Blood for Thought

The Reinvention of Sacrifice in Early Rabbinic Literature

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Mira Balberg
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , September
     274 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


According to traditional narrative, the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 CE set into motion an axial transformation in the history of religion. Jews, without a place to sacrifice, transformed their religion to a non-sacrificial tradition in which loftier, or at least cleaner, acts—such as recitation of the order of sacrifices and the giving of charity—replaced the atoning role of sacrifices. Christians similarly hit upon a logic of sacrificial substitution, seeing Christ’s blood as making physical sacrifices obsolete. This scholarly narrative is also deeply rooted in its own invidious and theological normative logic: the bloody sacrifice is old and inferior to a new spiritualized and internalized mode of religious understanding.

In Blood for Thought: The Reinvention of Sacrifice in Early Rabbinic Literature, Mira Balberg joins other recent scholars (most notably Jonathan Klawans and Daniel Ullucci) who question this narrative. The “end of sacrifice,” these scholars argue, was a far more tentative, messy, and protracted process. Through the end of late antiquity, actual sacrifice continued to play an important role, discursively if not necessarily materially, for both Jews and Christians. Even if not truly sacrificing, Jews, according to Balberg, saw and presented themselves as “people who sacrifice” (228). Sacrifice was not simply a metaphor.

Balberg attempts to solve a problem that has long puzzled scholars of rabbinic literature: Why does tannaitic literature–the extant collections of rabbinic writings that were redacted around 200 CE– devote so much space (about 25%, according to Balberg) to discussing the sacrificial service, often in a way that implies that they were ongoing, when actual Jewish sacrifices had long ceased? Focusing primarily on rabbinic legal discussions, especially in the Mishnah, Balberg builds on previous studies to argue that the Jerusalem temple and its service were rich sites of rabbinic reflection on all manner of things. Rabbinic discussions of sacrifice do not preserve—as much as actively construct—memories used in the thought process. Ultimately, they have little or nothing to do with the temple itself (184-86). Instead, through the discourse of sacrifice, they are trying to work through two larger issues: the natures of ritual and community.

Balberg argues that rabbinic discussions of sacrifice are all about process, especially when seen in comparison to the Hebrew Bible: “the rabbis locate the essence, efficacy, and value of sacrifice in the correct performance of actions and not in the transaction of goods” (103). This is exemplified by the role that rabbis assign to blood in the sacrificial service. The rabbis focus on the process of how the blood–which itself is  not a sanctified substance–is tossed on the altar. Intention, particularly of the one offering the sacrifice, is made insignificant. It is only through the correct procedure of blood-tossing that the sacrifice can fulfill its role as both a vehicle of atonement and as a “permitter,” that is, “the facilitator that allows the distribution of all other substances among the participants” (97). The blood is an empty, almost arbitrary, container for the main thing: the process itself.

The sacrificial service hence emerges as a paradigm for all rabbinic ritual. It is the quotidian, precise fulfillment of all of God’s commandments that does the work of atonement and permitting Balberg to argue that the message of tractates Tamid and Yoma, which deal with different temple rituals, is they are similar to, and exemplary of, all areas of rabbinic practice.

Rabbinic sacrificial discourse makes a second statement as well, namely that the community of Israel stands as a single, cohesive entity. Those who bring  sacrifices stand with the priestly officiants who sacrifice them as a single body. Even the sacrifices themselves participate in establishing this social unity. The rabbis routinely, but not consistently, (discursively) transform individual sacrifices into communal offerings, and emphasize the importance of the latter. They insist, for example, that communal sacrifices be financed communally rather than privately. Their treatment of the Passover sacrifice is also shaped by an “emphasis on unity and harmony, perfectly displayed in the flawlessly orchestrated and coordinated movement of the priests and the laypeople in the temple” (186). The sacrificial rite is the performance par excellence of communal solidarity.

Though Blood for Thought examines many important issues  relevant to scholars of early Judaism, Christianity, Roman religion, and religious ritual three issues in particular stood out to me. The first issue is largely methodological: can one construct a coherent religious world-view from legal texts? This is a question that has roiled the field since the publication of Jacob Neusner’s Judaism: The Evidence of the Mishnah and is still unsettled. The Mishnah’s focus on process, for example, might be a reflection of juridical ad hoc thinking rather than of a more-or-less coherent or deliberate statement on religious practice.

Second, Balberg’s reading of these sacrificial laws intersects with theoretical works in ways that might deepen both. I wonder, for example, how the emphasis on rituals that create social coherence might intersect with the ideas of Émile Durkheim and Catherine Bell. I was struck by the absence of any discussion of gender, especially in light of Nancy Jay’s arguments about the links between sacrificial systems and gender.

Finally, Balberg mentions but does not deeply explore how rabbinic discourse  functioned within larger discursive realms. Rabbinic discourse, as Balberg admits, circulated almost exclusively among rabbis. Additionally, it seems that the Mishnah was not read by early rabbis as a single coherent book: they engaged its traditions individually, or perhaps in clumps. I was left wanting to know more about how, in such a context, rabbinic discourse would have worked both internally and externally, in relation to other Jewish, Christian, and Roman discourses.  

Blood for Thought is a well-written, provocative book that will be of interest to scholars and graduate students in ancient Mediterranean religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael L. Satlow is Professor of Religious and Judaic Studies at Brown University.

Date of Review: 
January 7, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mira Balberg is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Northwestern University. She is the author of Purity, Body, and Self in Early Rabbinic Literature.


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