Massekhet Menaḥot and Massekhet Zevaḥim should be viewed as “sister tractates.” Both of them focus on the rules and regulations associated with the sacrificial service, although Massekhet Zevaḥim deals with sacrifices brought from living creatures that are slaughtered (animals and fowl), while Massekhet Menaḥot is about sacrifices that originate in the plant world – menaḥot – meal offerings brought from grains (wheat and barley) and libations of wine and oil.
Just as is the case regarding animal sacrifices, we find a variety of different sacrifices in the general category of menaḥot. There are those that are voluntary, those that are obligatory and those that come to effect atonement for sin; there are those brought by individuals and those brought on behalf of the community. Another parallel to animal sacrifice is the fact that while some parts are burned on the altar, other parts are given to the kohanim to eat. Nevertheless, there are differences, as well. For example, all menaḥot are considered kodashei kodashim – the highest level of holiness and they can only be eaten by male kohanim in the Temple courtyard.
The sacrificial service that we find for the minḥa is similar to that of an animal sacrifice. After preparing the meal-offering the kohen takes a kometz – a fistful – from the mixture, places it in one of the Temple vessels to sanctify it, carries it to the altar and burns it on the altar. From that time the remnants are permitted to the kohanim to eat. Thus, the four main activities of the minḥa parallel those of an animal sacrifice:
- Kemitza (taking the fistful of flour) parallels sheḥita,
- Placing the kometz in the Temple vessel parallels collecting the blood in a Temple vessel,
- Carrying the kometz to the altar parallels carrying the blood to the altar,
- Burning the kometz on the altar parallels sprinkling the blood on the altar.
It is during these four acts that inappropriate thoughts will disqualify the sacrifice. Thus, the kometz of the meal offering and the blood of the animal sacrifice symbolize the atonement offered by this sacrifice, and completing that service allows the rest of the sacrifice to be eaten or brought on the altar, as appropriate.
Among the differences between these sacrifices is the fact that an animal sacrifice is ready to be slaughtered and brought to the altar with minimal preparation, while the meal offering must be prepared from different ingredients – flour, oil, frankincense – in order to be ready for sacrifice.
In reality, the first two tractates in Seder Kodashim – Zevaḥim and Menaḥot – constitute a single whole dealing with the sacrificial service, inasmuch as each contains elements of ritual law that apply to the other. The latter part of Massekhet Menaḥot, for example, appears to be a summation of the general rules of sacrifice. The concluding Mishna quotes passages that appear regarding animal sacrifice (see Vayikra 1:9, 17) and meal offerings (Vayikra 2:2), which agree that both are offerings desired by God, allowing the Mishna to close by teaching that it makes no difference whether one offers much or little, so long as he directs his heart to heaven.
Meal offerings can be categorized in a number of different ways:
- According to obligation – The minḥa can be voluntary, obligatory and can be brought to effect atonement for sin;
- According to who is bringing it – The minḥa can be brought by individuals or on behalf of the community;
- According to the ingredients – The minḥa can be brought from wheat or barley, it may contain oil or frankincense, both of them or neither of them.
- According to method of preparation – Some meal-offerings are simply mixtures of flour, while others involve a process of cooking, baking or frying.
- While most meal offerings are baked as matza, there are some that are allowed to rise and become ḥametz.
- Most meal offerings are brought on their own, but there are some that are brought together with animal sacrifices.
- Most meal offerings have a kometz taken to be burned on the altar, but there are exceptions to this rule, as well.
In all, there are 15 different types of menaḥot:
- 11 brought by individuals,
- 3 brought by the community
- 1 libation brought in conjunction with many animal sacrifices (see Bamidbar 15:1-16).
The first five voluntary menaḥot, which are enumerated by the Torah according to their method of preparation (see Vayikra 2:1-10). Meal offerings brought by individuals include:
- A simple flour mixture
- ḥallot – unleavened loaves
- rekikim – unleavened wafers
- maḥavat – fried (in a pan)
- marḥeshet – cooked (in a deep pan)
- When a person is obligated to bring a sacrifice for one of a number of specific sins, in the event that he cannot afford a more expensive sacrifice, he can bring a meal offering (see Vayikra 5:1-13).
- The meal offering brought by a sota (see Bamidbar 5:25).
- The meal offering brought by a kohen who begins his service in the Temple (see Vayikra 6:13).
- The daily meal offering brought by the kohen gadol in the morning and afternoon (see Vayikra 6:15).
- Ḥallot brought together with a korban toda – a thanksgiving offering (see Vayikra 7:12-14).
- The loaves brought by the Nazirite who has completed his period of nezirut (see Bamidbar 6:14).
Meal offerings brought by the community include:
- Minḥat ha-omer – the meal offering brought on Passover, celebrating the new harvest (see Vayikra 23:10-11)
- Shetei ha-leḥem – the two loaves brought on Shavuot, celebrating the new wheat harvest (see Vayikra 23:17)
- Leḥem ha-panim – the 12 loaves placed on the table in the Temple on a weekly basis (see Vayikra 24:5-8)
Massekhet Menaḥot devotes significant space to discussion of a number of laws that have no direct connection with sacrifices, but since they were mentioned in the Mishnayot, they are discussed at length. Thus, the major discussion in the Talmud of such topics as tzitzit, tefillin and mezuza are found here, and although these topics are mentioned in other tractates as well, Massekhet Menaḥot is the main source of information when rulings on these matters appear in halakhic works.