Can We Offer Korbanot Today? by Rabbi Howard Jachter
In Parshat Vayetzei, Yaakov promises that when he returns to Eretz Yisrael, he will build a בית אלוקים, a house of God. Now that the Jewish People have returned to Israel, we may be obligated to fulfill Yaakov’s promise and rebuild the Bait Hamikdash and offer Korbanot.
This question takes on even greater urgency considering the current situation in Israel. With the Palestinian Authority denying our connection to the Temple Mount, we must reaffirm our connection by focusing our attention on issues relating to Korbanot and the Bait Hamikdash.
This idea was vigorously debated in the nineteenth century, when Rav Tzvi Hirsch Kalinscher strongly urged that an effort be made to offer certain Korbanot. His proposal was disputed by the great authorities of the time such as Rav Akiva Eiger, Rav Yaakov Ettlinger, and Rav Moshe Sofer. We will review the basic issues that they discussed.
Building the Bait Hamikdash
Many sources indicate that it is not appropriate to build the Bait Hamikdash today. First, Rashi and Tosafot (Sukkah 41a, s.v. אי נמי) cite the Midrash that states that the third Bait Hamikdash will not be built by human hands but will miraculously land from Heaven as a fully built edifice. The Rambam (Hilchot Bait Habechira 1:1), however, clearly indicates that the third Bait Hamikdash will be built by human hands. Nevertheless, he writes that Mashiach will build the Bait Hamikdash (Hilchot Melachim 11:1). Moreover, the Pasuk הכל בכתב מיד ה' השכיל על כל מלאכות התבנית (Divrei Hayamim 28:10), where King David states that he received direction from Hashem on how to build every aspect of the Bait Hamikdash, teaches that divine guidance is necessary to build the Bait Hamikdash.
However, the Mishna (Eduyot 8:6) states, אמר רבי יהושע שמעתי שמקריבין אף על פי שאין בית, that Korbanot may be offered even in the absence of the Bait Hamikdash. The Rambam (Hilchot Bait Habechira 6:15) codifies this Talmudic statement.
The following question remains: How can Korbanot be offered if we are all טמא מת and cannot become טהור due to the lack of the availability of a פרה אדומה? Rav Kalischer, accordingly, limited his proposal of offering Korbanot to those Korbanot that can be offered even when Kohanim are impure, namely, the Korban Pesach and communal offerings. Regarding these Korbanot, the rule is: טומאה דחוייה בציבור, the Korban may be offered in a state of טומאה if at least half of the community is טמא (for the parameters of this rule see Encyclopedia Talmudit 19:559-641).
Since מקבלה ואילך מצות כהונה, beginning from the act of collecting the blood of the Korban the activity in the Bait Hamikdash must be performed by a Kohen, the lack of the type of Kohen that is qualified to work in the Bait Hamikdash can make it impossible to offer Korbanot today. In the Bait Hamikdash, only a כהן מיוחס, a Kohen about whom witnesses can testify that he is a descendant of a Kohen who performed the Avoda on the Mizbeach can do the Avoda in the Bait Hamikdash. Rambam (Hilchot Issurei Biah 20:1) writes, however, that today all our Kohanim are כהני חזקה, they are not authenticated Kohanim but merely presumed to be Kohanim because of a family tradition. Although כהני חזקה are generally regarded as full fledged Kohanim regarding Pidyon Haben, Nesiat Kapayim, and forbidden marriages (see Aruch Hashulchan Yoreh Deah 305:55), for service in the Bait Hamikdash a higher standard is required: they must be כהנים מיוחסים. Hence, the absence of כהנים מיוחסים appears to preclude the Korbanot until the time of Mashiach, when Kohanim will be certified by Eliyahu Hanavi as כהנים מיוחסים (see Rambam Hilchot Melachim 12:3). Rabbi Kalischer tried to demonstrate that in our days, the service in the Bait Hamikdash may be performed by כהני חזקה. However, his view was rejected by the leading authorities of his time, such as Rav Akiva Eiger and Rav Yaakov Etllinger.
Another problem is that a Kohen may not perform the Avoda if he is not wearing the בגדי כהונה (priestly garments, see Zevachim 2:1). Wool dyed with תכלת is required for garments of the regular Kohen as well as the Kohen Gadol (Shemot 28:5), and without wool dyed with תכלת the garments are not acceptable. Any Avoda performed by a Kohen wearing unacceptable garments (מחוסר בגדים) is invalid (Zevachim 2:1). The problem is that we require the תכלת to come from an animal known as the חלזון (see Rambam Hilchot Tzitzit 2:2 and compare with Hilchot Klei Hamikdash 8:13). The Rambam, though, notes that תכלת is no longer available (פירוש המשניות Menachot 4:1). Recently, great efforts have been made to demonstrate that the חלזון is a snail known as the “murex trunculus” (see Techumin 9:423-446) and is now available for use in Tzitzit and potentially in בגדי כהונה as well. Although Rav Aharon Lichtenstein and
Rav Hershel Schachter regard many of these arguments as persuasive, only time will tell if this תכלת will be widely accepted within the community. Indeed, in some circles תכלת has been accepted, but in others it has not. Even Rav Schachter regards this תכלת as ספק תכלת, which may be acceptable for ציצית but would be unacceptable for בגדי כהונה.
Although Korbanot may be offered absent the Bait Hamikdash, the presence of the Mizbeach is an absolute necessity. The Mishna refers to the sprinkling of the sacrificial blood (זריקת הדם) on the Mizbeach to be a Matir, it permits the Korban to be offered on the Mizbeach and to be consumed (see Zevachim 2:3). The Rambam (Hilchot Bait Habechira 2:1) writes, המזבח מקומו כוון ביותר, “the Mizbeach must be placed in an extremely precise location.” Since it is so difficult to place the Mizbeach exactly in its proper location, when the second Bait Hamikdash was built, a Navi was consulted to tell the people exactly where to place the Mizbeach. Accordingly, it seems that a Navi is required to determine the location of the Mizbeach, and without a Navi the Mizbeach cannot function. Rabbi Kalischer argues that since the walls of Har Habayit are still standing, one need only follow the measurements found in Masechet Midot to determine where the Mizbeach should be placed. A Navi was required for the building of the second Bait Hamikdash only because the walls of the first Bait Hamikdash were destroyed. Others disagree because the walls we see today may be the walls of the עזרה (Temple courtyard) and not the הר הבית (Temple Mount) and also because of the uncertainty of the size of an אמה, cubit (the unit of measurement used by the Mishna in Masechet Midot; see the many opinions cited in the Encyclopedia Talmud II:29). For a summary of these and other aspects of this issue, see Rabbi J. David Bleich’s Contemporary Halachic Problems I:224-269, especially note 1.
Other authorities point out that the lack of resolution of key Halachic issues constitutes an impediment to offering Korbanot. Rav Akiva Eiger asserts that we must consider the opinion of the Raavad that Har Habayit is no longer holy, and according to his opinion Korbanot cannot be offered on Har Habayit before the arrival of Mashiach who will re-sanctify the area (see Raavad to Rambam Hilchot Bait Habechira 6:14). Rabbi J. David Bleich points out the general inability to resolve Halachic disputes concerning the Bait Hamikdash due to the lack of a tradition on how to conduct the Temple ritual. Only with the arrival of Mashiach will this tradition be renewed (see Tosafot Pesachim 114b, s.v. Echad Zachar, which says that Moshe and Aharon will instruct us on how to offer the Korbanot in the third Bait Hamikdash).
Rav Bleich presents the following example of an unresolved question: There is a disagreement between Rambam and Raavad (Hilchot Korban Pesach 10:11) whether the גיד הנשה is roasted as part of the Korban Pesach. This is a particularly compelling example, as it is not possible just to rule strictly on this issue because if one does not cook the Korban Pesach with the גיד הנשה, one has failed to properly prepare the entire animal according to the Rambam, and if one does cook the גיד הנשה the animal is not Kosher according to the Raavad.
It seems that the Rambam (Hilchot Melachim 11:1) may provide a clear answer to this question. He writes that Mashiach will build the Bait Hamikdash and Korbanot will be offered. It is possible that the Rambam is telling us a fact: that only when Mashiach comes will Korbanot be offered. In fact, when this author asked Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, zt”l, what he felt about this subject, the Rav responded immediately by quoting this Rambam that Mashiach will build the Bait Hamikdash. Interestingly, Rav Soloveitchik told this author (in 1984) that this Rambam shows that those who want to build the third Bait Hamikdash today are incorrect. In addition, when this author asked Rav Yehuda Amital’s opinion regarding this question, the latter responded by citing Rav Kook’s assertion that השגחת הבורא, Divine Providence, works through the Halacha. Therefore, if there currently exist Halachic impediments from rebuilding the Bait Hamikdash, this indicates that the Divine Will does not wish the Bait Hamikdash to be built today through human hands. Rav Amital, though, recently stated at Yeshivat Har Etzion that it is profoundly wrong for the Israeli government to relinquish sovereignty over the Temple Mount. Although we are unable to offer Korbanot today, we should take steps to reaffirm out connection to the Bait Hamikdash. We may do so by studying the Halachot pertaining to the functioning of the Bait Hamikdash either in Mishnayot (סדר קדשים) or in the Rambam’s Mishna Torah. In addition, it is highly worthwhile to study the underlying Torah attitude toward the Bait Hamikdash and Korbanot. Rav Joshua Berman’s The Temple (Jason Aaronson) imparts a powerful presentation of the Torah’s Hashkafa regarding the Bait Hamikdash.