Sanctuary and Sacrifice: Rambam’s View of Korbanot


Earlier this year, writing for The Times of Israel, in an open letter to God, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz claimed that the idea of animal sacrifice is outdated. “Your people,” he writes, addressing Hashem, “must be a light to the nations, not a source of darkness by returning to a practice once deemed honorable but now perceived by the global masses as barbaric.”[i]

Rabbi Yanklowitz further claims that Rambam “taught that prayer was evolution from animal sacrifice and a more silent meditative type of worship will eventually supersede prayer with words.” While I am in no position to comment on whether or not Rabbi Yanklowitz and the global masses really do perceive sacrifice as barbaric, I believe that his claim about Rambam is incorrect. Given the current popularity of this theory, I would like to present my own understanding of the issue.

This article will attempt to prove that Rambam in fact thought that there will be korbanot in Bayit Shelishi. To determine Rambam’s, view I will analyze the relevant material from both The Guide of the Perplexed and the Mishneh Torah. This article is not necessarily meant as a response to Rabbi Yanklowitz in particular, but a general explanation of Rambam’s position as I understand it, in response to the commonly held position that Rambam thought there would not be korbanot in Bayit Shelishi.



Before addressing the topic at hand, some general background to Rambam’s thought is necessary. Rambam famously contended that all mitsvot in the Torah are means to man’s perfection; in particular, they are all “bound up with three things: opinions, moral qualities, and political civic actions.”[ii] Much of the third part of The Guide of the Perplexed, in fact, is dedicated to explaining what “purpose” the various mitsvot have and how they function to achieve these ends. Most famous, perhaps, is Rambam’s position on korbanot; namely, that they are a lesser means of Divine worship and were instituted with the goal of eliminating idolatry. The way that this goal is accomplished is by satisfying the pagan hunger for animal sacrifice: by granting the Jews the opportunity to offer animals within the framework of Judaism, there is no longer a need for them to turn to idolatry, and hence the draw towards idolatry is significantly weakened.

The typical argument runs as follows: given that Rambam posits that the only reasons for korbanot are the abolition of idolatry through redirecting the pagan drive to sacrifice animals towards Hashem and the appeasement of the unenlightened masses, when Bayit Shelishi is built, there will be no sacrifices, as the reasons for sacrifices are no longer applicable. I would like to underscore my impression (bolstered by reading Rabbi Yanklowitz’s article) that those who follow this line of reasoning believe that there will in fact be non-animal sacrifices, i.e. meal offerings in Bayit Shelishi, and it will only be animal sacrifices that will be abolished.

Thus, in order to hold the above position, one must believe the following: (1) The only two functions of korbanot are to redirect a pagan drive to sacrifice animals and to appease the unenlightened masses; (2) These reasons have been rendered irrelevant today; (3) There will therefore not be any animal sacrifices in Bayit Shelishi. I would like to respectfully disagree with all three of these points. For the sake of simplicity, however, I will start with the third and progress backwards.

Due to the complex nature of Rambam’s opinion, I will begin by quoting and paraphrasing relevant sections of The Guide to the Perplexed, starting with the passages which discuss the reasons for korbanot and their intended function. Rambam writes that one of the goals of the Torah is that the Jewish people should dedicate their lives to the service of Hashem:


and at that time the way of life generally accepted and customary in the whole world and the universal service upon which we were brought up consisted in offering various species of living beings in the temples . . .  His wisdom, may He be exalted, and His gracious ruse,[iii] which is manifest in regard to all His creatures, did not require that He give us a Law prescribing the rejection, abandonment, and abolition of all these kinds of worship.[iv]


Rambam makes two points here: first, Hashem thinks of sacrifice and temples as a lower form of worship;[v] second, these forms of worship were only commanded because the Jewish people at that time were so accustomed to such practice, that abolishing it “would have been similar to the appearance of a prophet in these times who, calling upon people to worship God, would say ‘God has given you a Law forbidding you to pray to Him, to fast, to call upon Him for help in misfortune. Your worship should consist solely in meditation without any words at all.’”[vi]

Yet, korbanot did not only serve the function of keeping the unenlightened masses at bay. In this chapter, Rambam adds another function of the korbanot: the abolition of idolatry. This was accomplished by redirecting the pagan practices of sacrifice to the service of Hashem. Thus, in summary, “in anticipation of what the soul is naturally incapable of receiving, [Hashem prescribed] the laws that we have mentioned so that the first intention should be achieved, namely, the apprehension of Him, May He be exalted, and the rejection of idolatry.”[vii]



Can a Mitsvah Cease to Apply?

In claiming that, according to Rambam, there will not be any animal korbanot in Bayit Shelishi, one would need to make three assumptions. Firstly, one must claim that Rambam holds that once the reason for a mitsvah ceases to apply, the mitsvah itself ceases to apply as a result. Secondly, one must assume that whereas the rationale for animal korbanot are no longer applicable, the rationale for having a Temple would be, thus enabling a situation where we would have Bayit Shelishi without animal korbanot. Finally, one must also assume that Rambam would distinguish between animal and non-animal offerings. I would like to take issue with each one of these assumptions.

Before discussing the first assumption, I would like to note that Rambam nowhere states that once the reason for a mitsvah ceases to apply, the mitsvah ceases to apply. I do not mean to imply that by mere dint of the fact that Rambam does not make this statement means he disagrees with it.[viii] I mention this only to demonstrate that the questions remains unresolved and is in need of clarification.

As it happens, a similar question was addressed by the Beit Yosef (R. Yosef Karo).[ix] He claims, firstly and primarily, the mitsvot are “decrees of the Lord”. That is, they are indisputably binding, regardless of our ability to perceive their ta’amim (reasons).[x] Secondly, man can often make mistakes in the areas of reason and rationality. Thus, there may be certain instances where one may not be able to understand the purpose of a mitsvah. This lack of understanding would neither result in an exemption (for these mitsvot are “decrees of the Lord”), nor would it follow that there is indeed no reason for it, for it is quite possible—even probable—that the human endeavor to find rationality in God’s law failed, rather than the law failing to have any rationality.[xi]

Given these claims, I suggest that a ta’am for a mitsvah cannot undermine it altogether. To say otherwise would necessitate that the reason suggested is definitely and unequivocally the reason for the mitsvah. If indeed we assume that if we fail to find a reason for mitsvah, it is due to our own inabilities, then we are saying, in essence, that we cannot assuredly rely our powers to determine the reasons of mitsvot.[xii] Certainly, then, no one—not even Rambam—should be so confident in his understanding of a ta’am as to allow for the total neutralization of a mitsvah. It is important to note that whether or not the Beit Yosef is correct philosophically, he gave a legal understanding of ta’amei hamitsvot, and as the greatest Halakhic authority of the past millennium, his opinion has weight as such. Regardless, I will also attempt to demonstrate that Rambam takes the position of the Beit Yosef regarding a mitsvah’s application being independent of any possible reason.

First, we shall address Rambam’s closing passage in his Hilkhot Me’ilah.[xiii] There, he notes the distinction between hukkim and mishpatim, explaining that the former are those commandments whose reasons and rationales are not as easily understood by man, whereas the latter are those commandments whose benefits are obvious. He writes:


Behold, the Torah says “And you shall guard all of my laws (hukkotai) and keep all of my rules (mishpatai) and you shall do them” (Vayikra 19:37). [The meaning of] “And you shall do them” is known—it means observing the hukkim. The guarding means that you shall not think [the hukkim] less than the mishpatim. The mishpatim are those laws whose reason and benefit of their observance is known, such as the prohibition of theft, murder and honoring one’s father and mother. The hukkim are those commandments whose reasons are not known. The Sages teach that hukkim are those laws [about which Hashem says] “I set for you and you have no permission to be skeptical of them,” even though a man may have some doubts in his heart about them, and the nations of the world attack them [in attempt to undermine their legitimacy]. . .  All of the korbanot are hukkim, and consequently the sages have said that it is even on the service of the korbanot that the world depends. . .


In this passage, Rambam warns against precisely what many advocates of the above position are doing: being skeptical of mitsvot because the nations of the world (“the global masses”) seek to undermine their legitimacy. A stronger formulation comes at the end of Hilkhot Temurah (4:13): “Despite the fact that all of the mitsvot are decrees of the King . . . it is [nonetheless] appropriate to ponder them, and, to the extent that you are able, attempt to prescribe some reason for them.” Finally, with striking similarity to the Beit Yosef’s formulation, Rambam writes in The Guide of the Perplexed that if we were somehow unable to understand the reason for a hok (such as korbanot) it is due to “the incapacity of our intellects or the deficiency of our knowledge.”[xiv]

Clearly, Rambam’s view is that the very institution of ta’amei ha-mitsvot (searching for the reasons of the commandments) is an afterthought to obeying the “decrees of the King”. Primarily, though, one must concentrate one’s powers on fulfilling the mitsvah, rather than its explication. Further, even if one were to rationalize a mitsvah, one cannot be sure that the suggested reason would be definitive.  It certainly and unequivocally follows from these passages that under no circumstances can the reason which man ascribes the mitsvah serve to undermine it.

In summary, in order to maintain there will not be any animal sacrifices in Bayit Shelishi, one must hold that once the rationale for a mitsvah becomes irrelevant, the mitsvah no longer applies. As has been demonstrated, Rambam does not take such a position.


Distinction between the Beit ha-Mikdash and Korbanot

Many who believe that animal sacrifices will not be reinstated still contend that Rambam thought it possible to have a Beit ha-Mikdash without korbanot. However, I would like to demonstrate through an analysis of a previously quoted source that this is in fact not true. First, categorically, one cannot posit that Rambam thinks that there will not be korbanot in Bayit Shelishi, for according to Rambam, the reason for the institution of korbanot - the abolition of idolatry - is the very same reason for the institution of a Beit ha-Mikdash. Thus, by contending that there is no longer a need to abolish idolatry, and thus no reason for korbanot, it necessarily follows that, according to Rambam, there will be no Third Temple either. As we have seen, Rambam wrote that, in Biblical times, the modus operandi of religious worship was “offering various species of living beings in the temples” and Hashem, in His wisdom, “did not require that He give us a Law prescribing the rejection, abandonment, and abolition of all of these kinds of worship.

I would like to underscore that Rambam here draws no distinction between the “gracious ruse” of Hashem’s concession of the Temple and His concession of korbanot. Hashem, as it were, “suffered the above-mentioned kinds of worship to remain [that is the worship in a Temple and the worship through sacrifice], but transferred them from created of imaginary and unreal things to His own name. . . Thus he commanded us to build a temple for Him: And let them make me a Sanctuary.”[xv] Thus, Rambam describes the very same reasons for both the sacrifices themselves and the existence of a temple: the abolition of idolatry and the appeasement of the ignorant. It is impossible to have one without the other.

Thus, the belief that there will be a temple without animal sacrifices is self-contradictory. According to Rambam, it cannot be that we will have a Third Temple, if not for the purpose of offering korbanot therein.


Desire for Korbanot and Animal vs. Non-Animal Sacrifices

In order to maintain the position above, one must further claim that korbanot are no longer needed. This can be understood in three different ways. One, is that there is no longer a need to abolish idolatry, in which case the concern of abolishing idolatry through korbanot is no longer relevant. Consequently, even if the Jewish people continue to have a strong desire to bring korbanot, the general undesirability of korbanot (as something God “suffered”) outweighs the Jewish people’s desire.  Two, the Jewish people today do not sufficiently desire sacrifices to warrant God’s “suffering of it,” even while korbanot may serve to abolish idolatry. Three, while idolatry remains a concern, korbanot can no longer effectively serve that need. While I certainly do not possess the resources, training, or ability to conclusively pass judgement on such a claim, allow me to offer my impressions of the situation from having spent the past two years in “Dati Leumi” (national-religious) environments, last year at Yeshivat Har Etzion, and the year before at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh.

While I would imagine the need for abolition of idolatry is not pressing (whether it exists altogether, I am in no position to say), I cannot agree with the claim that the entire Jewish people today no longer want sacrifices. In certain crowds, no doubt, the notion of skirted priests slaughtering goats and sprinkling their blood on an altar, to borrow the formulation of a teacher of mine, may not seem like a religiously satisfying experience; however, I do not think everyone shares this sentiment.

Take, for example, the Dati Leumi community, a community heavily influenced by messianic thought, or the Hardal (right-wing, Zionist-nationalist) community, which is even more messianic by an order of magnitude. Temple service, including korbanot, comprises a fundamental component of their respective worldviews. In fact, the Dati Leumi community is so committed to the messianic vision of sacrifice, that Rambam’s opinion is often sugar-coated so as not to imply that korbanot are somehow a lower form of service than prayer,[xvi] which is indeed his actual opinion as demonstrated above.  I do not think we even need mention members of the Ultra-Orthodox community, who would positively recoil at the notion that there would not be any korbanot in Bayit Shelishi merely because it did not conform to some Aristotelian conception of religion. Can anyone really imagine the thousands of “Briskers” (members of the intellectual community of the late R. Yitzchak Ze’ev Soloveitchik) in Israel today shrugging their shoulders apathetically at the claim that the Kodshim (laws of the Temple and Sacrifices) that they study is actually some relic of a barbaric past?

However, here I would like to concede a point. Rambam states that Hashem “suffered” these worships because to abolish them would be tantamount to a prophet commanding people to worship in contemporary times, but prohibiting prayer.[xvii] I do not know if this standard would be met today. It may very well be that the Jewish people today do not have equal commitment to sacrificial worship as they have to prayer. However, I am further unsure of whether this standard is necessary, or if a lower standard might likewise suffice. Therefore, while I cannot reject this contention outright, I would like to call it to question. I believe the matter requires more investigation.

Regarding the contention that Rambam differentiates between animal and non-animal sacrifices, there is not much to be said. In fact, there is nothing to be said at all. This is because Rambam himself says absolutely nothing about this: nowhere in any of Rambam’s writings is any distinction of this sort drawn between animal and non-animal sacrifice. To draw this distinction then, is to project Western sentiment on to the philosophy of Rambam.


The Function of Korbanot

I would now like to investigate the purpose of korbanot. Previously, we have seen that korbanot serve the dual function of appealing the ignorant masses and redirecting the urge to sacrifice to pagan deities. I believe that there are in fact two more functions of korbanot according to Rambam: drawing near to Hashem and seeking forgiveness for one’s sins. While these reasons may seem obvious, and I think they are, they tend to be ignored in discussion of Rambam. For all his insistence that sacrifices are less than ideal, Rambam still writes that sacrificing an animal is an action “through which one [comes] near to God and [seeks] forgiveness for one’s sins.”[xviii] Therefore, korbanot would not become irrelevant when Bayit Shelishi will be built—we will always need to come closer to Hashem, and we will always need forgiveness for sin.[xix] One could contend, however, that given the mechanism for achieving this closeness and atonement is an inferior one, and given, further, that the two main goals—appeasing the masses and abolition of idolatry—are rendered obsolete, korbanot would likewise be done away with. However, this not a very likely argument. Given that Rambam himself never says that if the ascribed reason for the mitsvah is no longer applicable that mitsvah itself ceases to apply, it would be quite speculative to propose that Rambam not only agreed to this, but also posited that if only the main reasons for the mitsvah are no longer applicable while secondary concerns are, the mitsvah will cease to apply.



            This article sought to demonstrate that Rambam did in fact believe that there will be korbanot in Bayit Shelishi. The issues centered around whether Rambam held that a mitsvah would cease to apply if the rationale for the mitsvah did not, and whether the reason for korbanot is indeed still applicable. I attempted to demonstrate that in order to for the mitsvah’s rationale to undermine the mitsvah itself, one must suppose that the rationale to be definitive, a supposition which Rambam himself rejects.

Although this article was not intended as a response to Rabbi Yanklowitz, but a general exposition of the issues he raised, there remains one methodological question I would like to bring up. Until this point, I discussed Rambam’s opinion; now, I would like to discuss whether Rambam’s philosophy presents us with a desirable educational model. Should the student attempt to synthesize his own modern Western values - specifically in terms of conclusion, rather than elucidation - when engaging texts and issues of Jewish philosophy? Or, perhaps, ought a student avoid such synthesis, and draw his own philosophical conclusions by privileging the ideals of the Torah at the expense of his own proclivities? Rambam clearly thought the former, and I suspect Rabbi Yanklowitz does as well. While this question is primarily philosophical, in concluding this article, I wish to pose the question from an educaional perspective. Given the sharp divisions between Western and classical Jewish values today, which position yields the greatest educational advantage when we draw philosophical conclusions? Is it pedagogically wiser to attempt a synthesis, knowing that some Western values will ultimately demand our rejection? Or would it be more strategic to reject any such attempt, and opt instead for an adoption of classically held Jewish values in toto, at the expense of our Western sentiment?


Dovid Schwartz is in his first year at YC, where he is studying Philosophy and Jewish History. He spent the past two years in Israel studying Talmud.


[i] Shmuly Yanklowitz, “Please G-d, Help me to understand why we must pray for a Third Temple!” Times of Israel, 1 January 2015, available at:

[ii] Guide of the Perplexed, transl. by Shlomo Pines, (Chicago, Il: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 524

[iii] This expression appears a few times throughout the chapter. For a less malicious translation of the Judeo-Arabic ta’la’tuf, see R. Kapach who translates it as nihul, management, Moreh Ha-Nevukhim, translated by Joseph Kapach. (Jerusalem: Mosad Harav Kook, 1972), 574 n. 6, 10. See also Schwarz, Moreh Ha-Nevukhim (Tel Aviv University, 2002), 373 n. 2 who calls it a “gracious subtlety”. (Somewhat strangely, Pines cannot make up his mind exactly how to translate this word, and in the opening sentence of this very chapter translates it as “wily graciousness” as opposed to the “gracious ruse” he uses throughout the rest of the chapter.)

[iv] Guide of the Perplexed, transl. by Shlomo Pines, (Chicago, Il: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 526

[v] This theme runs throughout the chapter. However, I also understand that many scholars took different views on Rambam’s position regarding sacrifices. Allow me, then, to bolster my position with additional quotations from this chapter. First, “It is contrary to a man’s nature that he should suddenly abandon all the different kinds of Divine service and the different customs in which he has been brought up. . .” Now, here Rambam indicates that God refrains from forcing man to change from those customs which have become “a matter of course”, i.e. korbanot. Rambam would only say this if he presumed that there would be some reason for Hashem to abolish korbanot, for, otherwise, it would be irrelevant. Second, “What prevented Him from giving us, as part of our nature, the will to do that which he desires us to do, and to abandon the kind of worship He rejects?” Here too, it is fairly evident that Rambam believes Hashem rejects the worship of korbanot. Finally, “All these [above] restrictions served to limit this kind of worship.” If indeed Hashem does limit this kind of worship - i.e. korbanot - He certainly does not think highly of it. Thus, the above interpretation is, if not correct, at least reasonable. For further discussion of this topic see, for instance, Moses Narboni, Bei’ur le-Sefer Moreh Nevukhim (New York: Om Publishing Co., 1946), p. 62, Shem Tov, Perush le-Sefer Moreh Nevukhim (New York: Om Publishing  Co., 1946), p. 45b, and Isaac Abarbanel, Introduction to Peirush on Sefer Vayikra, as well as scholarly literature, as cited, for example, in Walter Orenstein, “The Maimonidean Rationale for Sacrificies,” Hebrew Studies 24 (1983) pp. 33-39.

[vi] Pines, 526. The question of why Hashem did not simply change the Jews’ attitude at that time is addressed by Rambam later in this chapter (ibid, 529)

[vii] ibid. 527.

[viii] Though, I do think it fair to expect this contention to be proven.

[ix] Beit Yosef to Tur, Yoreh De’ah 181:1, s.v. Umah

[x] It should be noted, however, that the Beit Yosef here takes issue with the Tur, who, in the Beit Yosef’s understanding, believed Rambam to limit the Biblical prohibition of shaving sideburns according to its rationale, namely to avoid dressing like idolatrous priests. The Darkei Moshe, ad loc., took issue with the Beit Yosef for thinking the Tur could ascribe such an opinion to Rambam. Regardless, all of these authorities reject such an opinion, some even rejecting the notion that anyone might have taken it altogether.

[xi] See also R. Bahya’s comment to Devarim 29:28.

[xii] See Rambam’s closing comments in his Sefer Ha-Mitsvot, in which he discusses the possible dangers that may result from knowing the true reasons for mitsvot. See also Shoresh 3 in Sefer Ha-Mitsvot, where Rambam explicitly states that any mitzvah that he counted in his Sefer Ha-Mitzvot applies forever. Rambam quotes korban-related misvot one-hundred and eighteen times, by my count.

[xiii] Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Me’ilah, 8:8. While it is possible that the Rambam in Mishneh Torah contradicts The Guide of the Perplexed, there is no reason to assume that any view Rambam writes in the Mishneh Torah is de facto rejected in the thought of The Guide of the Perplexed. Therefore, I contend that unless one can demonstrate that Rambam thought differently in the Guide of the Perplexed, whatever position taken in the Mishneh Torah holds true throughout Rambam’s thought. As such, given Rambam does not indicate that he believes mitsvot can cease to apply anywhere in The Guide of the Perplexed, we cannot ascribe this position to him just because he held the opposite view in the Mishneh Torah.

[xiv] Guide of the Perplexed, transl. by Shlomo Pines, (Chicago, Il: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 507. My thanks to Matt Lubin for pointing me to this source.

[xv] ibid. Verse from Shemot 25:8. Cf. Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Beit Ha-Bichera 1:1, where Rambam writes that the function of the Beit Hamikdash is to have a place for sacrifices. See also note 10 above.

[xvi] My thanks to Rabbi Chanoch Waxman for drawing my attention to this phenomenon within the Da’ati Leumi community.

[xvii] Pines, 326-327

[xviii] Pines, 582.

[xix] This assumes that Rambam believes sin to be possible in the period of Bayit Shelishi, which indeed is his opinion. Cf. Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Melakhim u-Mil’hamoteihen,11:1-13.

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