The final verses of Parashat Tetzaveh speak about the mizbach ha-ketoret – the incense altar in the Mishkan, upon which incense was offered twice each day. The Torah strictly prohibits offering any sacrifice on this altar, which is to be used exclusively for incense: “Do not offer on it a foreign incense, a burnt-offering or a grain offering, and do not pour a libation upon it” (30:9). This prohibition is listed by the Rambam as one of the 613 Biblical commands (Sefer Ha-mitzvot, lo ta’aseh 82).
Minchat Chinukh (104) raises the question of why the Rambam, and others who listed the Biblical commands, did not list two separate prohibitions – offering a sacrifice, and pouring a libation. After all, the Torah make two independent statements: “lo ta’alu alav ketoret zara ola u-mincha” – forbidding offering a different form of incense or sacrifices – and “ve-neisekh lo tisekhu alav” – forbidding pouring libations. Seemingly, although these two prohibitions are, obviously, related, nevertheless, these are two separate actions which the Torah forbids in two separate pronouncements. And yet, the Rambam incorporated both under a single Biblical prohibition. This question was raised also by Rav Yerucham Perlow, in his work on Rav Saadia Gaon’s listing of the mitzvot (lo ta’aseh 184-5).
Rav Yisrael David Schlesinger (cited in Magishei Mincha, Parashat Tetzaveh, 5779) answered that, apparently, the Rambam and others maintained that the Torah here presents but one command – to preserve the incense altar’s exclusive role. The root of this prohibition, in the view of the Rambam, is the nature of the mizbach ha-ketoret, which is made for the sole purpose of incense, and not for any other ritual. As such, there is but one prohibition – the prohibition against using this altar for a purpose other than incense. Indeed, the Torah concludes its discussion of the mizbach ha-ketoret with the pronouncement, “Kodesh kodashim hu le-Hashem” (“It is the holiest of the holies for the Lord” – 30:10), which Rashi explains to mean, “The altar is consecrated for only these matters, and not for any other service.” This phrase could be understood as defining the prohibition introduced in the previous verse, which forbids offering sacrifices or pouring libations on this altar. The essence of this law is that the mizbach ha-ketoret is earmarked for the specific purpose of offering incense, and therefore performing any other ritual on the altar violates this prohibition. (This is also indicated by the Rambam’s formulation in Hilkhot Kelei Ha-mikdash (2:11): “ein makrivin alav davar acheir” – “nothing else is offered on it.”) Hence, there is but one prohibition, and not two separate commands.
Minchat Chinukh, apparently, understood differently. He appears to have presumed that the Torah here forbids two specific actions, rather than designating the altar for an exclusive purpose which results in a generic prohibition against using it for other purposes.
Another possible expression of this conceptual question is Minchat Chinukh’s discussion later regarding the status of an offering brought at the site of the mizbach ha-ketoret, when this altar is not present. The Gemara in Masekhet Zevachim (59a) establishes that if, for whatever reason, the mizbach ha-ketoret is moved, the incense is offered at the site where the altar normally stands, even though there is currently no altar. Minchat Chinukh writes that if the incense may be offered at that site, then it stands to reason that bringing a different offering at that site transgresses the prohibition against bringing an offering instead of the incense on the incense altar. Perhaps consistent with his questioning why the Rambam listed just one prohibition, Minchat Chinukh did not consider the possibility that this prohibition is integrally linked to the altar itself. Meaning, the prohibition is defined as misusing the mizbach ha-ketoret, and thus, by definition, this prohibition does not apply in the altar’s absence. Refusing to accept this premise, Minchat Chinukh asserted that one violates this prohibition by offering a sacrifice or pouring incense at the site of the mizbach ha-ketoret, even if it is not present.
Minchat Chinukh similarly raises the question as to whether one violates this prohibition by sprinkling sacrificial blood on the mizbach ha-ketoret. (Sacrificial blood is to be sprinkled only on the other altar, which stood in the courtyard outside the Mikdash, the only exception being on Yom Kippur, when the blood of the special atonement sacrifices was sprinkled on the mizbach ha-ketoret, as the Torah briefly mentions here in Parashat Tetzaveh – 30:10.) The Torah mentions only the offering of a sacrifice, and the pouring of libations, prompting Minchat Chinukh to question the Sefer Ha-chinukh’s comment that one violates this prohibition even by sprinkling sacrificial blood on the mizbach ha-ketoret – something which is not mentioned here by the Torah. Once again, Minchat Chinukh did not consider the possibility that the Torah here simply establishes the incense offering as the exclusive function of this altar, thus resulting in a generic prohibition against using it for any other ritual purpose. This appears to have been the perspective of the Sefer Ha-chinukh, and so he applied this prohibition even to rituals which were not specified by the Torah, as the Torah here issues a single, generic command forbidding using the incense altar for a different purpose than the one for which it is made.