The Command Concerning the Perpetual Fire

  • Rav Michael Hattin

 

INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA

 

PARASHAT TZAV

 

The Command Concerning the Perpetual Fire

By Rav Michael Hattin

 

 

INTRODUCTION

 

Parashat Tzav continues the description of the sacrificial service introduced last week in Parashat Vayikra.  In great detail, the Torah spells out the ritual of the burnt offering, meal offering, investiture offering, sin offering, guilt offering, and peace offering, all of them associated with the ongoing service of the Mishkan, and most of them described to greater or lesser degree last week.  The second half of the Parasha, in contrast, does not consider the regular functioning of the Tabernacle and its sacrifices but rather spells out the special and unique service that is to be celebrated by Aharon and his sons at the Mishkan's imminent dedication, the so-called "miluim" or week-long inauguration service that is completed in next week's reading.

 

THE BURNT OFFERING

 

Though our Parasha begins with a rather straightforward account of the burnt offering, it nevertheless introduces some new elements that may be regarded as crucial:

 

God spoke to Moshe saying: Speak to Aharon and to his sons and say: this is the law of the burnt offering, it shall remain upon the hearth of the altar all night long until the morning, and the fire of the altar shall burn it.  The kohen shall don his linen garments and shall wear linen pants upon his flesh, and he shall remove the ashes of the burnt offerings (already) consumed by the fire of the altar, and he shall place them next to the altar.  He shall then take off his garments and don other clothes, and shall remove the ashes to beyond the camp to a ritually fit place.  The fire upon the altar shall burn and shall not be extinguished, and the kohen shall kindle wood upon it every morning.  He shall then arrange the burnt offering upon it and burn the fat of the peace offerings upon it.  A perpetual fire shall be kept burning upon the altar and must not be extinguished.

 

Ostensibly, the primary thrust of the above passage is to finish the account of the burnt offering.  While this type of sacrifice was already described last week in Parashat Vayikra, our passage further indicates the correct procedure for its complete consumption upon the altar.  In other words, last week's account (1:1-17) related how the burnt offering was to be slaughtered and skinned, how its blood was to be presented, and how its flesh and fat were to be placed upon the altar fire.  Our section now completes the picture by describing how the offering is to be consumed by the altar fire, how the resulting ash is to be removed firstly to a location next to the altar and eventually to a site "outside of the camp."

 

THE PERPETUAL FIRE

 

Considering the passage more carefully, though, one in fact discovers that there is another aspect to the account, and it revolves in particular around the matter of the "fire."  This fire is mentioned no less than four times in the passage and actually constitutes the section's main subject.  The verses are not primarily describing the consumption of the burnt offering and the disposal of its ash in their own right but rather the matter of the altar fire that necessarily figures so prominently in those procedures.  Let us consider the above passage again, this time highlighting its major theme:

 

God spoke to Moshe saying: Speak to Aharon and to his sons and say: this is the law of the burnt offering, it shall remain upon the hearth of the altar all night long until the morning, and THE FIRE OF THE ALTAR SHALL BURN IT.  The kohen shall don his linen garments and shall wear linen pants upon his flesh, and he shall remove the ashes of the burnt offerings (already) consumed by THE FIRE OF THE ALTAR, and he shall place them next to the altar.  He shall then take off his garments and don other clothes, and shall remove the ashes to beyond the camp to a ritually fit place.  The FIRE UPON THE ALTAR shall burn and shall not be extinguished, and the kohen shall kindle wood upon it every morning.  He shall then arrange the burnt offering upon it and burn the fat of the peace offerings upon it.  A PERPETUAL FIRE SHALL BE KEPT BURNING UPON THE ALTAR and must not be extinguished.

 

RAMBAM'S FORMULATION

 

The early sages (Talmud Bavli Yoma 43b) disagreed concerning the fire of the altar, and anchored their dispute in the above texts.  Some maintained that there were in fact no less than four separate fires that burned simultaneously upon the sacrificial altar, while others only counted two.  The prevailing (and compromise) view spoke of three discrete altar hearths: one for the burning of the sacrifices, another for the provision of the coals needed to offer the incense, and a third simply to provide a perpetual flame.  The Rambam (12th century, Egypt) codifies the matter in the second chapter of his Book of the Temple service, Laws of the Daily and Additional Sacrifices: 

 

Three hearths of fire were arranged upon the altar daily.  The first was the Great Hearth upon which were offered the daily sacrifice as well as the others.  The second was next to it and was smaller, and from it burning coals were retrieved with a firepan in order to offer the daily incense.  The third one had no other purpose except to provide a perpetual fire, as the verse states, " A perpetual fire shall be kept burning upon the altar and must not be extinguished."  According to tradition, when the verse states " it shall remain upon the hearth of the altar all night long until the morning" it refers to the large hearth; when it says that "the fire of the altar shall burn it" it refers to the second hearth of the incense, and when it relates "the fire upon the altar shall burn and shall not be extinguished" it refers to the perpetual flame… (2:4-5).

 

Significantly, however, not only is there the tradition of three hearths and not one, but also in accordance with the plain reading of the text, there is actually a prohibition, a negative command, to extinguish the flame of the altar at all.  This is learned from the fourth and final reference to fire that occurs in our passage: "A perpetual fire shall be kept burning upon the altar and must not be extinguished."  Again, turning to the Rambam, he states that "one who extinguishes the fire of the altar is liable to receive lashes.  Even one who puts out only a single coal, and even if one removes the coal from the altar and then extinguishes it, then he is liable to receive lashes" (IBID, 2:6).

 

RELATING THE QUESTIONS

 

Our passage thus raises a number of questions: why were there at least three separate fires upon the altar and not one?  Why was there a prohibition to extinguish the flame of the altar at all?  What was the significance of the perpetual flame that was kept burning upon its summit?  We may in fact be able to combine all of our questions into a single comprehensive query.  This is because one may relate the theme of "continual fire" that seems to underline the matter to both the daily sacrifice as well as to the incense, namely the two other sources for the parallel flames that were kept burning always.  That is to say that the Torah invariably describes both the daily sacrifice as well as the incense offering in terms that intrinsically relate them to the perpetuity theme.  Thus, the daily sacrifice is called in the text the "Korban Tamid" (Shemot 29:38-46, et al) or "Perpetual sacrifice" since it was offered twice daily according to a rigid and repetitive ritual.  Similarly, the incense offering is referred to as "Ketoret Tamid" (Shemot 30:7-8) for the very same reason.

 

The commentaries provide a number of possible explanations in place of the Torah's reticence on the matter.  Invariably, they link the theme of fire with the soul of man, with his intellect, with the life force that animates his every thought and deed.  The formulation of the Sefer Ha-chinukh (14th century, Spain) is most compelling in this regard:

 

According to the straightforward interpretation, we might say that this matter is similar to what we explained concerning the Showbread, namely that a person merits Divine blessing in accordance with the acts that he does in conformity to his Creator's will.  Thus, blessing may be found in our mundane daily bread (namely our livelihood and sustenance) because of our attention to God's command (concerning the Showbread) in the Holy Precinct.  By way of a parable, one could say that the blessing extends to its related types.  Similarly, by attending daily to the command of the fire we may merit blessing in the matter of the fire that is within us.  And what is this fire within if not the life force of the person…for by it a person is animate and active, and it therefore requires an additional measure of blessing…for in direct accordance with a person's deeds they receive their reckoning or else God's blessing rests upon them (Mitzva #132 – The Command to Kindle Fire upon the Altar Daily).

 

THE LIFE FORCE AND THE THEME OF PERPETUITY

 

For the Sefer Ha-chinukh, the fire of the altar is analogous to the fire that burns within the human being, the life force that animates and sustains, bringing warmth and light.  By tending to the fire of the altar, to the service of God that it symbolizes, we merit in turn God's attention to our altar within, to the fire that we depend upon to survive.  This is not, of course, mere symbolism.  For living things, warmth is life while death is invariably associated with coldness and stasis.  Additionally, the instrument of fire, and in particular of controlled fire, is peculiar to human beings who alone among the creatures of this planet have succeeded in discovering it and harnessing its potential to their needs.  There is therefore more than just a fanciful link between the fire of the altar – the bending of human creativity and inventiveness to the service of God – and the fire of the soul – the Divine spark that transforms our existence from the lifeless state of the inanimate and the dead to the flourishing state of consciousness, sentience and awareness of God. 

 

The altar fire is characterized by constancy, the daily sacrifice and incense by stability and permanence, and the human soul by its wish for eternity.  The life force that animates the body is but a metaphor for the spark of Divinity within that is our everlasting essence.  Ultimately, all expressions of life, permanence and indestructibility are bound up with the Absolute One who forever sustains.  Thus, the Sefer Ha-chinukh is able to relate the service of the altar, namely the desire to connect with God, with the most innate elements of the human personality.  This is the true significance of the fire that must never be extinguished.

 

Shabbat Shalom