The Torah in Parashat Shelach discusses the obligation of nesakhim – the wine libations that were to accompany animal sacrifices. At one point in the context of this discussion, the Torah describes the wine libation as “ishei rei’ach nicho’ach le-Hashem” (15:10), a phrase frequently used to describe sacrifices which are pleasing to, and accepted by, God.
The word “ishei” is commonly understood as a reference to the fire on the altar (a derivative of the word eish – “fire”), and thus the phrase “ishei rei’ach nicho’ach le-Hashem” is generally interpreted to mean, “an offering on fire, a pleasing fragrance to the Lord.” If so, then the use of the word “ishei” in the context of the nesakhim would seem to suggest that the wine libations were poured on the top of the altar, onto the fire, just as sacrifices were placed on the fire. Since the Torah describes the nesakhim as an “ishei,” we must seemingly conclude that the wine was poured on the fire.
This is, indeed, one view cited by the Gemara in Masekhet Zevachim (91b). Rabbi Akiva, however, disagreed, and maintained that the wine could not be poured onto the fire. After all, the Torah in Sefer Vayikra (6:6) explicitly forbids extinguishing the fire on the altar, and pouring wine over the altar would have the effect of extinguishing some of the fire. Rabbi Akiva therefore maintained that the wine libations were poured into the special pipes built into the side of the altar, and not on the fire. This is also the position of the Sifrei, which adds that the expression “ishei rei’ach nicho’ach le-Hashem” refers to the fact that God derives satisfaction, as it were, from our fulfilling His commands. The Tosafists, in the Moshav Zekeinim Torah commentary, explain this to mean that the wine libation is considered as though it had been placed on the fire as a sacrifice, even though it was not actually placed on the fire, since it was poured in accordance with God’s will. (Malbim understands the Sifrei’s comment differently, explaining that when the libation is poured as required through the pipes alongside the altar, then God willingly accepts the animal sacrifice that is placed on the fire.)
There are times when an “offering” which we wish to bring to God, an inherently religious act that we seek to perform, will have the effect of “extinguishing” the “fire,” of doing more harm than good. Even if something outwardly appears spiritually meaningful, and intrinsically is spiritually meaningful, it must be avoided if its long-term impact is damaging to our beliefs, values and efforts to serve God. For example, one might intuitively assume that he brings an “offering” to God by angrily repudiating and denigrating somebody who violates His will, but very often, this will have an “extinguishing” effect, diminishing from the “fire” of Torah. Rather than serve the purpose of advancing the cause of religious observance, a furious response will, in many instances, undermine this cause. Under such circumstances, when we abstain from bringing an “offering” due to the concern of “extinguishing” the “flame” of spirituality, we are reassured that our decision is an “ishei rei’ach nicho’ach le-Hashem,” a meaningful “offering” in its own right. Abstaining from an inherently religious act that would have a religiously adverse effect is as significant an “offering” as a worthwhile religious act which we perform. The lesson being taught is that we must carefully consider the full range of implications of every “offering” we wish to bring, and to ensure that it will serve to further the religious ideals that we hold dear, and not have the effect of “extinguishing” those ideals.