The Talmud Yerushalmi (Shekalim 4:5) addresses the question of whether the absence of one of the keilim – the furnishings of the Beit Ha-mikdash – affects the rituals that are to be performed on the other keilim. The conclusion of the Yerushalmi’s discussion is that if one of the keilim is, for whatever reason, not present in its place in the Beit Ha-mikdash, then the rituals which are to take place inside the Mikdash cannot be performed. For example, the blood of certain sacrifices is to be sprinkled on the incense altar, which was inside the Mikdash, and in the absence of any one of the Temple’s keilim, this ritual cannot be performed. Rituals that are to take place in the courtyard outside, however, are unaffected by the absence of one of the keilim.
A number of Acharonim (including Rav David Rappaport, in his Mikdash David, 2:5) noted that the Talmud Bavli does not appear to share this position. In Masekhet Zevachim (59a), the Gemara establishes that if, for whatever reason, the incense altar is not in its place in the Beit Ha-mikdash, the incense is nevertheless offered, at the location where the altar is supposed to stand. It thus emerges that the offering of incense – which, of course, is performed inside the Mikdash – may be performed even in the absence of the incense altar. It would stand to reason, then, and all the more so, that it may be offered even in the absence of one of the other keilim. Seemingly, then, the Yerushalmi’s discussion is in opposition to the view taken by the Talmud Bavli.
Some writers, however, endeavored to reconcile these two sources. One approach is based upon the theory we saw yesterday, viewing the ketoret (incense offering) as a two-tiered obligation. The offering of incense is required not only as part of the daily routine of Temple rituals, but also because it is integral to the very identity of the Beit Ha-mikdash. As we saw, the Tosafists describe the incense offering (and the kindling of the menorah) as part of the building, which must have a pleasing fragrance (and illumination), as was customary in royal palaces. Accordingly, there are two aspects to the ketoret obligation – a ritual requirement like the other daily offerings in the Mikdash, and a basic need of the Mikdash itself, which requires incense as part of its very definition. If so, then we can easily reconcile the two passages noted above. If one of the keilim is missing, then the specific mitzva of ketoret cannot be fulfilled, just as other rituals cannot be performed inside the Mikdash. However, since the Temple still retains its halakhic status as a “Beit Ha-mikdash” even in the absence of one of the keilim, incense is still needed as part of the requirements of the building itself. This aspect of the ketoret is not dependent upon any of the keilim – including, surprisingly, the incense altar – and it is therefore offered even if one of the Temple furnishings is missing.
(Based on Rav Chaim Meir Steinberg’s Mishnat Chayim – Shekalim, chapter 45)