The word oblation , from the supine of the Latin verb offero ("to offer"), is etymologically akin to offering, but is, unlike the latter, almost exclusively restricted to matters religious. In the English Bibles "oblation", "offering", "gift", "sacrifice" are used indiscriminately for anything presented to God in worship, or for the service of the Temple or priest. This indiscriminate rendering arises from the fact that these words do not purport to render always the same Hebrew expressions. The latter, moreover, are not distinctly specific in their meaning. In this article oblations will be considered in the narrow sense the term has tended to assume of vegetable or lifeless things offered to God, in contradistinction to "bloody sacrifices ".
Oblations of this kind, like sacrifices, were found in all ancient Semitic religions — in fact are a worldwide and ever-existing institution. Various theories have been proposed to explain how offerings came to be a part of worship. Unfortunately very many modern scholars assume that mankind began in the savage state. According to one theory, the god being considered the first owner of the land, it was inferred he had a claim to a tribute from the increase of the soil: this is the tribute theory. It relies on the fact that the offering of first-fruits is one of the earliest forms of oblations found among ancient peoples. The assumption that primitive men conceived deity under low anthropomorphic forms is the source whence have sprung the gift theory, the table-bond theory, and the communion theory. According to the first of these systems, the god is approached through presents which the worshipper counts on to insure favour ( Dora theous peithei, dor aidoious basileas ). That such a misconception of the divinity was prevalent at certain epochs and among certain peoples cannot be gainsaid (Cic., "De Leg.", ii, 16); however, in view of the idea of the sacredness of the bond created by the sharing in a common meal — an idea that still holds sway among Semitic nomads (and nomadic life undoubtedly preceded agricultural life) — the gift theory has been mostly superseded by the table-bond theory. A bond is entered into between the god and the worshipper when they, as it were, sit at the same table, man furnishing the meal, and the god granting in return the assurance of his protection. The communion theory (its chief advocate is W. R. Smith) is based on the totemistic conception of the origin of worship, its essence consisting in that the life of the god, infused into the totem, is assimilated by the worshipper in the sacred repast. This theory would account for animal sacrifices and oblations of such vegetables as were considered totems; but it fails manifestly to explain the many and various oblations custom imposed or sanctioned.
As far as positive information is concerned, the origin of oblations, according to Genesis, may be traced back to Cain's offerings of the fruits of the earth. Some critics would brush aside the statement as the fancy of a Judean writer of the seventh century B. C. ; yet the passage expresses the writer's belief that sacrifices and oblations were offered by the very first men. It emphasizes, moreover, the idea that oblation is an act of worship natural to an agricultural population, just as the slaying of a victim is to be expected in the worship of a pastoral people; and it seems to set forth the belief that bloody sacrifices are more pleasing to God than mere oblations — a belief seemingly inspired by the superiority the nomad has ever claimed in the East over the husbandman. At all events it cannot be denied that there is at the root of all oblations the idea that God has a claim upon man, his possessions, and the fruits of his labours, and is pleased at receiving an acknowledgment of His sovereignty.
Whether exterior worship, especially sacrifice, was in the beginning, as W. R. Smith affirms, an affair, not of the individual, but of the tribe or clan, is questionable. As far back as documents go, side by side with public oblations, are others made by individuals in their own name and out of private devotion.
The things thus made over to the deity were among Semitic peoples most varied in nature and value. Offering the first yield of the year's crop was extensively practised, local usage specifying what should be offered. The premices of the corn crop (wheat, barley, sometimes lentils) were generally reserved to the deity ; so also among certain tribes the first milk and butter of the year. Sometimes fruits (not only first-fruits, but other fruit-oblations) were offered in their natural state. At Carthage the fruit-offering consisted of a choice branch bearing fruit; possibly such was the form of certain fruit-offerings in Israel. Oblations might also consist of fruit prepared as for ordinary use, in compressed cakes, cooked if necessary, or made in the form of jelly ( debash; the latter preparation was excluded from the altar in Israel ). All cereal oblations, whether of first-fruits or otherwise, among the Hebrews and apparently among the Phœnicians, were mingled with oil and salt before being placed on the altar. As sacrifices were frequently the occasion of social gatherings and of religious meals, the custom was introduced of offering with the victim whatever concomitants (bread, wine, etc.) were necessary. Yet nowhere do we find water offered up as an oblation or used for libations; only the ritual of late Judaism for the Feast of Tabernacles commanded that on each of the seven days of the celebration water drawn from the Fountain of Siloam ( Douay Version, Sellum) should be brought into the Temple amidst the blare of trumpets and solemnly poured out upon the altar. Other articles of food were used for libations, such, for instance, as milk among the Phœnicians, as among nomadic Arabs it is to this very day. Libations of wine were frequent, at least in countries where wine was not too expensive; among the Hebrews, as in Greece and Rome, wine was added to holocausts as well as to victims whose flesh the worshippers partook of, and was then poured out at the base of the altar.
Analogous to offering liquid food to be poured out as a libation was the custom of anointing sacred objects or hallowed places. The history of the patriarchs bears witness to its primitive usage, and the accounts of travellers certify to its existence today among many Semitic populations. In this case, oil is; generally used; occasionally more precious ointments, but as these largely contain oil, the difference is accidental. Among nomads where oil is scarce, butter is used, being spread on sacred stones, tombs, or on the door-posts or the lintels of venerated shrines. In some places oil is offered by way of fuel for lamps to be kept burning before the tomb of some renowned wely or in some sanctuary. Also it has always been a general custom in the East to offer, either together with, or apart from, sacrifices and oblations, spices to be burned at the place of the sacrifice or of the sacrificial meal, or upon a revered tomb, or at any place sacred to the tribe or individual. Among the Arabs ; it is hardly justifiable to pay religious homage at the tomb of some sainted wely or at certain sanctuaries. without bringing an offering, however insignificant. If nothing better is at hand, the worshipper will leave on the spot a strip from his garment, a horse-shoe nail, even a pebble from the road.
Besides the oblations mentioned above (usually articles of food), the votive offerings made among early Semites on very special occasions deserve mention. One of the most characteristic is the offering of one's hair, common also among other ancient peoples. This offering was a personal one, and aimed to create or emphasize the relation between the worshipper and his god; it was usually in connexion with special vows. From this hair-offering we should distinguish the shaving of the head as a kind of purification prescribed in certain cases ( Leviticus 14:9 ). Owing undoubtedly to the superstitious practice of ancient peoples, associating mourning with a hair-offering, the Pentateuchal legislation enacted on this subject prohibitions ( Leviticus 19:27 ; 21:5 ; Deuteronomy 14:1 ), which, however, were not always observed. The only hair-offering legally recognized among the Hebrews was that connected with the vow of the Nazarite ( Numbers 6 ), and likely the writer of the Canticle of Debbora had some such vow in view when he speaks ( Judges 5:2 ), according to the probable sense of the Hebrew, of men offering their hair and vowing themselves to battle, i.e. vowing not to cut their hair until they should come back in triumph; this vow (still frequent in the East) implied that they should conquer or die. Also in Num., xxxi, 28, we read of a share of the spoils of battle being set aside as an offering to the sanctuary. Although the narrative here concerns a special occurrence, and nothing intimates that this spoil-offering should be held as a precedent, yet it is very likely that it begat at least a pious custom. We see, indeed, in Israel and neighbouring peoples, choice spoils hung up in sanctuaries. It may suffice to recall the trophies heaped up by the Assyrian and Babylonian rulers; also the Ark of the Covenant set up as an offering in the temple of Dagon by the Philistines ; and in Israel itself, the arms of Goliath offered by David to the temple of Nob.
Oblations in the Jewish religion were the object of minute regulations in the Law. Some were offered with bloody sacrifices (cf. Numbers 8:8 ; 15:4-10 ), as the offering of meal, oil, and incense that accompanied the daily holocaust. A handful of this meal-offering mingled with oil was burned on the altar together with incense, and the remainder was allotted to the priests, to be eaten unleavened within the Temple precincts ( Leviticus 6:14-18 ; Numbers 6:14-16 ). In peace-offerings, together with the victim, loaves, wafers, and cakes of flour kneaded with oil, and loaves of leavened bread were presented to the Temple (the loaves of leavened bread were not to be put or burned upon the altar ); one cake, one wafer, and one loaf of each kind was the share of the officiating priest ( Leviticus 7:11-14 ; 2:11 ). Among the regulations for the sacrifice of thanksgiving to be offered by lepers on their recovery was one that the cleansed, if they had the means, should add to the victims three-tenths of an ephah (the ephah of the second Temple contained about three pecks, dry measure, the old measure being possibly twice as large) of meal tempered with oil; if they were poor, one tenth of an ephah was sufficient ( Leviticus 14:10, 21 ). Finally the sacrifice of the Nazarite included a basketful of unleavened bread tempered with oil and cakes of like kind, together with the ordinary libations.
For public oblations separate from sacrifices see FIRST-FRUITS; LOAVES OF PROPOSITION; TITHES. Moreover, every day the High Priest presented at the altar in his own name and that of the other priests an oblation of one tenth of an ephah (half in the morning and half in the evening) of meal kneaded with oil, to be burned on the altar (Lev., vi, 19-23; cf. Jos., "Ant. Jud.", III, x, 7). A certain number of private oblations were prescribed by Law. The priest, on entering upon his ministry, offered an oblation, the same in kind and quantity as the daily oblation of the High Priest ( Leviticus 6:20, 21 ). A man obliged to a sin-offering, and too poor to provide a victim, was allowed to present an oblation of one tenth of an ephah of flour without the accompaniments of oil and incense ( Leviticus 5:1-4, 11, 12 ). A woman accused of adultery was subjected to a trial during which an offering of one tenth of an ephah of barley-flour without oil or incense was made, a part being burned on the altar. Finally oblations might be made in fulfilment of a vow ; but then the matter was left to the choice of the vower. The regulations of the Pentateuchal Law concerning oblations were scrutinized and commented upon by Jewish doctors who took up every possible difficulty likely to occur, for instance, on the nature, origin, preparation, and cooking of the flour to be used, its buying and measuring, the mode of presenting, receiving, and offering the oblation, its division and the attributing of each of the parts (see the forty-second treatise of the Mishna: "Menahoth"). Of these commentaries we will single out only those concerned with the rite to be observed in offering the oblations, because they are the only somewhat reliable explanation of difficult expressions occasionally met with in Holy Writ (D. V.: "to elevate", "to separate", Leviticus 7:34 ; 10:15 , etc.). When an Israelite presented an oblation, the priest went to meet him at the gate of the priests' court; he put his hands under the hands of the offerer, who held oblation, and drew the offerer's hands and the oblation first backwards, then forwards (this was the thenuphah , improperly rendered "the separation"), again upwards and downwards ( therumah , "the elevation"). These rites were not observed in the oblations by women or Gentiles. The first-fruits offered at the Pasch and the "oblation of jealousy " (on the occasion of an accusation of adultery ) were moved about in the manner described, then brought to the south-west corner of the altar ; the first-fruits offered at the Pentecost and the log (2/5 of a pint) of oil presented by the leper were subject to the thenuphah and the therumah , but not brought to the altar ; the sin-offering, the oblations of the priests, and the freewill oblations were only brought directly to the altar ; lastly the loaves of proposition were neither "separated" and "elevated" nor brought to the altar.
Like many Jewish customs, that of offering to the Temple the matter of the sacrifices and other oblations was adapted by the early Christian communities to the new order of things. First in importance among these Christian oblations is that of the matter of the Eucharistic sacrifice. Not only the laity, but the whole clergy, bishops, and pope himself included, had to make this offering. These oblations were collected by the officiating bishop assisted by priests and deacons at the beginning of the "Missa Fidelium", after the dismissal of the non-communicants. This collection, at first performed in silence, was, towards the beginning of the fifth century, made amidst the singing of a Psalm, known in Rome as the "Offertorium", at Milan as the "Offerenda", and in Greek churches as the "Cherubikon" (our Offertory is a remnant of the old "Offertorium", curtailed by reason of the actual gathering of the oblations falling into disuse). Part of the oblations was destined for consecration and communion (cf. the French word oublie applied to the matter of the Eucharist). The subdeacon in charge of this part is called in certain "Ordines Romani" the "oblationarius". Another part was destined for the poor, and the remainder for the clergy. So important was this offering held, that the word oblatio came to designate the whole liturgical service. Apart from this liturgical oblation, which has been preserved, at least partly, in the liturgy of Milan and in some churches of France, new fruits were at given seasons presented at Mass for blessing, a custom somewhat analogous to the first-fruit offerings in the Old Law ; this usage is still in vigour in parts of Germany where, at Easter, eggs are solemnly blessed ; but, contrary to Hebrew customs, the Christians usually retained the full disposition of these articles of food. Very early offerings were made over to the Church for the support of the poor and of the clergy. St. Paul emphasized the right of ministers of the Gospel to live by the Gospel ( 1 Corinthians 9:13-14 ), and he never tired of reminding the churches founded by him of their duty to supply the wants of poorer communities. How, within the limits of each community, the poor were cared for we catch a glimpse of in the records of the early Church of Jerusalem (institution of the deacons ); that in certain Churches, as the Church of Rome, the oblations for the poor reached a fair amount, we know from the prominence of the deacons, an illustration of which we have in the history of St. Lawrence , and in the fact that the pope was usually chosen from among their order. In time of persecution, manual offerings; were sufficient to support the clergy and the poor ; but when peace had come, Christians felt it a duty to insure this support by means of foundations. Such donations multiplied, and the word "oblations" (usually in the plural number) came to mean in Canon Law any property, real or personal, made over to the Church.
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