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As suggested by its Greek origin (holos "whole", and kaustos "burnt") the word designates an offering entirely consumed by fire, in use among the Jews and some pagan nations of antiquity. As employed in the Vulgate, it corresponds to two Hebrew terms: (1) to holah, literally: "that which goes up", either to the altar to be sacrificed, or to heaven in the sacrificial flame; (2) Kalil, literally: "entire", "perfect", which, as a sacrificial term, is usually a descriptive synonym of holah, and denotes an offering consumed wholly on the altar. At whatever time and by whomsoever offered, holocausts were naturally regarded as the highest, because the most complete, outward expression of man's reverence to God. It is, indeed, true that certain passages of the prophets of Israel have been construed by modern critics into an utter rejection of the offering of sacrifices, the holocausts included; but this position is the outcome of a partial view of the evidence, of the misconception of an attack on abuses as an attack on the institution which they had infected. For details concerning this point, and for a discussion of the place which the same scholars assign to the holah (holocaust) in their theory of the development of the sacrificial system among the Hebrews, see SACRIFICE. The following is a concise statement of the Mosaic Law as contained chiefly in what critics commonly call the Priests' Code, concerning whole burnt-offerings.

Victims for holocausts

Only animals could be offered in holocaust; for human victims, which were sacrificed by the Chanaanites and by other peoples, were positively excluded from the legitimate worship of Yahweh (cf. Leviticus 18:21; 20:2-5; Deuteronomy 12:31; etc.). In general, the victims had to be taken either from the herd (young bullocks) or from the flock (sheep or goats); and, to be acceptable, the animal was required to be a male, as the more valuable, and without blemish, as only then worthy of God (Leviticus 1:2, 3, 5, 10; 22:17 sqq.). In certain cases, however, birds (only turtle-doves or young pigeons) were offered in holocaust (Leviticus 1:14; etc.); these birds were usually allowed to the poor as a substitute for the larger and more expensive animals (Leviticus 5:7; 12:8; 14:22), and were even directly prescribed in some cases of ceremonial uncleanness (Leviticus 15:14, 15, 29, 30). Game and fishes, which were sacrificed in some pagan worships of Western Asia, were not objects of sacrifice in the Mosaic Law.

Ritual of holocausts

The principle rites to be carried out in the offering of holocausts, were (1) on the part of the offerer, that he should bring the animal to the door of the tabernacle, impose his hands on its head, slay it to the north of the altar, flay and cut up its carcass, and wash its entrails and legs; (2) on the part of the priest, that he should receive the blood of the victim, sprinkle it about the altar, and burn the offering. In the case of an offering of birds, it was the priest who killed the victims and flung aside as unsuitable their crop and feathers (Leviticus 1). In public sacrifices, it was also the priest's duty to slay the victims, being assisted on occasions by the Levites. The inspection of the entrails, which played a most important part in the sacrifices of several ancient people, notably of the Phoenicians, had no place in the Mosaic ritual.

Classes of holocausts

Among the Hebrews, holocausts were of two general kinds, according as their offering was prescribed by the Law or the result of private vow or devotion. The obligatory holocausts were (1) the daily burnt-offering of a lamb; this holocaust was made twice a day (at the third and ninth hour), and accompanied by a cereal oblation and a libation of wine (Exodus 29:38-42; Numbers 28:3-8); (2) the sabbath burnt-offering, which included the double amount of all the elements of the ordinary daily holocaust (Numbers 28:9, 10); (3) the festal burnt-offering, celebrated at the New Moon, the Pasch, on the Feast of Trumpets, the day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles, on which occasions the number of the victims and the quantity of the other offerings were considerably increased; (4) the holocausts prescribed for the consecration of a priest (Exodus 29:15 sqq.; Leviticus 8:18; 9:12), at the purification of women (Leviticus 12:6-8), at the cleansing of lepers (Leviticus 14:19, 20), at the purgation of ceremonial uncleanness (Leviticus 15:15, 30), and finally in connection with the Nazarite vow (Numbers 6:11, 16). In the voluntary burnt-offerings the number of the victims was left to the liberality or to the wealth of the offerer (cf. 1 Kings 3:4; 1 Chronicles 29:21, etc., for very large voluntary holocausts), and the victims might be supplied by the Gentiles, a permission of which Augustus actually availed himself, according to Philo (Legatio ad Caium, xl).

Chief purposes of holocausts

The following are the principal purposes of the whole burnt-offerings prescribed by the Mosaic Law: (1) By the total surrender and destruction of victims valuable, pure, innocent, and most nearly connected with man, holocausts vividly recalled to the Hebrews of old the supreme dominion of God over His creatures, and suggested to them the sentiments of inner purity and entire self-surrender to the Divine Majesty, without which even those most excellent sacrifices could not be of any account before the Almighty Beholder of the secrets of the heart. (2) In offering holocausts with the proper dispositions worshippers could feel assured of acceptance with God, Who then looked upon the victims as a means of atonement for their sins (Leviticus 1:4), as a well-pleasing sacrifice on their behalf (Leviticus 1:3, 9), and as a cleansing from whatever defilement might have prevented them from appearing worthily before Him (Leviticus 14:20). (3) The holocausts of the Old Law foreshadowed the great and perfect sacrifice which Jesus, the High Priest of the New Law and the true Lamb of God, was to offer in fulfillment of all the bloody sacrifices of the first covenant (Hebrews 9:12, sqq.; etc.).


Cath. Authors: Haneberg, Die religioesen Alterthuemer der Bibel, 2nd ed. (Munich, 1869); Schoepfer, Geschichte des A. T. 2nd. ed., (Brixen, 1895); Larange, Etudes sur les Religions Semitiques, 2nd ed. (Paris, 1905). Non-Cath. authors: Kurtz, Sacrificial Worship of the Old Testament, tr. (Edinburgh, 1863); Edersheim, The Temple and its Services (London, 1874); Riehm, Alttestamentliche Theologie (Halle, 1889); Nowack, Hebraeische Archaeologie (Freiburg, 1894); Schultz, Old Testament Theology, tr. (Edinburgh, 1898); Kent, Israel's Laws and Legal Precedents (New York, 1907); Benzinger, Hebraeische Archaeologie, 2nd. ed. (Freiburg, 1907). See also bibliography to Sacrifice.

About this page

APA citation. Gigot, F. (1910). Holocaust. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Gigot, Francis. "Holocaust." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Donald D. Ross.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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