Korban Olah at the North Side

וְאִם מִן הַצֹּאן קָרְבָּנוֹ מִן הַכְּשָׂבִים אוֹ מִן הָעִזִּים לְעֹלָה... וְשָׁחַט אֹתוֹ עַל יֶרֶךְ הַמִּזְבֵּחַ צָפֹנָה

If his offering is from the flock, from sheep of goats for a burnt-offering… He shall slaughter it at the northern side of the Mizbeach. (Vayikra 1:10-11)

With the opening of Chumash Vayikra, we enter the realm of korbanos. The first category of korban to be discussed is olah – a burnt offering, which consists of three types:

  1. Olas bakar — An olah brought from cattle [i.e. a bull].
  2. Olas tzon — An olah brought from flock [i.e. a ram, sheep or goat].
  3. Olas Ha’of — An olah brought from birds [i.e. a dove or turtle-dove].

Why did the Torah “Wait”?

As our pasuk states, the korban olah must be slaughtered in the part of the courtyard which is to the north of the mizbeyach. This is true for the first two types of olahbakar and tzon. Specifically, the Torah writes this requirement in connection with olas tzon, and then derives it through midrash halachah as applying to olas bakar as well. This leads us, however, to a simple question.

  • The Torah discusses olas bakar[1] before olas tzon.[2] Generally, the Torah introduces a principle at the first relevant opportunity. Why, in this case, did the Torah not mention the requirement in the earlier case (bakar), waiting instead to write it in the later case (tzon) from which we then derive the earlier case?

The Meshech Chochmah explains that in this instance, the Torah preferred to wait, for although Halachically the requirement of the north side applies to both types of olah, it has a closer thematic connection with olas tzon.

Tzafon – and Tzafun

Commenting on our pasuk which commands that the olah be slaughtered on the north side, the Midrash states:[3]

בשעה שישראל מקריבין תמיד על גבי המזבח וקורין את המקרא "צפונה לפני ה'", זוכר הקב"ה עקידת יצחק

When Yisrael offer the daily (olah) offering on the Mizbeach and recite the pasuk “At the north side before Hashem,” the Holy One, Blessed is He, remembers the Akeidah of Yitzchak.

How does the north side recall the Akeidah of Yitzchak? The Meshech Chochmah explains that the word “tzafon” (north) is associated with the word “tzafun” (hidden way). Chazal[4] state that the ashes of the Ram slaughtered at the time of the Akeidah[5] are constantly “hidden away” i.e. kept before Hashem, recalling the merit of Avraham’s preparedness to sacrifice his son to fulfill Hashem’s will. Hence, the slaughter at the “tzafon” recalls that which is “tzafun”.

The Meshech Chochmah explains this matter further. The Gemara[6] states that “רוח צפונית פתוחה – the north side is open.” This “openness” refers to the faculty of free-will, whereby all options are “open” for the person to choose from. The pinnacle of the faculty of free-will is embodied by Avraham asserting his capacity to overcome every obstacle and resistance to performing Hashem’s command to offer Yitzchak as a korban. This represents the ultimate free-will (tzafon) decision and that, above all, is what is cherished (tzafun) before Hashem!

Once we appreciate the background to the olah being slaughtered on the north side, namely, that it invokes the merit of the olah offered by Avraham at the time of the Akeidah, we will appreciate why the Torah did not mention this aspect in connection with the earlier case of olas bakar, but instead waited until the case of olas tzon. As we know, the animal offered by Avraham at the time of the Akeidah was a ram – which belongs to the category of tzon! Hence, the Torah chose to wait and give explicit mention to this law within the category of olah which is most closely associated with the Akeidah – tzon! – with the earlier case of bakar then being derived from tzon through midrash halachah.[7]

What about Olas Ha’of? Understanding the Discussion

Bearing in mind the special relationship that exists between the halachah of tzafon and Akeidas Yitzchak, the Meshech Chochmah proceeds to explain a discussion which takes place in the Gemara[8] regarding the third category of olaholas ha’of (birds).

The Gemara inquires as to whether the slaughter of an olas ha’of also needs to take place to the north of the Mizbeach. The Gemara states that it does not, i.e. this type of olah is not learned from olas tzon, the reason being “מה לעולה שכן שחיטתה טעונה כלי — Olah (of an animal) is different as its slaughter requires a utensil.” The background to this objection is that shechitah of an animal-korban requires a knife, while the slaughter of a bird-korban uses the thumbnail of the Kohen, a process known as “melikah”. The Gemara reasons: since they are different in this regard, they should likewise be different in terms of being slaughtered on the north side.

This objection is somewhat difficult to understand:

  • Why should the question as to whether the shechitah requires a knife affect the question of whether it needs to be performed at the north side?
  • Additionally, Tosafos[9] point out that in other contexts, the Gemara does learn halachos from animal offerings to bird offerings, and does raise the objection that animal offering require a utensil for shechitah and bird-offerings do not. Why is this case different?

The Meshech Chochmah explains: The requirement of a utensil for the shechitah of korbanos is itself derived in the Gemara elsewhere[10] from the pasuk[11] which states that Avraham took a knife in order to be used during the Akeidah. Therefore, the fact that olas ha’of does not require a utensil for the shechitah indicates that it does not share the connection with the Akeidah that exists with other types of olah. If this is so, then it should likewise not require the other halachah which connects korban olah to the Akeidah, i.e. shechitah at the north side of the Mizbeach! And indeed, the halachah is that the melikah does not take place at the north side of the Mizbeach, but rather on the Mizbeach itself.

This is the meaning behind the Gemara’s objection in this discussion, as well as the explanation as to why the Gemara only raises this objection with regards to deriving the requirement of tzafon!

Reverberations: The Korbanos of Nachshon ben Aminadav

Taking the discussion further, Meshech Chochmah uses this idea to explain yet another parsha in the Torah. In Parshas Naso[12] the Torah describes the korbanos brought by the Nesi’im on the first twelve days of the inauguration of the Mishkan. The Nasi who offered korbanos on the first day was Nachshon ben Aminadav, the Nasi of Yehudah. The Gemara[13] derives from pesukim that Nachshon’s korbanos offered that day were exceptional in that they did not need to be slaughtered to the north of the Mizbeach.

  • What is behind this seemingly arbitrary exception? Why should Nachshon’s korbanos be different, and moreover, why should they differ specifically in this regard?

Based on the above discussion, the Meshech Chochmah offers a stunning explanation for this exception:

Slaughtering a korban at the north side has the effect of invoking the merit of the mesirus nefesh displayed by Avraham and Yitzchak at the time of the Akeidah. As we know, Nachshon displayed his own mesirus nefesh by jumping into the Yam Suf even before it split and continuing into the water until it almost covered him entirely, at which point it split.[14] This, says the Meshech Chochmah, is why Nachshon’s korbanos did not need to be slaughtered at the tzafon. Nachshon did not need to slaughter his korban in a place which represents the mesirus nefesh of others, when he had the merit of his own personal mesirus nefesh!

The Meshech Chochmah adds that this exception was appropriate specifically to the korbanos which Nachshon offered on the occasion of the Chanukas HaMishkan. Since those korbanos were not part of an ongoing category of korban, but rather were offered specially on that occasion, they could be considered Nachshon’s “personal” korbanos with the result that their halachos could reflect his particular status.

With this discussion, the Meshech Chochmah takes what would otherwise appear to be a technical halachah of where the olah is to be slaughtered, illuminating it through a blend of parshanut, machshavah and halachah until a completely new picture emerges. Above all, the Meshech Chochmah is reminding us of something which repersents a trademark of his peirush: the importance of taking note, not only of which halachos apply to which cases, but also of where in the Torah these halachos are presented.

[1] Pesukim 3-9.

[2] Pesukim 10-13.

[3] Vayikra Rabbah 2:10.

[4] Vayikra Rabbah, cited in Rashi ibid. 26:42.

[5] See Bereishis 22:13.

[6] Bava Basra 25b.

[7] Indeed, the Meshech Chochmah adds that the category of bakar is specifically not “kept” before Hashem. The Gemara (Berachos 32b) expounds the words (Yeshayahu 49:14) “גם אלה תשכחנה – these, too, will be forgotten” to mean that Hashem is prepared to “forget” the Egel (which was presented to the Jewish People with the words (Shemos 32:4) ”אלה אלהיך ישראל – This is your god, O Israel.”) A calf belongs to the category of bakar – cattle, and hence, although halachically, olas bakar requires shechitah on the north side as well, the word “tzafon” does not appear in the pasuk in connection with it, since the full meaning of this word – including “kept before Hashem (tzafun)” – does not apply to it.

[8] Zevachim 48b.

[9] Menachos 56a s.v. ma.

[10] Zevachim 97b.

[11] Bereishis 22:6.

[12] Bamidbar chap 7.

[13] Menachos 55b.

[14] See Tosefta Berachos 4:26.