Libations: What’s the deal?
By: Aryeh Klein
seated front right
If you pay attention to leining on Rosh Chodesh, or on any other holiday, you will notice that basically with every karban that one brings, the one who is offering the karban doesn’t only bring the animal itself, but rather brings with it wine libations, oil, and flour. These three things as a group are referred to as nesachim and there are a whole bunch of questions surrounding them. First of all, in general, we have a pretty strict list of things that we can bring onto the mizbeach. We have a lav of chulin beazara, but someone these three items make the list, whereas others don’t. Additionally, another weird point about nesachim is that if you look throughout sefer Vayikra where all of the karbanot are introduced, the only time nesachim are mentioned at all is in connection to the karban tamid. The pesukim about nesachim only appear a lot later in parshat Shelach after the sin of the meraglim. A third question about the nesachim is what are they? Neither the Rambam nor the Sefer haCHinuch count them as a separate mitzvah, they are just included in the mitzvah of karbanot. Hopefully we will now go into the parsha of nesachim and offer a few different approaches as to why they are brought.
The first possible explanation towards nesachim in general is some concept of ‘achilat gavoah’. In general, throughout maasechet zevachim and seder kodshim as a whole, we see the concept of achilat gavoah recurring again and again. It’s hard to know exactly what this means, but if somehow karbanot are food for Hashem or the mizbeach, then it would make sense to include with them other components of a meal, those being bread and wine. Again, it’s hard to understand exactly what this means, that we are giving a meal to Hashem, but this concept does exist.
A second approach is found in Rav Hersch on parshat tetzava. He rights that a karban in general is symbolic of us devoting ourselves to Hashem. He then goes on to explain nesachim and writes that “Oil represents wellbeing, wine represents happiness, and flour represents sustenance.” At the time when one tries to devote himself completely to Hashem, he gives as sort of a tax the things that represent his wellbeing on this earth as a sign that everything is that he is directly from by Hashem. It’s a nice idea; the problem is that this would not be that applicable to certain types of karbanot such as those which come to atone for sins.
There is a גמרא in berachot 14b which says that anyone who says Shema without tefillin its as if he offers a karban without nesachim. What in the world does this mean? Rav Kook suggests that a karban is composed of the four elements of the natural world which are human, animal, vegetable and mineral. The giver of the sacrifice is the human, the karban itself is the animal, the altar would be the mineral part as the mizbeach is filled with earth, and finally, the nesachim would fill the vegetable role. The idea behind giving the nesachim would be to make the karban completely part of the natural world. Using this idea he explains the גמרא in berachot as just as our karbanot are from our entirety, so too our kabalat ol malchut shamayim should be as well, and the only way to have that complete is to be wearing our tefillin. This is a nice explanation of the גמרא, and hopefully we will see another one later.
If we look back at the pesukim in Bamidbar perek 15, we notice a few interesting things. Firstly, the mitzvah of nesachim is given as mitzvah contingent on the Jews arrival in Israel. Secondly a ger is specifically included in this mitzvah, not once but four times. The Ramban picks up on the first point and says that the reason that the Jews got the mitzvah of nesachim now is because the Jews needed consoling. Hashem was telling the Jewish people that even after their sin of the spies they were going to get into Israel and by giving them a mitzvah taluy baaretz they were consoled. The Abarbanel takes this idea and expands it.
The Abarbanel starts of by asking a whole bunch of questions on this parsha, the first two being the ones that we raised. Why did the Jews get this mitzvah now, and why is a convert singled out in the mitzvah? He starts off like the Ramban that after the sin of the meraglim, the Jews needed consoling. Why was this the mitzvah given to console them? What’s special about wine, oil and flour? These things were lacking in the desert and Hashem was promising the Jews that they would be abundant once they got into Israel. These three specific items also happen to be some of the main things that Israel was promised to have- Dagan, Tirosh, and Yitzhar. In many ways it sounds like this was a new Brit for all of Klal Yisrael, a promise that they would get to Israel, and it explains many dinim about nesachim. It sounds as if Hashem is giving them a mitzvah directly opposing their mistake, they were motzei shem ra on Israel, and Hashem is promising them that Israel will have all that they need. This is literally a mitzvah coming from the land of Israel! Through this idea we can explain a whole bunch of laws surrounding the nesachim.
Why did the Torah here single out the ger? We know in general that a non-Jew when he brings a karban he does not bring nesachim with it. The Torah here is saying that when you convert, don’t think that you should stay to your old ways and bring karbanot without nesachim like you once did. Rather, you are now also part of this new brit with Hashem, and you too now should bring nesachim to reaffirm this brit. Through this understanding, we can now also re-explain the גמרא in berachot. Just as nesachim are some type of brit with Hashem, and without them something is lacking, so too in reciting shema without tefillin are we missing part of the brit as the tefillin are the signs of our brit with Hashem. They are a sign on our arm and on our heads that we are Hashems people. This idea also explains an interesting medrash. When Avraham defeated the kings, Malki Tzedek came out to greet him with wine and bread. Rashi brings down a medrash that this is a hint to the nesachim. What does this mean? As we know from the next parsha of brit ben habetarim, Avraham here was also worried that he now wasn’t going to get the land. He too needed reassuring from Hashem and that came now. If we are to take this medrash literally and say that there was an actual hint to nesachim here, they would be accomplishing the same purpose as they do in Bamidbar. They are symbolic of a brit between Hashem and the Jewish people, and a promise that the Jewish people will eventually make it to the land of Israel.