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The Missing Golden Altar (1)

Rav Michael Hattin




God spoke to Moshe saying: "Speak to the people of Israel and let them collect a contribution for Me, from every person whose heart moves him you shall accept a contribution.  This is the contribution that you shall take: gold, silver and bronze; sky blue, purple, crimson, linen and goatskins; hides of rams dyed red, seal hides and acacia wood; oil for the lights, spices for the anointing oil and for the incense of spices; onyx stones and precious stones to set into the efod and the breastplate.  They shall fashion for Me a holy sanctuary, and I shall dwell among them.  You shall fashion the Mishkan and its vessels just as I show you…" (Shemot/Exodus 25:1-9)


Thus begins the account of the fashioning of the wilderness Tabernacle, a lengthy and detailed narrative that takes up the greatest part of the remainder of Sefer Shemot.  The short introductory paragraph above that catalogues the required contributions provides us with an excellent summary of the elements involved: precious metals and woods for the vessels and building walls, valuable dyes and textiles for its tent-like covers as well as for the priestly garments, precious stones for the special vestments of the High Priest, and specially formulated oils and spices for anointing and kindling.  Significantly, the materials for the project are to be collected from the people of Israel as free-will offerings, emphasizing the fact that for service of God to be meaningful it must be both autonomous as well as sincere.





Our Parasha goes on to describe the fashioning of the Mishkan's most important vessels: the Ark of the Testimony, the Table of the Show Bread, and the Menora.  Attention is then turned to the curtains and boards of the building, as well as to the separations within that space, before interest is again focused on another vessel: the bronze altar.  The account of our section then concludes with a discussion of the courtyard enclosure.  Structurally, it is readily apparent that the ordering principle that guides the textual organization of the various sections is the concept of hierarchy.  In other words, the most important vessels are stated first, followed by a discussion of their enclosure: the Ark is to be placed within the so-called Holy of Holies, a sacred space that is separated from the rest of the building by a dividing curtain.  The Table and Menora are still located within the building proper, but beyond the dividing curtain and in the area known as the Holy.  The bronze altar, in contrast, is located outside of the building in the outer courtyard, which is an exterior enclosure that is again demarcated by curtains.


The ordering of the sections described above is utterly conventional and reasonable, except for one striking lacuna: the Golden Altar.  This vessel forms an important part of the daily ritual service, for an offering of pure spices is presented upon it morning and evening.  Spatially it too is located within the area of the Holy, centered between the Table to the north and the Menora to the south.  The opening passage of the Parasha quoted above alludes to it, for the "incense of spices" is none other than the special preparation burned upon the Golden Altar.  Notwithstanding all of the above, the lengthy Mishkan narratives that so painstakingly and precisely describe the vessels, building elements and priestly garments in a most sensible and organized fashion, fail to explicitly mention the Golden Altar until the very END of the matter, after the dedication ceremony has been celebrated, as described at the conclusion of Parashat Tetzaveh next week:


You shall fashion an altar for the offering of incense, and you shall make it out of acacia wood.  It shall be one cubit in length and one in width, perfectly square, and two in height, and shall have horns upon it.  You shall gild it with pure gold, its top and its sides around, as well as its horns, and you shall fashion for it an ornamental crown around its top…You shall place it before the dividing curtain that is before the Ark of the Testimony, before the Ark cover that is upon the Testimony, the place where I shall meet with you.  Aharon shall offer spiced incense upon it early in the morning, when he prepares the lights of the Menora he shall offer it.  When Aharon kindles the lights at evening he shall offer incense again, it is perpetual incense to be offered before God for all generations…(30:1-10).





The textual formula that the Torah employs to describe the Golden Altar clearly relates to that used in our Parasha to describe the Ark, Table and Menora.  It consists of an imperative statement ("You shall fashion an altar for the offering of incense …") that describes materials ("acacia wood"), dimensions ("one cubit in length…"), gilding ("you shall gild it with pure gold"), ornament ("you shall fashion for it an ornamental crown…"), and purpose ("Aharon shall offer spiced incense upon it early in the morning…").  For comparison, the passage concerning the Table also begins with an imperative ("You shall fashion a table…"), and goes on to delineate materials ("acacia wood"), dimensions ("two cubits in length and one in width, and one and a half in height"), gilding ("you shall gild it with pure gold"), ornament ("you shall make for it a frame of one handbreadth height all around…"), and purpose ("you shall place upon the Table bread for display before Me always") (25:23-30).


There are, however, two important departures.  First of all, the detailed instructions of our Parasha do NOT indicate the exact spatial location of the Table and Menora.  These pertinent facts are left for the description of the building's final assembly and dedication, described at the very end of Sefer Shemot:


On the first day of the first month of the second year the Mishkan was assembled.  Moshe set up the Mishkan, he arranged the sockets, placed the boards and inserted the bars, and then erected the pillars…He put the Table in the tent of Meeting on the northern side of the Mishkan, outside of the dividing curtain.  He arranged the bread upon it before God…He placed the Menora in the Tent of Meeting opposite the Table on the southern side of the Mishkan.  He kindled the lights before God… (40:22-25).


In contrast, the position of the Golden Altar is mentioned in the context of its construction as outlined above: "You shall place it before the dividing curtain that is before the Ark of the Testimony, before the Ark cover that is upon the Testimony, the place where I shall meet with you" (30:6).  The passage at the end of Sefer Shemot is therefore confirmation of the fact: "He placed the Golden Altar in the Tent of Meeting in front of the dividing curtain…" (40:26).


Secondly, while the Torah certainly describes the ritual function of the Table and the Menora, namely for the display bread and the lights respectively, it does not indicate any other specialized or unique ceremonies associated with these vessels.  In other words, the Table is only for the bread, the Menora only for the lights, and those observances are to be routine, predictable, and perpetual.  While the Golden Altar also has a diurnal ritual observance, namely the incense offered morning and evening without fail, it also has a completely extraordinary function that curiously is also spelled out in the very context of its construction quoted above: "Aharon shall make atonement (by placing the blood) upon its horns but once a year, from the sin-offering of the Day of Atonement.  Once a year he shall atone for it forever, it is holy of holies to God."  The reference, of course, is to the unique service of the Day of Atonement spelled out at length in Parashat Acharei Mot (VaYikra/Leviticus Chapter 16).


To summarize thus far, while Parashat Teruma provides us with eminently reasonable and ordered hierarchical instructions for the fashioning of the Mishkan's vessels and building envelope, it glaringly omits mention of one of the most important of those vessels, the Golden Altar.  It is true that the matter is finally addressed (almost as an afterthought) at the end of the Mishkan narratives, as the Golden Altar is introduced employing language and grammatical form that clearly indicate a conscious linkage to the Ark, Table and Menora.  But at the same time, that very rather belated introduction provides us with two exceptional particulars that in the end have the effect of again setting apart the Golden Altar from everything else: a description of its sighting in the Mishkan building, as well as of a unique ritual function that is in addition to its typical service.





In order to begin to address these curious anomalies, we must first turn out attention to a general understanding of the meaning of the Mishkan and it vessels.  In years past, we have analyzed both the Ark (see Parashat Teruma 2000) as well as the Menora (see Parashat BeHa'alotkha 2000) in some detail, and readers are invited to examine those articles.  This time, we shall consider the matter from a different perspective, one that is both insightful as well as daring.  The Seforno (15th century, Italy) relates:


After mention of the Ark, which is fashioned after the manner of a throne for God's presence (as 25:22 states: "I shall meet with you there…"), God commanded concerning the Table and the Menora.  Such is the custom to have these vessels before nobility, just as the Shunamite woman said, "we shall place there for him a bed, a table, a chair and a lamp" (Sefer Melakhim/Kings 2:4:10).  The crown around the top of the Table relates to monarchy…for this vessel symbolizes the livelihood of the state…as well as its defense…The Menora is of a single piece, its lights unified…for both conceptual as well as practical knowledge must face the Transcendent Light and serve Him as one, for then all of them shall be enlightened…(commentary to 25:23-25, 31).


The Seforno explains that the Ark of the Covenant, while functionally a receptacle for the two tablets of the Decalogue, was symbolically a representation of God's throne.  The experience of God's presence in the world was associated with this vessel, a gilded box surmounted by two winged, angelic figures, and so it was placed in the most sanctified and least accessible recess of the Mishkan.  As for the Table and the Menora, these two objects were reminiscent of their more mundane counterparts that could be found among the patricians and people of rank.  Thus, the itinerant and miracle-working prophet Elisha, when he would traverse the northern region of Shunem, would visit with an aristocratic woman and her husband, who would invariably prevail upon him to stay with them, and had in fact designated and furnished a private room just for that purpose:


It so happened that day that Elisha passed through Shunem.  There was to be found a powerful woman who would prevail upon him to break bread, and so when he would pass through the region he would turn aside there to break bread.  She said to her husband: "I know that this man of God is holy, and he passes near us all the time.  Let us make him a small upper chamber and we shall place there for him a bed, a table, a chair and a lamp, so that when he passes by us he can stay there…" (Sefer Melakhim/Kings 2:4:8-11).





The table and lamp to be found in Elisha's chamber are thus parallel to their respective Mishkan vessels.  Seforno goes on to suggest that the golden Table of the Tabernacle, laden with its showbread, was an expression of sustenance, of plenty, and of material success.  No doubt his reading, already presaged by a Talmudic formulation (see Talmud Bavli Tractate Bava Batra 25b) derived its inspiration from the prominence of the bread, the most elemental of staples among most civilizations, and always expressive of tangible nourishment.


As for the Menora, the Seforno (again predicated upon the Talmudic precedent) saw in it a potent symbol of illumination, as if the perpetual lights set atop its heavily ornamented golden boughs were about the diverse branches of human knowledge, all of which were nevertheless interrelated and ultimately derived from the Absolute Source of all wisdom.  For the Seforno, there might be different forms of knowledge, multiple areas of intellectual endeavor, but all of them were inspired by the One God who demanded responsibility and moral sensitivity as the price of enlightenment.


While these additional observations of the Seforno are more than enough to ponder in and of themselves, it is his initial implication from the account of Elisha that is most startling.  Seforno is actually suggesting that the Table and the Menora are furnishings associated with living in a home, because the Mishkan is GOD'S ABODE.  Just as a noble has a table and lamp stand in his house, so too God has such appurtenances in His house as well.  The Tabernacle is His house, its vessels are His furnishings, and when we enter its sacred precincts we are symbolically entering His domain.  Clearly, this bold metaphor requires further elaboration. 


In order to complete the analog, though, we must ascertain the Tabernacle vessels that parallel the bed and the chair, the other house furnishings, that were also associated with Elisha's chamber.  As well, we must still address the unanswered incongruities concerning the Golden Altar.  Next week, we shall continue our investigations in the hopes of unraveling some of the mystery surrounding the Golden Altar as well as arriving at a more profound appreciation of the Mishkan itself.




Shabbat Shalom 

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