Parshat Tzav: Gratitude from Time Immemorial
Rabbanit Sally Mayer is the Rosh Midrasha of Midreshet Lindenbaum‘s Maria and Joel Finkle Overseas Program
Why does the korban toda – the thanksgiving offering – involve so much bread, which is eaten very hastily; and how does birkat hagomel – the thanksgiving prayer – substitute for it after the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed?
The Torah describes the thanksgiving offering in Parashat Tzav. It is a type of shelamim offering (“peace offering”) brought by a Jew after Hashem delivers him or her from hardship. The offering is comprised of a calf or a kid, like any other korban shelamim, yet a few things set this offering apart from the others. First, unlike ordinary peace offerings which can be eaten within the same day, at night, or on the following day, this offering may only be eaten within a very short time – the day it was offered or that night, and our Sages shortened this allotted time, ending it at midnight of the day the offering was made. Second, the offering is brought along with a very large minhah (flour) offering, consisting of 20 esronim of fine flour, which is used to prepare 40 baked units. In today’s terms, this would be equivalent to about 26 kilograms of flour, and all of this must be eaten in less than one day! One more unique characteristic of this offering is that ten of the loaves are leavened, unlike the matza offered along with any other offering. What is the meaning of all of these unique characteristics?
When is the thanksgiving offering brought? The Gemarah lists the classic reasons: seafarers, desert wanderers, the sick who were healed, or released prisoners, as we read in Psalm 107, which repeats the following verse four times: “Let them praise Hashem for His steadfast love, His wondrous deeds for mankind.” Some interpret that the thanksgiving offering can be brought to express gratitude for other situations as well, and according to Rabbeinu Bahye, a bride and groom should also bring an offering for having been brought together!. There is a midrash aggadah on Vayikra that describes the thanksgiving offering as Hashem’s favorite, since it is given “in earnest,” not because of a sin or holiday we were commanded to observe, but rather because a person had felt the need to thank the Master of the Universe.
Let’s revisit our question: Why bring so much bread and be required to eat it so quickly? In the Netziv’s commentary on the Torah, Ha’amek Davar, the author explains that the purpose of this offering is to “recount the kindness of Hashem that He had bestowed upon him (the one making the offering).” With so much food, many people would need to be invited to help eat all of it, and in doing so, the miracle would be publicized, and the gratitude expressed by the offerer wouldn’t go unnoticed.
And why should leavened bread be offered, when usually minha offerings were made into matza? There is only one other offering that is similar in this sense: the kivsei atzeret, a communal offering brought during the holiday of Shavuot. This is a peace offering brought along with two loaves of bread, and they too are baked as leavened bread. R. Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that the kivsei atzeret are akin to a national thanksgiving offering, whereby the entire nation expresses its gratitude to the Creator. This offering is symbolized by chametz – bread that was fully baked, as opposed to matza, where the baking process is stopped in the middle.
While we no longer bring thanksgiving offerings nowadays, we do have birkat hagomel, a blessing we make when we are miraculously saved. This blessing also has the “element of the public.” Gratitude must be expressed in the presence of a quorum of ten, just as in the case of the thanksgiving offering, when many people are invited and the miracle is publicized. This offering is also the origin of the wonderful tradition of holding a se’udat hodayah, a meal to express thanksgiving, and inviting guests to partake of it. And when we recite birkat hagomel, we say “shegemalani kol tov”, instead of just “tov,” referring to the specific miracle for which this blessing is being made? I heard from Rabbi Mordechai Willig that this blessing gives us the opportunity to take a step back and express our gratitude for all of the hidden goodness that the Hashem bestows upon us every day, rather than just for one specific miracle.
May it be the will of Hashem that we witness the miracle of a refua shelema for the entire world, and may we merit to stand up in public and recite: “Let them praise Hashem for His steadfast love, His wondrous deeds for mankind.”