The Mincha or Meal Offering
Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion
The Mincha or Meal Offering
By Rav Michael Hattin
With the reading of Parashat Vayikra, the Torah introduces the laws relating to the Mishkan or Tabernacle. These laws, that take up the vast majority of the book, tend to revolve around two separate but intertwined realms: the first concerns the sacrificial service proper that is to be practiced in its hallowed precincts, while the second concerns the ritual fitness of various individuals that seek to enter the Mishkan complex and to penetrate its hierarchy of holy spaces. Both categories of laws are intricate and involved and depend upon a host of contingencies and circumstances. And both, of course, are almost entirely without practical significance in the present-day reality: our Temple is in ruins and access to its site is limited by political and ritual constraints.
But still we study these laws, with an ardor that not even two thousand years of seeming irrelevancy can quench. Early on, the Rabbis who lived after the destruction of the Second Temple formulated many new approaches to counter the difficult circumstances then faced by the people of Israel with their once-glorious state and capital destroyed, its citizens cruelly scattered to the four corners of the world and henceforth subjugated to realms and to religions inimical to their way of life. Concerning our topic, the Rabbis taught that in the absence of a Temple and a sacrificial cult, practice of the laws was nevertheless still possible, at least in a virtual sense, for serious and sincere STUDY of the laws could take the place of their actual fulfillment. And so the people of Israel continued to diligently learn these laws, relating to them as if they were still being observed and still meaningful. We are indebted to these bold leaders of our people who were able to nurture hope where none should have remained while preserving the significance of matters that could no longer be observed. If the Jews have managed to survive as a people against all odds, it is because the ancient Rabbis were able to create innovative alternatives for much that had been lost as a result of the tragedy of our exile.
THE CONTEXT OF THE MINCHA
This week, we will consider the laws of the mincha or meal offering that is described in the second chapter of our parasha. The larger context of the passage concerns the olah or burnt offering that a supplicant presents at the Mishkan in accordance with his or her freewill decision. This type of sacrifice is not necessarily demanded by any particular circumstance nor need it be brought as a result of transgression, after the manner of the sin offering ("chatat") or the guilt offering ("asham") that are described later in the parasha. Instead, the olah is presented as an austere expression of the supplicant's desire to draw closer to God and to serve Him. Thus, the sacrifice itself is completely immolated upon the altar and the ministering Kohanim receive no share of its meat, for the burnt offering is for God alone. In this respect, the burnt offering differs from the peace offering or "shelamim" whose meat is consumed by the supplicant and the Kohanim alike. Our olah or burnt offering may consist of cattle (1:1-9), of sheep (1:10-13) or of birds (1:14-17), with the preferred species presumably being a function of the financial state of the supplicant. If even the bird offering is beyond his means, then the meal offering may be brought instead. As Rashi, quoting the early Rabbis, so perceptively comments in his opening remarks to the section:
(The verse states concerning the mincha:) "If a soul offers a meal offering to God" (Vayikra 2:1) Concerning all of the freewill offerings the word "soul" is not used, except for the mincha. Who is accustomed to present the mincha offering? Is it not the poor (who cannot afford anything more extravagant)? The Holy One Blessed be He says: I consider it as if that person has offered Me his very soul! (commentary to 2:1).
The text then goes on to detail some four different types of meal offerings: the flour offering, the offering of baked loaves and wafers, the pan offering and the deep-fried offering. The first consists of fine flour that is presented with oil and frankincense, a fragrant spice derived from the gum resin of certain trees of genus boswellia that in Biblical times grew upon the southern Arabian peninsula. This fine flour is neither baked nor cooked but mixed with the oil and then offered upon the altar. The second type of meal offering consists of baked loaves or thin wafers, over both of which oil is then poured or at least smeared. The pan offering is a more crisp preparation that is fried in a shallow pan over the fire, and it consists of flat cakes over which additional oil is then poured. Finally, the deep-fried mincha (described in the text as "marcheshet" a word that is onomatopoeic and attempts to convey the sound of the sizzling oil) is made by placing the dough in a tall-sided pan that contains a deep layer of oil.
GENERAL FEATURES OF THE MINCHA
In all cases, the flour must be finely sifted and from wheat, the oil is olive-based and no yeast whatsoever may be used in the preparation. The "loaves," "cakes" or "doughnuts" are therefore more akin to matza than to bread, and the text in fact describes them as such. In all cases as well, the Kohen carefully removes (with the palm of his hand and three of his fingers) a small amount of the offering and presents it upon the altar, along with the frankincense, as a "remembrance" on behalf of the supplicant. This "remembrance" or "azkara" is completely burnt in the altar fire while the remainder of the mincha may be consumed by the Kohanim.
The mincha then, in some important respects resembles the animal or bird olah, while markedly differing in others. Like the animal or bird offering whose presentation typically includes the placement of blood upon the altar as well as the ritual burning of certain fats and limbs, the mincha also includes the offering of the handful of meal as well as the frankincense upon the fire. But unlike the animal or bird olah that is in the end utterly consumed by the flames, the mincha is in the main eaten by the Kohanim.
We note, of course, that as a category the mincha offering was derived from grain, and in particular from wheat. While in ancient times a number of other grains were also regarded as staples of the menu such as barley, spelt, oats, and rye wheat was considered (just as it is today for many of us) to be the most important and flavorsome. A grain such as barley, in contrast, was mostly reserved for animal consumption. On the one hand, the general availability of wheat flour made it a natural choice for an offering that was meant to be within the reach of even the most poor. On the other hand, though, the provision to present only finely sifted flour indicated that even for the most humble of offerings some expense and exertion were demanded, for genuine devotion requires effort.
Perhaps this also explains the implied progression in the mincha narrative, for the text first introduces the offering of fine flour, progresses to the baked loaves and wafers, then describes the fried pancakes and lastly details the deep-fried dough. Each one of these successive preparations is of course more complex, for the fine flour offering involves no further work, while the others introduce increasingly more elaborate processes. And while the Torah does not seem to indicate a preference of one type of mincha over another, perhaps the general thrust of the matter is to encourage heightened involvement on the part of the supplicant. "Invest as much as you can," the Torah seems to say, "in your relationship with God. The monetary value of the offering is much less significant than the amount of spiritual (and physical) effort that you have put in!"
As a general observation, it stands to reason that an important aspect of the presentation of the mincha must have been the supplicant's recognition that God was the sustainer who bestows nourishment to all life. Grain was the basis of the diet and bread and its derivatives were the main part of every meal. Meat, on the other hand, was consumed much less frequently and was not regarded as being essential in the same way. This may explain why the Kohanim were enjoined to partake of the mincha after the offering of the handful and the frankincense, for their consumption emphasized that God indeed provides. But if the free-will olah offering was presented from cattle, sheep or birds, then it was wholly consumed by the altar and the Kohanim ate none of it.
THE PASSAGE'S CONCLUDING PROVISIONS
Finally, we come to the conclusion of the passage, where the Torah sets a number of important limits on the offering of the mincha:
All mincha offerings that you shall offer to God shall include no leavening, for any yeast or anything sweet (such as honey) you shall not sacrifice of them as a fire-offering to God. They may be brought as an offering of first fruits to God, but they shall not be offered upon the altar as a sweet-smelling sacrifice. All of your mincha offerings shall be salted with salt, and you shall not leave out the salt of your Lord's covenant from upon your meal offerings, for all of your offerings shall be offered with salt (Vayikra 2:11-13).
Here, the Torah forbids the inclusion of any yeast or sweet liquids with the offering of the mincha, while at the same time mandating the use of salt. The classical commentaries are mainly silent on the matter and only a few venture to offer an interpretation. The Rambam, always the rationalist, characteristically explains that the matter may be understood as a polemic against the idolatrous practices of the heathens who would invariably include leavening and sweet things in their sacrifices to the gods (Guide to the Perplexed, 3:46). Surprisingly, the Ramban, often circumspect about the Rambam's tenuous links between enigmatic Torah provisions and the war against idolatry, adopts his view here, though the Ramban does intimate at the end of his remarks that "there may very well be a hidden mystical reason for all of this" (commentary to 2:11).
Perhaps we may alternatively explain that the yeast/sweet liquids stand in contrast to the salt, just as the above passage presents them, for while the former tend to be identified with accelerating the process of organic decay, the latter arrests it. Might the Torah perhaps be intimating that as offerings to the Source of all life only those food items that preserve and maintain ought to be presented, for the supplicant's objective is to partake of life-everlasting? Thus, the yeast and the sweetness are rejected while the stern salt is enjoined, as a potent lesson that in our efforts to forge a relationship with God we must seek out that which is of enduring worth while avoiding the more temporal distractions.
This week, we considered some of the main features of the meal offerings and discovered that while, in practice, the mincha may have been the preserve of the poor, the didactic features of the sacrifice had much broader application. This approach, of seeking out the figurative and symbolic meanings that underlie the sacrificial service, while not neglecting or attempting to downplay the significance of the concrete practice, is one that is well-grounded in our tradition. This is especially true during a period of our history when actual fulfillment of the service is currently impossible. Let us hope and pray that the Holy Temple be rebuilt speedily in our days so that "the offerings of Yehuda and Yerushalayim be pleasing to God, as in earlier days and former years" (Malakhi 3:4).