Hirsch on Sinfulness,
Physicality, and the Sacrificial Order
thinkers contend that Judaism rejects the notion of humanity’s inherent
sinfulness, and that it demands the sanctification of the physical, the
centrality of these two themes in R. Hirsch’s thought is nevertheless
striking. These themes influence
his reading of narrative portions of Torah, impact on his understanding of the
Torah’s legal sections, and play a particularly prominent role in his conception
of the sacrificial order.
rejects the notion of “original sin,” the idea that since the sin of Adam and
Eve, humanity is essentially corrupt and needs external help to achieve
salvation. He cleverly notes that
when administering punishments after that sin, God employs the word
“arur” (cursed) with relation to the snake and the earth, but not with
relation to Adam and Eve. Mankind
is not cursed, something that might have implied an inescapable taint. People have not lost their ability to be
good and they are not forced to sin.
They need no external medium to achieve goodness. R. Hirsch quite clearly aims this
critique at Christianity when he writes that religious success does not depend
upon “a medium that dies and returns to life.”
Many Jewish texts support R. Hirsch’s idea. The mere existence of individuals such
as Avraham, Moshe, Yeshayahu and Yirmiyahu reveals the live possibility of
attaining greatness. One midrash
(Bereishit Rabba 56:7) even says that every generation has the potential
to produce an Avraham or a Moshe.
Jews recite each morning:
“My God, the soul that you gave me is pure.” All this argues against a Jewish concept
of original sin. R. Hirsch considers the idea
that humanity has the freedom to choose a life of purity to be a cardinal
principle of Judaism, second only to the idea of the one, singular God
(commentary on Bereishit 3:19).
The same concept appears in R. Hirsch’s commentary on the mishna’s
saying, “A person should not be wicked in his own eyes” (Avot 2:18). R. Hirsch writes:
Do not allow yourself
to be taken in by the erroneous idea advanced by some alien philosophies, that
man on his own must of necessity be crushed by the weight of his guilt and that
it is solely through the gracious intercession of another that he can gain
control over evil and be delivered from the burden of his sin. The one person
able to free you from sin and to raise you to the level of pure and free
devotion to duty in the service of God is none other than yourself. (trans.
There are two biblical verses that arguably indicate otherwise. When explaining the cause of the
upcoming deluge, the Torah says: “And God saw that the wickedness of man was
great in the earth and that every imagination (yetzer) of the thoughts of
his heart was only evil continually” (Bereishit 6:5). After the flood, God states that He will
not bring another such calamity upon the earth. “I will not again curse the ground
any more for man's sake; for the imagination (yetzer) of man's heart is
evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as
I have done” (Bereishit 8:21).
Do not these verses attribute an inherent sinfulness to
Hirsch answers in the negative. He says that the biblical phrase
“yetzer” does not refer to a force that coercively pushes man to do evil.
Rather, “yezter” refers to the results of human choice. Man’s choices have the potential to
generate evil but nothing forces him in that direction (commentary on
Regarding the verse following the flood, R. Hirsch argues that the phrase “evil
from his youth” cannot be the explanation for why God will not destroy the world
again. After all, an almost
identical phrase comes to explain why God did bring the deluge. How could the same factor both cause the
flood and ensure that it will not be repeated? R. Hirsch reads the phrase as a
parenthetical remark in the middle of God’s promise not to bring another deluge:
God declares that he will not destroy the world, even if “the
imagination of man’s heart will be evil in his youth.” For R. Hirsch, such a possibility represents
an unnatural occurrence. He rejects
the idea that the time of youth reveals human corruption. “Woe to the one who thinks that the
average child is evil.” In fact,
adults are the ones who exhibit true evil in their pursuit of money and pleasure
while scorning the idealism of youth (commentary on Bereishit 8:21). Apparently, R. Hirsch wants to emphasize that man can
become evil through a series of bad decisions, but he is not born evil. Therefore, the greatest evil is manifest
This theme plays an important role in R. Hirsch’s analysis of sacrifices. If religion stresses human corruption
and sin, then the paradigmatic offering should be a sin offering. R. Hirsch argues that the burnt offering,
the korban ola, is far more central than the sin offering, the
chatat. The basic daily
offering brought each morning and late afternoon is a burnt offering. Many different sacrifices are offered on
the outer altar, but the altar is specifically called the mizbach
ha-ola. People can volunteer to
bring a burnt offering, but only someone obligated can bring a sin
offering. Finally, there are cases
where an offering cannot be brought in the originally intended form and those
sacrifices legally revert to burnt offerings. R. Hirsch infers from all this that the
essential path to God is manifest through the dedication and desire for ascent
represented by the burnt offering, and not through the lowly sense of sinfulness
represented by the sin offering (commentary on Vayikra
As shown, R.
Hirsch has offered some valid proofs for the centrality of the
ola. However, if the burnt
offering also relates to sin, then his broader thesis downplaying the sense of
sin might not work. The Torah does
ascribe an atoning element to the ola (Vayikra 1:4). In addition, some sources indicate that
the ola atones for the negation of positive commandments (Sifra
4:8), and others claim that it atones for problematic thoughts (Vaykira
Rabba 7:3). If we emphasize the
ola’s atoning element, then its centrality does not minimize the sense of
In defense of R.
Hirsch, it should be noted that the burnt offering does not
bear the same clear correspondence with sin as the sin offering. A person must bring a sin offering after
violating certain prohibitions.
Individuals are not obligated to bring a burnt offering even if they know
that they had improper thoughts or if they negated a positive commandment. Rather, when they voluntarily bring an
ola, it serves as an atoning force.
In fact, one gemara suggests that repentance truly atones and the burnt
offering is just a gift upon receiving atonement (Zevachim 7b). Thus,
R. Hirsch can
justifiably downplay the connection between sin and the burnt offering.
There may be further implications of R. Hirsch’s approach in how we think
about the essential nature of sacrifices.
Rambam viewed the sacrificial order as a concession to the religious
practices of the ancient world (Moreh Nevukhim 3:32). God utilized the ancient form of
religious worship to lead the people from paganism to monotheism. Ramban vigorously contested this idea,
arguing that sacrifices reflect an ideal, not a mere historical concession. He explains that the sinner identifies
his body parts with those of the animal on the altar because those body parts
were involved in sin and deserve to be consumed (commentary on Vayikra
1:9). Note that Ramban frames his
essential explanation for the sacrificial order in the context of sin. R. Hirsch would not
This second theme may
link conceptually with the first theme discussed above. An optimistic evaluation of humanity is
more likely to think positively about mankind’s ability to sanctify physical
acts. Conversely, a pessimism that
emphasizes human sinfulness will find it harder to think that man can elevate
such mundane endeavors as eating, drinking, and sexuality. Thus, R. Hirsch’s optimism and his emphasis on
sanctifying the physical fit together well.
We have seen that R.
Hirsch emphasizes the burnt offering over the sin
offering. In other places, he
stresses the peace offering (shelamim) over the ola. No humans eat from a burnt offering,
whereas even regular Israelites (not just Kohanim) can partake of the
shelamim. Thus, the peace
offering stands for sanctifying the physical more than any other offering. According to R. Hirsch, the halakha that
gentiles can bring burnt offerings but not peace offerings reflects the uniquely
Jewish nature of this religious conception. The gentile understands the religion of
total dedication represented by the ola but not a religion that finds
holiness in the material act of eating represented by the shelamim
(commentary on Vayikra 3:1).
While our patriarchs offered sacrifices, they were mostly burnt
offerings. However, before
traveling down to Egypt to be reunited with Yosef, his
beloved son, Yaakov brings a peace offering. R. Hirsch again teaches that
shelamim reflects Judaism’s unique religious outlook. This offering, eaten by Israelite
families together, sanctifies family life, transforms the dinner table into an
altar, and changes the sons and daughters of the family into priests and
priestesses. Bringing this offering
requires a sense of contentment and joy in one’s family life. Only after Yaakov hears that he will
once again see Yosef does he have the ability to offer this especially Jewish
sacrifice (commentary on Bereishit 46:1).
In characteristic fashion, R. Hirsch explains certain halakhic
details based on philosophical themes.
Halakha demands that the owners finish eating a peace offering during the
first two days after the sacrifice is brought. Leaving it past this time violates the
prohibition of notar. Having
the wrong thoughts about the sacrifice while performing the service invalidates
the offering and renders it pigul.
One example of pigul would be slaughtering the animal without the
intention to eat it.
Hirsch explains that the
eating of the sacrifice must happen in close chronological proximity to its
offering on the altar because the Torah demands a strong connection between
those two actions. On the one hand,
the real goal of the shelamim is the human partaking, because that
element sanctifies the mundane family dinner table. Yet, the religious context needed to
sanctify physical eating depends upon the connection to the offering on the
altar. This inter-connectedness
saves us from two problematic ideas.
If we focus only on human eating, we run the risk of undisciplined
gluttony. On the other hand, if we
view the offering as the end in itself without any human consumption, we run the
risk of adopting a pagan attitude where religion consists of fearfully appeasing
the deities rather than a joyful sanctification of life (Vayikra
A verse in
Devarim describing coming to the Temple (12:7) exemplifies this idea. The Torah says: “And there you shall eat
before the Lord your God and you shall rejoice…” For R. Hirsch, the pinnacle of serving God
involves eating and rejoicing before Him in His Temple. Again, he emphasizes the contrast with a
paganism of fear where the gods are hostile to human happiness. He also contrasts this ideology with a
modern error that religion only addresses the human spirit and not the body
(commentary on Devarim 12:7).
The unusual tithe of
ma’aser sheni also teaches the same principle. Tithes tend to go to the needy or worthy
such as the poor, the priests and the Levites. In contrast, the owners keep the produce
of ma’aser sheni but bring it to Jerusalem to eat it there. This tithe reflects our ability to
sanctify the act of eating. When
done in the right fashion, physical eating becomes a crucial religious
expression (commentary on Devarim 14:22).
discussion of the nazir returns to this theme. There is a famous Talmudic debate about
whether we should view the nazir as a sinner or as holy (Taanit
11a). This discussion often serves
as a focal point for rabbinic thinking about asceticism and physicality. Why does the nazir bring a sin
offering upon completing his period of abstention from wine, hair cutting and
coming into contact with the dead?
Rambam says that the sin offering indicates that nezirut is not
the ideal (Hilkhot De’ot 3:1).
Ramban, in contrast, saw nezirut as ideal and argues that the
nazir brings a sin offering to atone for leaving this exalted state and
returning to mundane functioning (commentary on Bemidbar 6:14). R. Hirsch sides with Rambam and views
nezirut as a temporary corrective measure but not as a religious
ideal. A religiously guided life of
enjoyment is preferable to a life of asceticism.
Hirsch emphasizes the peace
offering brought by the nazir who completes his period of nezirut,
even though the nazir brings other types of offerings as well. This offering symbolizes the return to a
religious life that does not eschew physicality. The former nazir cuts off his
long hair and burns it under the peace offering. For R. Hirsch, the long hair represents the
anti-social component of nezirut, in which looking presentable is not
important. Now that the
nazir returns to society, he consumes the symbol of isolationist
asceticism under the holier fire of a peace offering that involves sharing
physical enjoyment with other people (commentary on Bemidbar 6:8).
Though many more
examples of this theme exist in R. Hirsch’s writings, one more will
suffice. The Torah relates that,
during the Israelites’ wandering in the desert, a group of women donated their
mirrors to the Tabernacle’s construction, and this donation was used to craft
the laver in which the priests wash their hands and feet. Mirrors certainly belong to a world of
physicality, yet they have a prominent place in the holiest of sites (commentary
on Shemot 38:8).
Many Jewish writers
mention that Judaism rejects “original sin” and believes in sanctifying the
physical, but few write about these themes with such cleverness and consistency
as R. Hirsch.
discussion of these issues, see Mordechai Breuer, “Shitat Torah im Derekh
Eretz be-Mishnato shel R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch,” Hama’ayan,
Tishrei 5729, and Yonah Emanuel, “Yisrael mul ha-Natzrut,”