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The korban olah or olah (Hebrew: קָרְבַּן עוֹלָה, (meaning "that which goes up [in smoke]", commonly translated as "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.
The Hebrew noun olah (עֹלָה) occurs 289 times in the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible. It means "that which goes up [in smoke]". 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".
Its traditional name in English is "holocaust", and the word olah has traditionally been translated as "burnt offering." 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.
In classical rabbinical literature, there are several different etymologies given for the term olah, 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 was entirely given over to the deity. Modern scholars, however, argue that it simply refers to the burning process, as the meat goes up in flames.
The source of the commandment as stated in Book of Numbers:
Say to them: 'This is the food offering you are to present to the LORD: two lambs a year old without defect, as a regular burnt offering each day.'
—Numbers 28:3, NIV
The actual ritual slaughter of the lamb, and relative detail, is written in "And it should be slaughtered by the side of the altar to the north before God and its blood should be sprinkled by the sons of Aaron the priest, on the altar all around" (Leviticus (1:11))
Accompanied by wine
The twice-daily korban olah was accompanied by a wine offering poured into the altar (Numbers 28).
A daily korban olah
The korban olah was made each morning and evening including Sabbath, First day of each month, Jewish New Year), Passover, First Fruits, Day of Atonement and Feast of tabernacles. The sacrificial animal was required to be a lamb.
Multiple forms of offering
A korban olah was also made as sin offerings on the appointment of a Kohen (Michat Chinuch), 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
The animals, having first been checked to ensure they were free from disease and unblemished (a requirement of the sacrifice), 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 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.
The priestly gift
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. Subsequently, it was decreed by the Bet Din shel Kohanim (the priestly Bet Din) that the skins should be sold, with the monetary proceeds being given to the Temple in Jerusalem (Tosefta 19).
In the non-Torah books of the Hebrew Bible
In the Neviim section of the Hebrew Bible, particularly passages in the Book of Judges, present the practice of the korban olah.
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.
Chazal portray the olah form of sacrifice, in which no meat was left over for consumption by the Kohanim, as the greatest form of sacrifice and was the form of sacrifice permitted by Judaism to be sacrificed at the Temple by the Kohanim on behalf of both Jews and non-Jews.
The korban olah 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. 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.
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; 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. 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.
This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Jewish Encyclopedia. 1901–1906.
1. Jacob Neusner. The Comparative Hermeneutics of Rabbinic Judaism: Why this, not that?. p. 144.
2. 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.
3. 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, ..."
4. 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." "
5. Lawrence H. Schiffman, Florentino García Martínez The courtyards of the house of the Lord: studies on the Temple scroll