer my sacrifice, my food” – to me and not to any other master. These few words contain the same deep and long idea of the Rambam.
Therefore it is unfortunate that the Ramban chose to use this idea as a stick with which to beat the Rambam. It is an idea which is explicit in the Torah, Talmud, Midrash and Mechilta. If he has a difficulty with this idea he should have tried to explain the text of the Chumash to answer his difficulty rather than dishonouring the Rambam.
Regarding the Ramban’s challenge from the sacrifices of Cain and Abel (and Adam) we have already said that it is ‘apparently’ a difficulty. The word ‘apparently’ was intentional because the truth is that there is no difficulty at all. The desire for idolatry was from the time of creation. We can perhaps explain the reason and basis for this desire. Originally the relationship between G-d and people was so close and apparent that it was almost like the relationship between two people. People would speak with G-d almost like with close friends and near acquaintances, like we find many times in the book of Bereishit, and like G-d spoke later with Moshe. The verse states “G-d spoke with Moshe face to face like a person speaks with his friend” (Ki Tissa). Because of this closeness they held the mistaken idea that it was possible to honour and give gifts to G-d through physical offerings. They thought that sacrifices was in some way giving glory to G-d.
After the later generations started worshipping idols they retained their earlier custom of offering sacrifices, and added many more kinds of sacrifices, details and rituals, as is normal when you have many people with false ideas. This concept reached Egypt and the Israelites became infected with this idea because of their intermingling with the Egyptians. They learnt from their hosts about sacrificing to idols and statues. Therefore now, in the desert, they were commanded to separate from them. Since it was difficult for them to separate from what had been their custom for centuries, therefore G-d gave them a way of transforming this idea into a holy one, as explained above.
G-d should forgive the Ramban for his attack on the Rambam.