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The Mizbach Ha-zahav

Rav David Silverberg
21.09.2014

Introduction: The Tabernacle in "Peshat" Exegesis

 

            In many of our shiurim, we try to highlight the distinction and complementary relationship between the two basic levels of traditional exegesis: "peshat" - the straightforward reading, and "derash," the homiletic interpretations.  On several occasions we have noted the distinct qualities of each level, how they differ from one another, and the intricate interplay between them.

 

            A study of the classic commentaries on the parshiyot dealing with the construction of the Mishkan - Tabernacle - reveals a blurring of the dividing line separating these two levels of interpretation.  The detail in which the Torah describes the Mishkan and its various accessories, as well as the overall mystique and aura of sanctity associated with the concept of the Tabernacle, point to a world of symbolism underlying the dry facts outlined in the text.  But far more importantly, the very purpose of the Mishkan - "They shall make for Me a Sanctuary, and I will dwell in their midst" (25:8) - almost mandates a symbolic element - even on the level of peshat.  If God's representative presence among the nation hinges on their precise execution of the laws concerning the Mishkan's construction and functioning, then presumably these laws reflect critical and fundamental themes and ideas.

 

            As we study one feature of the Tabernacle introduced in Parashat Tetzaveh, we must bear in mind this symbolic quality.  Appreciating the underlying meaning of the various components of the Mishkan will help resolve several difficulties arising from their presentation in the Torah.  This week, we will focus our attention on one such difficulty.

 

The (Problematic) Golden Altar

 

            From the beginning of Parashat Teruma through most of Parashat Tetzaveh (chapters 25-29), the Torah's presentation proceeds in a sound, easily identifiable progression.  We may refer to this structure as "inside-out."  The Torah first describes the Ark of the Covenant, situated in the most interior chamber in the Tabernacle (25:10-22).  From there Chumash proceeds to the outer chamber, which houses the shulchan (show-bread table - 25:23-30) and menorah (25:31-40).  We then read about the construction of the Tabernacle itself (chapter 26) and move from there outdside to the courtyard surrounding the Mishkan, which includes the mizbach ha-ola, the large copper altar used for the daily offerings (chapter 27).  The content of Parashat Tetzaveh and the first section of Parashat Ki-Tisa (through 31:11 or perhaps 31:18) may be described as "miscellaneous information," because it presents the guidelines for preparations not involving the structure of the Tabernacle or its accessories: the priestly vestments (chapter 28), the consecration of the kohanim (chapter 29), etc.

 

Parashat Tetzaveh's final unit (30:1-10) appears misplaced in the Torah's presentation.  These verses describe the second of the Mishkan's two altars: the mizbach ha-zahav (golden altar), also known as the mizbach ha-ketoret (incense altar).  Unlike the larger altar located outside the Mishkan, on which sacrifices were offered regularly, the mizbach ha-zahav was never used for animal, meal or wine offerings.  Instead, the kohen would offer incense upon it twice daily.  This altar assumes a particularly prominent role in the Yom Kippur Temple service, as sacrificial blood was sprinkled on its corners.

 

            Why would the Torah exclude this altar from chapter 25 where it describes the other two occupants of the Mishkan's outer chamber - the shulchan and menorah?  How can we account for this jarring disruption of an otherwise straightforward sequence?

 

Sequence and Structure in Traditional Exegesis

 

            A priori, three approaches may be taken in determining the significance of the sequence of Scriptural units.  First, one may view structure as entirely inconsequential; so long as the internal presentation of a given unit is sensible, we need not consider its placement within its broader context.  In our case, for example, we need only to properly understand the verses describing the incense altar; where the Torah chooses to arrange this unit, this approach would claim, is of no interest to the reader.  At the opposite extreme, one may ascribe as much significance to sequence and structure as to the words themselves.  As far as this camp is concerned, the placement of a given unit speaks as loudly as its content.  Sequence must therefore be viewed as a powerful and poetic interpretive device.  The third and middle position affords sequence and structure an important but subordinate role.  While the positioning of textual units is not random, it is but a subtle and hence less powerful tool by which the Torah conveys information.  We thus cannot expect fundamental ideas and concepts to come across through the arrangement of units of text.  Sequence of presentation serves as but an allusion to peripheral data, ancillary to the words themselves.

 

            The first approach is hardly - if at all - represented in the world of traditional parshanut (exegesis).  Commentators of virtually all schools appear to afford the Torah's order and arrangement meaning and significance.  The nature of that meaning and significance, however, differs from one school to the next.  In the case of the mizbach ha-zahav, all agree that its position within the Torah's treatment of the Tabernacle reveals some quality or property of this altar.  The second approach, which ascribes to sequence and text equal importance, would look for a fundamental quality of this altar to emerge from its location in our parasha.  The middle approach, by contrast would likely find a technical peripheral feature to which Chumash alludes through its sequence. 

 

Peripheral Features of the Mizbach ha-Zahav

 

            Several later commentators offer different theories as to what the Torah wishes to convey through the "transplantation" of the mizbach ha-zahav from its natural location in chapter 25. These theories include technical reasons necessitating this rearrangement.  The Chizkuni, for example, points to the prohibition against offering any sacrifices other than incense on this altar (30:9) as the reaseon for its delayed mention.  The Torah could not issue this prohibition before informing the reader of the mizbach ha-nechoshet, on which animal and meal offerings, as well as libations, are offered.  Thus, the discussion of the mizbach ha-zahav in fact belongs alongside the sections dealing with the shulchan and menorah; the Torah rearranged the sequence in order that we properly understand the prohibition against non-incense offerings.

 

            We should also include in this "technical reason" group the explanation offered by the early nineteenth century halakhist, Rav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (Meshekh Chokhma).  He suggests that the Torah is alluding to a halakha found in the Talmud (Zevachim 59) that permits offering incense in the absence of the mizbach ha-zahav.  Whereas animal sacrifices may not be offered without the copper altar and the Ark serves no purpose without the two tablets contained within it, the mizbach ha-zahav is not indispensable for the daily incense offering.  The Torah alludes to this by omitting the mizbach ha-zahav from the main body of its discussion of the Mishkan.  A different theory is advanced by the Or Ha-chayim (commenting on 25:9), who claims that when constructing the First Temple, King Solomon built a new incense altar, rather than using that built by Moshe for use in the Tabernacle.  While the accessories built by Moshe were replaced only when the originals could not accommodate the larger structure of the Temple, the mizbach ha-zahav was replaced for no apparent reason.  The Torah setsthis altar apart from the rest of the Mishkan's accessories to allude to its slightly more dispensible nature.

 

            Neither the Meshekh Chokhma nor the Or Ha-chayim mention the underlying significance ofthe qualities to which they claim the Torah alludes through its placement of the mizbach ha-zahav section.  The Meshekh Chokhma does not elaborate on why the incense may be offered without an altar; neither does the Or Ha-chayim explain why a new mizbach ha-zahav was necessary in the First Temple.  When viewing sequence as but a subtle allusion, rather than a voice as audible as the words themselves, we need not, or may not, look beyond the realm of the technical to identify the allusion.  Naturally, a profound idea would be presented through the Torah's primary modes of communication; an approach that relegates sequence to secondary status views it as conveying peripheral, rather than fundamental, information.

 

Undermining the Importance of the Mizbach ha-Zahav

 

            Many others, by contrast, interpret the location of this section as reflective of its essential quality and primary function.  At the outset of the Mishkan unit, towards the beginning of Parashat Teruma, God explicitly states the general purpose of the Mishkan: "They shall make for Me a Sanctuary, and I will dwell in their midst" (25:8).  Several chapters later, in the verses immediately preceding the section of the mizbach ha-zahav, the Torah appears to conclude the Mishkan unit by confirming the arrival of God's presence with the completion of the Tabernacle: "I will meet there with the Israelites, and it shall be sanctified by My presence… I will dwell among the Israelites and I will be their God… " (29:43,45).  Since the Torah introduces the mizbach ha-zahav only after these concluding verses, we may infer that this altar does not play a role in bringing God's presence into the Mishkan.  Whatever function it serves, the mizbach ha-zahav is not necessary for God to reside in the Tabernacle; it comes into play only after that basic objective is attained.  The location of this section thus points to the primary role and quality of this altar.

 

            This approach, of course, must then address the question, what is the role of the mizbach ha-zahav?  If God resides among the nation even without it, what function does it serve in the Mishkan?

 

            Intuitively, this approach might yield a subordinate role of the incense altar.  If it does not contribute to the process of "hashra'at ha-Shekhina" (the descent of God's presence) in the Tabernacle as do the rest of its components, then presumably this altar plays a secondary, less distinguished role.  While the majority of commentators clearly do not accept such a notion, and in fact, as we will see, some ascribe supreme importance to this altar, at least two sources point us in this direction.  In his Midrashic encyclopedia, Torah Sheleima (on Shemot 30:1), Rav Menachem Kasher cites a manuscript entitled "Yalkutei Teiman" that attributes the exclusion of the mizbach ha-zahav from the main body of the Mishkan unit to its subordinate, purely technical role in the Mishkan.  According to this source, the burning of incense served merely to neutralize the foul odor caused by the animal sacrifices in and around the Mishkan.  This explanation of the incense is introduced by Rambam in his Guide to the Perplexed (3), and drew sharp criticism from several later scholars, including Rabbenu Bechayei (in his commentary to 30:1).

 

            That the mizbach ha-zahav's introduction after the conclusion of the main Mishkan unit is meant to undermine its significance appears in one twentieth century work, as well.  Rav Zalman Sorotzkin argues in his "Oznayim le-Torah," that by "relegating" this altar, the Torah dispels the possible, but mistaken notion that the mizbach ha-zahav constitutes the more important of the two altars in the Tabernacle.  As opposed to the copper mizbach ha-nechoshet, which sits outside the walls of the Mishkan, the golden altar is situated inside, together with the Ark, menorah and show-bread table.  To underscore the equal status shared by both altars, the Torah removes the incense altar from its rightful place, restoring a sense of balance to the reader's perspective.

 

            A brief detour into the symbolic level of interpretation will help clarify this point.  The Tabernacle's interior perhaps represents absolute purity and withdrawal from the mundane "outside world."  Inside the sacred chambers of the Mishkan one is detached from the physical realities of life and submerged in a pristine existence of pure sanctity.  All its contents are therefore plated with gold, the symbol of purity.  The courtyard surrounding the Mishkan, by contrast, signifies the encounter between genuine spirituality and mundane life.  Its contents are thus made from silver and copper, rather than pure gold.  Lest one conclude that life inside the Tabernacle is of greater inherent worth than the application of its sacred quality to the mundane life outside its confines, the Torah transfers the golden altar outside the Tabernacle unit.  As significant as the absolute ideals of purity and sanctity is the successful implementation of those ideals outside the Mishkan.

 

Response to the Shekhina

 

            Other commentators suggest that the location of this section does not intend to undermine the status or significance of the mizbach ha-zahav.  Rather, its role within the Tabernacle arises only after the Mishkan is assembled and the Shekhina has descended.  This role is not less significant; it merely applies only after the completion of the Mishkan.  Unlike the other components of the Tabernacle, the mizbach ha-zahav responds to, rather than helps bring, God's presence among Benei Yisrael.  Seforno (fifteenth century), for example, understands the incense offering as an expression of kavod - honor and reverence - for God.  Once the Almighty takes residence, as it were, in the Tabernacle, Benei Yisrael offer incense in His honor.  The Torah therefore describes the incense altar only after it has completed its discussion of the rest of the Mishkan and the descent of the Shekhina upon it.

 

            The Gaon of Vilna (eighteenthh century) follows this same general approach in his "Aderet Eliyahu," while assigning a much different role to the incense offering.  The phenomenon of "hashra'at ha-Shekhina," God's residence among the nation, necessitates kappara - atonement.  An intense encounter of this sort demands the nation's worthiness; they must therefore earn expiation for their shortcomings, which they attain through the offering of incense.

 

            This association between the incense and atonement clearly emerges from the final verse of Parashat Tetzaveh, where the Torah concludes its description of the mizbach ha-zahav: "Once a year Aharon shall perform purification upon its horns with blood of the sin offering of purification…"  The prominent role assumed by the incense altar in the atonement service on Yom Kippur points to its function to atone on behalf of the people.  This function is confirmed later in Chumash, as described in Parashat Korach (Bemidbar 17:6-15), when Aharon ends a devastating divine plague by offering incense: "he put on the incense and made expiation for the people."

 

            But how does the incense fill this role?  What about this particular offering renders it capable of attaining the necessary expiation on behalf of the nation once the Shekhina has descended?

 

            Rabbi Menachem Leibtag suggests that the cloud of smoke generated by the incense is what protects Benei Yisrael from the possible consequences of God's presence among them.  The significance of this cloud is spelled out in the Torah's discussion of the Yom Kippur service: "He shall put the incense on the fire before God, so that the cloud from the incense screens the cover that is over the Ark of Testimony, lest he die" (Vayikra 16:13).  As Aharon makes his annual entry into the innermost chamber of the Mishkan as part of the atonement service, he must first "screen" the area with a cloud of smoke generated by the incense.  This smoke phim - "lest he die" - from death, which one otherwise deserves when penetrating the sacred, private quarters of the Almighty.  Rabbi Leibtag suggests an association between this cloud and that which hovered over Mount Sinai during God's revelation on the mount.  In anticipation of the Revelation, God informs Moshe, "I will come to you in a thick cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you… " (Shemot 19:9).  Several commentators explain that the nation could survive revelation only if the Almighty "conceals" Himself with a cloud covering, shielding the people, as it were, from a direct encounter.  As the undeserving individual cannot possibly withhold God's presence and live, a "buffer" of sorts is necessary to mitigate the force of the revelation and dilute its intensity.

 

            Such protection was necessary in the Tabernacle just as it was required at Sinai.  Once the Shekhina descends onto the Mishkan, the nation must take the necessary measures to protect themselves from the consequences.  They achieve this protection, or "atonement," through the offering of incense, which produces the cloud separating them from the Shekhina.

           

            In conclusion, we encountered three general approaches as to why the Torah excludes the mizbach ha-zahav from the main body of its presentation of the Mishkan.  The first approach sees this sequence as alluding to some technicality relevant to this altar.  The next two groups, by contrast, interpret this arrangement as reflective or symbolic of the purpose or theme of the mizbach ha-zahav.  While some take this as an indication of a lowering of its status, others see this sequence as assigning this altar a crucial role as the nation's necessary response to the arrival of the Shekhina in their midst.

 

For Further Study:

 

I.    Consider the following indications of the mizbach ha-zahav's role of earning atonement on behalf of the nation:

1)   "They shall offer incense against your wrath." (Devarim 33:10)

2)   "When the Satan would see the smoke of the incense rising, he was subdued and fled, and was unable to approach the Tabernacle at all." (Zohar, Vayakhel 471)

3)   "'The cloud of the incense will screen' - what does it mean, 'will screen'?  It is an expression that means forgiveness.  When the cloud of incense would turn to smoke and rise… it was known that Israel's sins had been atoned." (Midrash Tanchuma, Tetzaveh 15)

 

II. The Midrash Tanchuma (ibid.) writes that the Shekhina would not descend until Benei Yisrael brought the incense offering.  This claim appears as well in the "Da'at Zekeinim Mi-ba'alei Ha-tosafot" to Shemot 25:6.  Contrast this comment with the positions of Seforno and the Gaon of Vilna mentioned in the shiur.

 

III.             See Ramban's explanation for the location of the mizbach ha-zahav section.  Would you align his approach with that of Seforno or the Vilna Gaon?

 

IV.             Many masters of derash throughout the centuries have attempted to find a point of association between Parashat Tetzaveh and the festival of Purim, which falls annually in the week following the reading of this parasha.  Among the primary themes of Purim is the concealed Hand of God that works behind the veil of history and governs events even from a distance.  Though He may not reveal Himself overtly, we can feel and recognize His presence indirectly.  Based on the final paragraphs of this shiur, relate this theme to Parashat Tetzaveh.

 

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