This week begins the Book of Leviticus, probably the most misunderstood book in the Torah. The book begins with a detailed discussion of different animal sacrifices, tells of the ghastly botched inauguration of the Tabernacle, and discusses the concept of readiness and unreadiness for ritual activity in more detail than most people are comfortable with. Most people within the Judeo-Christian tradition are deeply uncomfortable with its frankness, harshness, and profound strangeness.
It must be understood that Judaism prior to the fall of the Second Temple was, as all ancient religions were, centered around sacrificing animals, birds, and grain products. The parameters of worship, observance, penance, and celebration were based around the sacrifice of cattle, sheep, goats, birds, and measures of grain. This is pretty much baffling to modern sensibilities, but the ancient soul was buoyed and awestruck by these sacrifices, and in them found the bulk of what for them constituted worship.
The Rabbis of the post-Talmudic era have struggled with this, as it is so alien to what we consider a cultured understanding of Deity, faith and worship. We know that when Titus destroyed the Second Temple, the portion of Jewish observance centered around animal sacrifices died out, and with it, the hereditary priesthood, which was centered around the Temple sacrifices. A group of rabbis gathered in the city of Tiberias in Israel and collectively decided that, without a Temple towards which to direct sacrifices, Jews should offer prayers instead, a prayer session for each designated time for sacrifice. Instead of morning sacrifices, afternoon sacrifices and evening sacrifices, with an extra sacrifice on the Sabbath, and yet another on Yom Kippur, instead we have, respectively, Shacharit prayers, Minchah prayers, Ma'ariv prayers, Musaf prayers, and Ne'ilah prayers. This transformation saved the Jewish religion, but much more importantly, it made Judaism a modern religion. There are still some Orthodox Jews who want to rebuild the Temple and begin the animal sacrifices all over again, and there is a line in the Amidah, or standing prayer, about bringing back animal sacrifices, but most contemporary Jews shudder at the idea.
While Christians (and Masons) insist that the Temple will be rebuilt not in physical space, but in each yearning soul, Jews do something similar in suggesting that when the Messiah comes, animal sacrifices will no longer be appropriate, because the soul will be able to express its devotion to God without the need for such intermediaries. The Rabbinical explanation seems to be that primitive people needed agricultural sacrifices because they were too crude for the subtleties of prayer, but after the Temple was destroyed, we could no longer take refuge in such sacrifices, but were forced to confront the mysteries of prayer head on.
Vayikrah (וַיִּקְרָא in Hebrew) means "and He called". Somehow, it is very Jewish to start a book with and. This Torah portion describes five types of sacrifice. The burnt offering (עֹלָה, or olah), the meal offering (מִנְחָה, or minchah), the peace offering (שֶׁ֫לֶם, or shelem), the sin offering (חַטָּאת, or chatat), and the guilt offering (אָשָׁם, or asham) A burnt offering is an animal or bird that is entirely burned. A bull is burned, or a ram if the person cannot afford a bull, or a goat if a ram proves too expensive, or a turtle-dove or pigeon, if the person cannot afford a goat. If a person cannot afford a bird, they can sacrifice a meal offering instead. High-quality wheat would be mixed with olive oil, and a scoop was placed on the fire, and the rest given to the Priests. Leviticus describes the meal offering as "a thing most holy of the offerings of the LORD made by fire." [Leviticus 2: 3], but in the Hebrew, it is described as a kodash kadashim, קֹדֶשׁ קָדָשִׁים, or a Holy of Holies among the fire offerings brought before God.
This is strange. We know that God rejected Cain's grain sacrifice in favor of Abel's animal sacrifice [Genesis 4: 3-5]. We also know that a meal offering is for someone too poor to afford a small bird to sacrifice. That a person that poor would still offer something up to God is profound, and God understands how holy such a sacrifice is.
The peace offering was given freely, without needing to have the sacrifice expiate for the sins of the sacrificer. It was often given to form a new alliance, or to testify about a friendship. The sin offering was in atonement for sin, and the guilt offering was for when the sacrificer was not sure if he had sinned or not, or had unwittingly sinned.
The description remains similar each time. For a bull, the priest would lay his hands on the bull's head, and then it would be ritually slaughtered. The bull's blood was brought into the Tabernacle, and sprinkled in front of the parokhet, or curtain veiling the Ark of the Covenant. Some of the blood was sprinkled on the incense altar, and the rest poured out at the base of the sacrificial altar. The layer of fat covering and attached to the stomachs was pulled out, along with the two kidneys and the fat surrounding them, and the lobe on the liver near the kidneys. These are placed on the altar and burned, along with the skin of the bull, and all of its flesh, including the food still in its intestines.
To those who find such forms of worship odd, you are not alone. While there are still people today who are awestruck during a bullfight, watching the tragedy of the last tormented moments of the dying bull, I'm not sure they would keep the same emotion while watching various swathes of intestinal fat and organs being collected and burned.
In Talmudic pedagogy, the Book of Leviticus is the first section of Torah taught to young children. In the midrash on Leviticus, Rav Assi explains that children are pure, and the sacrifices are pure, and that is why they are introduced to Torah through the sacrifices. I think a more pedagogically sound explanation might be that sacrifices are deliberate and procedural, and have less interpretation than the troubling and complicated lives of the Patriarchs of Genesis.