Burnt offering (Judaism)

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The Altar of Incense, Altar of Burnt-Offering, and Laver from the Biblical Tabernacle; illustration from the 1890 Holman Bible

A burnt offering in Judaism (Hebrew: קָרְבַּן עוֹלָה, korban olah) is a form of sacrifice first described in the Hebrew Bible. The term is first used of the sacrifices of Noah. As a tribute to God, a burnt offering was entirely burnt on the altar. A sacrifice (short for sacrifice of well-being) was partly burnt and most of it eaten in communion at a sacrificial meal.[1]

During the First Temple and Second Temple periods, the burnt offering was a twice-daily animal sacrifice offered on the altar in the temple in Jerusalem that was completely consumed by fire. The skin of the animal, however, was not burnt but given to the priests respective of their priestly division. These skins are listed as one of the twenty-four priestly gifts in Tosefta Hallah.[2]


The Hebrew noun olah (עֹלָה) occurs 289 times in the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible. It means "that which goes up [in smoke]".[3] It is formed from the active participle of the Hiphil form of the verb alah (עָלָה), "to cause to ascend." It was sometimes also called kalil, an associated word found in Leviticus, meaning "entire".[3][4]

Its traditional name in English is "holocaust",[3] and the word olah has traditionally been translated as "burnt offering."[4][5][6] The term was translated as holocauston in the Septuagint. Today, some English Bible translations render the word as holocaust, and others translate it as "burnt offering". For example, Exodus 18:12a is translated in the New American Bible as Then Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, brought a holocaust and other sacrifices to God, while it is translated in the New International Version as Then Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, brought a burnt offering and other sacrifices to God.[7]

In classical rabbinical literature, there are several different etymologies given for the term olah,[8] though all agree that it literally translates as (that which) goes up. Some classical rabbis argued that the term referred to ascent of the mind after making the sacrifice, implying that the sacrifice was for atonement for evil thoughts, while others argued that it was a sacrifice to the highest, because it is entirely intended for God.[8] Modern scholars, however, argue that it simply refers to the burning process, as the meat goes up in flames.[8]

Hebrew Bible[edit]

The first uses of the olah for burnt offering refer to the sacrifices of Noah "of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt offerings on the altar" (Genesis 8:20) and to the near-sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham: "offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains" (Genesis 22:2). The third pre-Levitical burnt offering is that of Jethro, Moses' father-in-law (Exodus 18:12).

In the Torah[edit]

The base of the commandment is stated in Yitro of the Torah (Hebrew: תּוֹרָה, "Instruction, Teaching"), Exodus 20:21, as part of commandments about idolatry and proper worship:[9]

Make for Me an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well-being [others ″peace-offering″], your sheep and your oxen (..)

The source of this Biblical law is also stated in Exodus 20:24 in Christian biblical canons:

Make an altar of earth for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, your sheep and goats and your cattle (..)

— Exodus 20:24, NIV.

The major types of sacrificial offerings, their purpose and circumstances, details of their performance and distributions afterwards are delineated in the Book of Leviticus 1:1-7:38.[10] I.e. the burnt offering of sheep and goats:

If his offering for a burnt offering is from the flock, of sheep or of goats, he shall make his offering a male without blemish. It shall be slaughtered before the LORD on the north side of the altar, and Aaron's sons, the priests, shall dash its blood against all sides of the altar.

— Leviticus 1:10-11[10]

Ritual prescriptions that delineate the daily, festival, new moon, and Shabbath schedule of offerings are further outlined in the Book of Numbers 28:1-30:1:

Say to them: These are the offerings by fire that you are to present to the LORD: As a regular burnt offering every day, two yearling lambs without blemish. You shall offer one lamb in the morning, the other lamb you shall offer at twilight.

— Numbers 28:3-4[11]

The twice-daily korban olah was accompanied by a libation offering:

The libation with it shall be a quarter of a hin for each lamb, to be poured in the sacred precinct as an offering of fermented drink [i.e., wine] to the LORD.

— Numbers 28:7[12]

Additionally, cumulative korban olah offerings were made on the Shabbat,[13] the first day of each month,[14] at Jewish New Year,[15] Passover,[16] First Fruits,[17] the Day of Atonement [18] and the Feast of Tabernacles.[19] The sacrificial animals were required to be bulls, rams, goats (as sin offerings) and lambs.

Multiple forms of offering[edit]

A korban olah was also made as a sin offering on the appointment of a priest,[20] on the termination of a Nazirite's vow, after recovery from skin disease, by a woman after childbirth, after recovery from a state of abnormal bodily discharges, a Gentile's conversion to Judaism or as a voluntary sacrifice, when the sacrificial animal could be a young bull, ram, year-old goat, turtle doves, or pigeons.

Order and preparation[edit]

The animals were first checked to ensure they were free from disease and unblemished (temimim or tamimim, ἀνώμους in the Septuagint, without spot in the King James Version) as required by the law.[21] Leviticus 22 identified animals "that are blind or broken or maimed, or have an ulcer or eczema or scabs" as 'blemished' - [these] you shall not offer to the Lord".[22] The animals were brought to the north side of the altar, and ritually slaughtered. The animal's blood was carefully collected by a priest and sprinkled on the outside corners of the altar. Unless the animal was a bird, its corpse was flayed, with the skin kept by the priests.

The flesh of the animal was divided according to detailed instructions given by the Talmud (Tamid 31), and would then be placed on the wood on the altar (which was constantly on fire due to the large number of sacrifices carried out daily), and slowly burnt. After the flesh (including any horns and goats' beards) had been reduced to ashes, usually the following morning, the ashes were removed by a Kohen - as refuse - and taken to a ritually clean location outside the Temple.[8][23]

In the Book of Judges[edit]

In the Neviim section of the Hebrew Bible, particularly passages in the Book of Judges, present the practice of the burnt offering.[8] In the story of Gideon, a slaughter offering of a young goat and unleavened bread is consumed by fire sent from heaven; in the story of Samson's birth, his father, who was intending to make a slaughter offering so that he could give a meal to an angel, is told by the angel to burn it completely instead.

In Hellenistic Judaism[edit]

The Septuagint mainly translates the Hebrew olah with the familiar Greek pagan term holocaust, for example in Genesis 22:2 Isaac is to be sacrificed, "as a holocaust" (Greek: εἰς ὁλοκάρπωσιν). Josephus uses the term both for Abraham and Isaac,[24] but also, more surprisingly in relation to the human sacrifice by Ahaz of his son to Baal.[25] The practice is also referenced by Philo, but with significant changes.[26]

In Rabbinical Judaism[edit]

Chazal sources, 3rd-6th Century CE, portray the olah form of sacrifice, in which no meat was left over for consumption by the Kohanim, as the greatest form of sacrifice[8] and was the form of sacrifice permitted by Judaism to be sacrificed at the Temple by the Kohanim on behalf of both Jews[27] and non-Jews.[8]

The priestly gift[edit]

Unless the offering was a bird (olat haof), its corpse was flayed. The skin of the offering was then kept by the priests who were serving their shift as part of the rotation of the priestly divisions. The Tosefta narrates that, as time evolved, more powerful priests forcibly took possession of the skins from the lesser priests.[28] Subsequently, it was decreed by the Beth din shel Kohanim (the court of the priests in Jerusalem) that the skins should be sold, with the monetary proceeds being given to the Temple in Jerusalem (Tosefta 19).

Modern scholarship[edit]

Some passages in the Book of Judges, dated by textual scholars to periods earlier than the Priestly Code, appear to show the development of the principle and practise of whole offerings;[28] in the story of Gideon, a slaughter offering of a young goat and unleavened bread is destroyed when fire sent from heaven consumes it; in the story of Samson's birth, his father, who was intending to make a slaughter offering so that he could give a meal to an angel, is told by the angel to burn it completely instead.

Most biblical scholars now generally agree that the intricate details of the whole offering, particularly the types and number of animals on occasion of various feast days, given by the Torah, were of a late origin, as were the intricate directions given in the Talmud.[8] Whole offerings were quite rare in early times, but as the ritual became more fixed and statutory, and the concentration of sacrifice into a single sanctuary (particularly after Josiah's reform) made sacrifices quite distinct from simply killing animals for food, whole offerings gradually rose to great prominence.[8]

The burnt offering is believed to have evolved as an extreme form of the slaughter offering, whereby the portion allocated to the deity increased to all of it.[8] In slaughter offerings, the portion allocated to the deity was mainly the fat, the part which can most easily be burnt (fat is quite combustible); scholars believe it was felt that the deity, being aethereal, would appreciate aethereal food more than solid food—the burning of the fatty parts of animals being to produce smoke as a sweet savour for the deity.[8]


  1. ^ Berlin, Adele; Brettler, Marc Zvi (2014). Jewish Study Bible (2 Rev(November 2014) ed.). [S.l.]: Oxford University Press. p. 135. ISBN 978-0199978465. Retrieved 1 April 2016.
  2. ^ Jacob Neusner. The Comparative Hermeneutics of Rabbinic Judaism: Why this, not that?. p. 144.
  3. ^ a b c Schwartz, Baruch J. "Burnt Offering", in Berlin Adele; Grossman, Maxine (eds.). The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion. Oxford University Press. 2011. ISBN 978-0-19-973004-9. p.154.
  4. ^ a b Joseph H. Prouser Noble soul: the life and legend of the Vilna Ger Tzedek Count Walenty Potocki 9781593330972, Paperback. 1593330979 2005 p44 - 2005 "The term olah refers to the 'ascent' of the smoke and flames of the sacrifice itself. The sacrifice, in its transmuted form, reaches God.”2 Like “olah,” the term “kalil” is taken from the sacrificial cult described in Leviticus, ..."
  5. ^ Bernard Jacob Bamberger Leviticus: commentary Jewish Publication Society of America, Central Conference of American Rabbis 1979 p.9 "In English, olah has for centuries been translated "burnt offering." "
  6. ^ Lawrence H. Schiffman, Florentino García Martínez The courtyards of the house of the Lord: studies on the Temple scroll 2008 p354 "The term olah, literally referring to a sacrifice “which goes up,” is usually translated as “burnt offering.”
  7. ^ "Holocaust word". www.berkeleyinternet.com.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Morris Jastrow, Jr.; J. Frederic McCurdy; Kaufmann Kohler; Louis Ginzberg. "Burnt Offering". Jewish Encyclopedia. 1901–1905.
  9. ^ The so called Covenant Code: Exodus 20:19-23:33
  10. ^ a b Berlin, Adele; Brettler, Marc Zvi (November 2014). Jewish Study Bible (2 Rev ed.). [S.l.]: Oxford University Press. pp. 196–197. ISBN 978-0199978465. Retrieved 1 April 2016.
  11. ^ Berlin, Adele; Brettler, Marc Zvi (2014). Jewish Study Bible (2 Rev(November 2014) ed.). [S.l.]: Oxford University Press. p. 323. ISBN 978-0199978465. Retrieved 1 April 2016.
  12. ^ Berlin, Adele; Brettler, Marc Zvi (2014). Jewish Study Bible (2 Rev(November 2014) ed.). [S.l.]: Oxford University Press. p. 324. ISBN 978-0199978465. Retrieved 1 April 2016.
  13. ^ Numbers 28:9-10
  14. ^ Numbers 28:11-15
  15. ^ Numbers 29:1-16
  16. ^ Numbers 28:16-25
  17. ^ Numbers 28:26-31
  18. ^ Numbers 29:7-11
  19. ^ Numbers 29:12-38
  20. ^ Rabbeinu Yosef (1800–1874)Minchat Chinuch 1874
  21. ^ Numbers 28:3, 31
  22. ^ Leviticus 22:22
  23. ^ Leviticus 6:4
  24. ^ Louis H. Feldman Judaism And Hellenism Reconsidered 2006 - Page 387 "Moreover, in presenting his holocaust-thanksgiving offering juxtaposition Josephus was inspired by the parallel content and form of Lev."
  25. ^ Christopher Begg Josephus' Story of the Later Monarchy: (AJ 9,1-10,185) 2000 - Page 317 "... he even offered his own son as a whole burnt offering (bXoKauTcoaE)6". Josephus likewise specifies the Biblical references to the "abominations of the nations"; Ahaz' deed was "according to the ... 9,43 where the cognate noun is used of the King of Moab's "consecrating his first-born son to God as a holocaust*"
  26. ^ Roberto Radice, David T. Runia Philo of Alexandria: An Annotated Bibliography, 1937-1986 1988 "From Philo's description of the sacrificial rites (especially the burnt offering) we may infer that he conformed strictly to the biblical text and appealed to ancient ritual, 'the practice of which by his time had undergone significant changes' (73)."
  27. ^ Deuteronomy 12:31, Leviticus 18:21, 20:2
  28. ^ a b  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainMorris Jastrow Jr.; J. Frederic McCurdy; Kaufmann Kohler; Louis Ginzberg (1901–1906). "Burnt offering". In Singer, Isidore; et al. (eds.). The Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.