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Holocaust (sacrifice): Wikis


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A holocaust is a religious animal sacrifice that is completely consumed by fire. The word derives from the Ancient Greek holocaustos (ὁλόκαυστος = ὁλον [wholly] + καυστος burnt), which is used solely for one of the major forms of sacrifice. When the Tanakh was translated into Greek, the translators used the term for a similar ritual among the Jews.[citation needed]

Greek sacrifice

Holokautein was one of the two chief verbs of Greek sacrifice, in which the victim is utterly destroyed and burnt up, as opposed to thyesthai, to share a meal with the god and one's fellow worshippers, commensal sacrifice.

These are the two ideal types of Greek sacrificial ritual; they are appropriate to different divinities, done for different purposes, and conducted by different methods. Holocausts are apotropaic rituals, intended to appease the spirits of the Underworld, including the Greek heroes, who are spirits of the dead; they are also given to malign powers, such as the Keres and Hecate. One of the earliest attested holocausts was Xenophon's offering of pigs to Zeus Meilichius.[1]

Holocausts are conducted at night, without wine, and offer black-hided animals at a low altar, with their heads directed downwards; in all these they are opposed to the commensal sacrifice given to the Olympian gods. (This distinction is between extreme types, and was somewhat exaggerated in the early twentieth century, as by Jane Harrison; considerable evidence has been also been found of commensal sacrifice offered to heroes.)[2]

Jewish sacrifice

A "whole offering" (Hebrew: olah‎), or "burnt offering", is a type of Biblical sacrifice, specifically an animal sacrifice in which the entire sacrifice is completely burnt, consumed totally by fire. The term "burnt offering" derives from the Septuagint translation, itself deriving from the Biblical phrase "an offering made by fire", which occurs in the description[3] of the offering.[4] This form of sacrifice, in which no meat was left over for anyone, was seen as the greatest form of sacrifice[4] and was the form of sacrifice permitted by Judaism to be given at the Temple by Jews[5] and non-Jews.[4] Modern Biblical scholars regard the Moloch offering, which involved human immolation, as being related to the whole offering.[4]



Whole offerings were made each morning and evening. The sacrificial animal was required to be a lamb or year-old goat. They were also made each Shabbat, each new moon (Rosh Chodesh), each new year (Rosh Hashanah), on Passover, Shavuot, Yom Kippur and Sukkot.

Whole offerings were also made as sin offerings on the appointment of a priest, on the termination of a Nazirite's vow, after recovery from Tzaraas (often translated leprosy, following the Septuagint's translation as lepra), shortly after childbirth, after Niddah (menstruation) or recovery from zivah (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.


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 killed by either the offerer, or a kohen (priest). The animal's blood was carefully collected by kohens and sprinkled around the altar. Unless the animal was a bird, its corpse was flayed, the skin given to the priest (who was permitted to keep it). In later times more powerful priests forcibly took possession of the skins from the lesser priests, and it was decreed that the skins should be sold, with the proceeds being given to the Temple in Jerusalem.[6] The flesh of the animal was divided according to detailed instructions given by the Talmud[7], 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 goat's beards) had been reduced to ashes, usually the following morning, the ashes were taken by the priest to a ritually clean location outside the sanctuary, and dumped there.[4]


In classical rabbinical literature, there are several different etymologies given for the term olah,[4] though all agree that it literally translates as (that which) goes up, as do modern linguists. 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.[4] Modern scholars, however, argue that it simply refers to the burning process, as the meat goes up in flames.[4]

The whole 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.[4] 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.[4] 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;[4] 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 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.[4] 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.[4]

In Greek and Roman pagan rites, gods of the earth and underworld received dark or golden animals, which were offered by night and burnt in full.

Some of the Jewish sacrifices specified by the Torah, the olah was completely burnt. These, whole offerings, were referred to in Hebrew as `olah, a term 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.[8]

In the mid-nineteenth century the word began to be used by a large variety of authors to reference large catastrophes and massacres.[citation needed] In the 20th century it became strongly associated with the Final Solution of the Nazis' Third Reich. It was also used during the Cold War to refer to worldwide nuclear annihilation.

See also


  1. ^ Harrison, pp. 16, 161, et passim; LSJ:ὁλόκαυτος; Xenophon, Anabasis, 7.8.
  2. ^ Harrison p. 161; Brill's New Pauly, "Sacrifice"
  3. ^ Leviticus 1
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Jewish Encyclopedia
  5. ^ Deuteronomy 12:31, Leviticus 18:21, 20:2
  6. ^ Tosefta 19
  7. ^ Tamid 31
  8. ^ Holocaust word


  • Jane Harrison, Prolegomena to the study of Greek Religion Princeton University Press, 1991; ISBN 0-691-01514-7
  • Brill’s New Pauly : encyclopaedia of the ancient world, 2002- : Vol XII, Prol-Sar, ISBN 978-90-04-14217-6


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