Rituals and Ceremonies

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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez

What is the meaning of laying hands on sacrificial animals?

The Hebrew phrase yad samak ‘al means “to press the hand on” sacrificial victims, and is primarily used in the cult and in some noncultic cases. We will examine both of them. The idea that the laying on of hands signifies ownership is practically irrelevant because the ritual assumes that sinners had to bring to the sanctuary their own animals. We should keep in mind that a ritual could convey different meanings depending on the context and the purpose of the larger ritual of which it is a part.

1. Nonsacrificial Use: The first case is found in Leviticus 24:14. Those who heard a person blaspheming the name of the Lord placed their hands on the person before they were stoned. The meaning of the ritual is not stated. But we can guess that as witnesses they are identifying the guilty one before the execution. But it could also be, as suggested in Leviticus 5:1, that those who heard the blasphemy got involved in the sinful act at the risk of their own lives, and unless they witness against the blasphemer they would also bear his sin (cf. Lev. 24:15). In this case they would be symbolically transferring to the person the guilt that otherwise would have adhered to them. During the installation of Joshua, Moses laid hands on him to “give him some of your [Moses’] authority” (Num. 27: 20, NIV). In this case the idea of substitution may be present because Joshua will take the place of Moses as leader of the Israelites.

In Numbers 8:10 the people laid hands on the Levites as they were separated to officiate in the tabernacle. They were chosen by the Lord to serve Him in place of the firstborn of the Israelites (see Num. 3:12).We have here a transfer of responsibility and the concept of substitution.

In conclusion, several ideas seem to be expressed in the ritual: A relationship is established between the subject and the object (witness/accused; leader-successor/substitute;  firstborn/ substitute); something is transferred from one to the other; and in some cases the idea of substitution is present.

2. Cultic Use: The laying on of hands was required for the burnt (Lev. 1:4), peace (Lev. 3:2), sin (Lev. 4:4, 15, 33), and most probably the guilt offerings (Lev. 7:7). It was part of the ritual of ordination for Aaron and his sons (Lev. 8:14, 18, 22). It is debated whether two hands were always used. When the subject is plural, the plural “hands” is used, and “hand” when the subject is singular. It is difficult to be definitive on this matter. The meaning of the ritual is not explicitly stated, except in one case, the scapegoat during the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:21). Aaron used both hands, confessed the sins of Israel, and transferred them to the live goat. In this case the idea of transfer is clearly expressed,
but there is no substitution. It is not clear whether this meaning also applies to laying hands on the sacrifices, because the scapegoat was not a sacrificial victim.

3. Meaning of the Ritual: One meaning seems to predominate: transference. It would be most logical to assume that this is also the case with the sacrificial victims. Several arguments support this suggestion. First, every sacrifice had an expiatory function, implying that through it sin was removed. Second, sinners came to the sanctuary bearing their sin/impurity (Lev. 5:1), but this was removed through an expiatory sacrifice that resulted in forgiveness (verse 10) or cleansing (Lev. 12:8; 14:19), thus delivering sinners from this burden (cf. Isa. 53:6, 11, 12). We are even told that God (Ex. 34:7) or the priest bears the sin of the people (Lev. 10:17; Ex. 28:38). Third, sin/impurity was removed from the sanctuary once a year, suggesting that somehow the sin/impurity of the people was transferred to it. It was through the laying on of hands that sin was transferred from sinners via the sacrifice to the sanctuary. The idea of substitution also seems to be present in the laying on of hands. The ritual is explained in terms of the divine acceptance of the offering that is at the same time the acceptance of the offerer (Lev. 1:4; 7:18). The experience of the one is the experience of the other.