Ketoret and Menora: Commitment and Understanding

  • Harav Yehuda Amital
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Student Summaries of Sichot of the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion





New books by Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik and others

are available to VBM readers at a 20% discount: see books.htm


Ketoret and Menora: Commitment and Understanding

Adapted by Dov Karoll

At the end of this week's parasha, we read:

And Aharon shall burn upon it [the incense altar] sweet incense every morning, when he cleans the lamps [of the menora], he shall burn incense upon [the altar]. And when Aharon lights the lamps [of the menora] in the evening, he shall burn incense upon [the altar], a perpetual incense before God throughout your generations. (Shemot 30:7-8)

The Gemara records that offering of the ketoret, the incense, is done privately (Yoma 43b-44a, Zevachim 88b, Mishna Kelim 1:9, Rambam Hilkhot Temidin u-Musafin 3:3); that is, when the ketoret is offered, no one is allowed to be in the heikhal, the inner sanctum, other than the kohen offering the ketoret. While the Torah mentions this exclusion specifically regarding the special service of the kohen gadol on Yom ha-Kippurim (Vayikra 16:17), the Gemara understands that it applies to the ketoret generally (Yoma 44b).

Given its very private nature, the ketoret symbolizes the mysterious, the unknown. However, the Torah explicitly connects both offerings of the ketoret to the lighting of the menora. The menora is symbolic of the light of the Torah, the revealed Torah, while the ketoret is symbolic of the hidden aspects of Torah, of those parts that lie beyond human comprehension. The Torah links these two commands, highlighting the significance of striving to understand the Torah while recognizing that some aspects of Torah will remain difficult.

Once I spoke to a group of people who were in the process of becoming more religiously observant, and I was asked the following question: "We are interested in starting to become observant, but we cannot take on the entire corpus of Halakha at once. How shall we start?" I told them that the Torah itself provides a model that addresses this very concern.

When the Jewish people were at Mara, "There He made for them a statute and ordinance, and there He put them to the test" (Shemot 15:25). Which mitzvot ("statute and ordinance") did the Jewish people receive there? The rabbis specify Shabbat, honoring parents and the red heifer (Sanhedrin 56b and Rashi Shemot 15:25, s.v. sham).

What does this source teach us about starting out in the observance of Halakha? Shabbat is a basic foundation of Judaism, and I recommended that they begin to observe Shabbat. Stopping one's daily activities to recognize God as Creator of the world is essential. Honoring parents, on the other hand, is an interpersonal mitzva, and one that is understandable to all. I told them that they should take on one mitzva of this type, whether honoring parents itself or something similar.

The red heifer, by contrast, is the paradigm of mitzvot that we do not dream to understand. The truth is that the Jewish people had not yet been commanded most of the mitzvot for which the red heifer would have been relevant. But the important thing was the acceptance, the commitment and subservience to the word of God. Accordingly, I told them that they should take on one mitzva which is incomprehensible to them, to be observed simply because it is the word of God. I subsequently received feedback, and heard that one couple had taken on the observance of separation between milk and meat, while another had taken on the laws of family purity.

Some people are more comfortable with the notion that no comprehensible explanation can be given for mitzvot, for this contributes to their mystical nature. They presume that anything rationally comprehensible to the human mind cannot be Divine. We strongly reject this approach. The rational aspect of mitzvot and Halakha is certainly central. However, this does not mean that everything is comprehensible, nor does it mean that we perform mitzvot only because we understand them. We need to recognize that we cannot comprehend everything, and we must unconditionally accept all mitzvot.

Regarding the mitzva of honoring parents, the Gemara in Kiddushin (31a) cites the case of a gentile by the name of Dama ben Netina as the model for showing proper respect for a parent. Other rabbinic statements cite Esav as a model for honoring one's father (see, for example, Devarim Rabba 1:15). Since it is a rational mitzva, it makes sense that even gentiles or people not otherwise committed to Halakha, could be scrupulous in this mitzva.

Nonetheless, it is important to note that the Gemara records that Dama ben Netina's reward for his action is that a red heifer was born in his flock, and the rabbis paid a great sum of money to purchase this red heifer from him (Kiddushin 31b). It has been pointed out that the introduction of a red heifer into Dama ben Netina's flock serves as an answer to the critique that could have risen from his story. In response to the claim that a gentile, rather than a Jew, was cited as the model for honoring parents, the red heifer reminds us that the Jew has mitzvot that the gentile lacks. This helps explain why the Jew is not so single-mindedly focused on the mitzva of honoring parents.

The Rambam, in the coda to the book of Avoda (Hilkhot Me'illa 8:8), has a discussion that is quite pertinent to this issue:

It is fitting for a person to ponder the laws of the Torah, trying, as much as you can, to fully understand their underlying logic. If there is a matter for which you cannot find an explanation, this should not be taken lightly, but you must not violate the sacred domains lest you be smitten, for this is not a mundane topic which can be ignored….

The Torah states, "And you shall observe my statutes and my laws, and you shall perform them," and the rabbis understood this to include both "observance" and "performance" for both "statutes" and "laws." "Performance" is the actualization of the laws, and "observance" involves safeguarding them, and not misleading yourself that the statutes are of less significance than the laws. For the "laws" are those rational mitzvot whose reason for observance is clear, and whose reward is apparent, such as the prohibition of theft, murder and honoring parents. And the "statutes" are those mitzvot whose reason is unknown.

The rabbis have said of these [statutes], "I (God) have established these statutes and you have no right to doubt them." A person's evil inclination tempts him with regard to these, and the nations of the world challenge us about these mitzvot, such as the prohibition of swine, mixing milk and meat, the broken-necked heifer, the red heifer, and the scapegoat.

How much did King David suffer from the heretics and gentiles who would challenge the statutes! Whenever they would oppress him with false claims that they would prepare in their limited understanding, he would increase his devotion to the Torah, as the verse states, "The wicked have smeared me with a lie, but I have kept Your precepts with my whole heart" (Tehillim 119:69). He also writes there about this matter, "All of your mitzvot are faithful; they persecute me wrongly - You help me" (119:86).

At the end of the halakha, he explains (in a different manner than in his Guide of the Perplexed) the nature of korbanot, sacrifices:

All the sacrifices fall into the category of "statutes." It is for this reason that the sages taught that the sacrificial order is a foundation of the world, and this is also why the Torah described them prior to other statutes.

The connection between these last two statements is highlighted in the newly-released Fraenkel edition of the Rambam, which has the word "Lefikakh," "Therefore," indicating that the fact that the sacrifices are statutes contributes to their importance, making them a pillar of the world.

This commitment, both to mitzvot we cannot comprehend as well as to those we can comprehend, combined with striving to understand all of them as best as possible, is symbolized by the connection between the offering of the incense and the lighting of the menora. As mentioned above, the Torah specifies that the incense is to be offered at the same time that the menora is lit.

This idea is also emphasized at the beginning of Parashat Teruma, where God lists the materials needed for the building of the Mishkan, and not the materials needed for the maintenance of the Mishkan. There is one verse that is an exception to this rule: "Oil for lighting [the menora], and spices for the anointment oil and for the incense" (25:6). The two materials that are for the service and not for the construction are the oil for the menora and the spices for the incense. Even from the beginning of the construction of the Mishkan, God emphasizes the importance of the joint existence of the lighting of the menora, the illuminated aspect of the Torah, along with the incense, the incomprehensible aspect of God's word.

[Originally delivered at se'uda shelishit, Parashat Tetzaveh, 5763 (2003).]