Sunday, March 04, 2007

Terumah-Tetzaveh (Rashi)

The Temple & the Incense Altar

With these two portions, we turn abruptly from the account of the Exodus and the Sinai revelation, to the laws about the building of the Sanctuary. There is much to say on this, but for the moment I wish to focus on a particular anomaly: considering these two parshiyot together, we find that the incense altar (mizbah ha-ketoret), which occupied the central position in the Sanctuary, directly opposite the Holy of Holies, is treated strangely. Parshat Terumah, after listing all the materials needed to build the Sanctuary, describes all the artifacts therein, but conspicuously skipping the incense altar. This week’s parsha, Tetzaveh, goes on to discuss the people who are specially sanctified to serve therein—the kohanim, the hereditary priests—including details of their sacred garments and their week-long ritual of initiation and preparedness for service. Only after all that does Tetzaveh conclude with two somewhat unusual paragraphs: the one, describing the daily sacrifice to be offered on the Mizbah ha-hitzon ("external altar": a nearly exact duplicate of Num 28:1-8), might well be seen as a logical conclusion to this section: that after constructing the Sanctuary and initiating its priests, one begins the regular performance of this basic, fixed act of Divine worship, within whose framework all other sacrifices are organized. Only thereafter, at the very end of our parsha, do we find the commandment to make an incense altar (Exod 30:1-10).

But there is another anomaly as well. This passage begins, like the other descriptions of making the various vessels of the sanctuary, with its practical description: dimensions, materials, basic function, etc. But suddenly, in a single, final verse, seemingly out of nowhere, the Torah mentions Yom Kippur, and the role played by the incense altar in the Yom Kippur ritual—something described elaborately and in proper detail later on, in Leviticus 16.

There is, in my view, a third anomalous feature as well. The penultimate verse is a warning specifically against misuse of the incense altar: “Do not offer upon it ‘alien incense,’ nor burnt-offering nor meal offering, nor pour out your libation upon it” (30:9). This is a warning, in brief, not to confuse its function with that of the large, brass altar in the courtyard, which was used for many different classes and kinds of offerings. Moreover, this verse stands in a kind of counterpoint to the passage regarding the incense itself, whose compounding is described in the next chapter and of which we are told “do not make it for profane purpose, and that person who smells it for pleasure shall be cut off” (Exod 30:38).

What does Rashi have to say about this?

Exod 30:10. “And Aaron shall atone upon it, on its horns, once a year, with the blood of the atonement-sin-offering he shall atone upon it every year throughout your generations, it is holy of holies to the Lord.” Rashi: “And Aaron shall make atonement.” By sprinkling the blood. “Once a year.” On Yom Kippur, as stated in Aharei Mot: “And he shall go out to the altar which is before the Lord and atone upon it” (Lev 16:18). “The atonement sin-offering.” These are the bullock and goat of Yom Kippur, that atone for ritual contamination of the Temple and its sacred things. “It is holy of holies.” The [this] altar is set apart for these things alone, and not for any other service.

This is a seemingly straightforward, even pedestrian elucidation of the verse, without any particular exegetical or midrashic twist. However, Rashi’s final comment is of some interest, in that it calls attention to the feature mentioned earlier: the exclusive nature of this altar. (This point stands out even more strongly if one compares this to other places where the Torah uses the phrase kodesh kadashim, and to what Rashi says there. Thus, e.g., at Exod 29:37, the text reads: “’The altar [i.e., the external altar, for the animal offerings] shall be holy of holies.’ And what is its holiness? That ‘whatsoever touches it shall be holy.’” That is, it transmits holiness to other objects or animals.)

There are other bizarre features of the ketoret as well, such as its strange mixture of propitiation and atonement, as well as it itself being dangerous. Thus, Nadav and Avihu die because they offer incense under inappropriate circumstances (Lev 10:1). In the Korah affair, the incense braziers play a role in differentiating those faithful to God, and those who rebelled (Num 16:6-7, 17-18; 17:2-3), but in the end, Aaron runs through the camp waving his incense braziers to stem the plague and to separate “between the living and the dead” (ibid., vv. 11-13).

Then there are those who daily read the Talmudic passage detailing the composition of the incense, which is seen as an important moment in the liturgy: so much so that some people use a special hand-written scroll from which to read this text. Others davka refrain from reading it, because of its great holiness: if one inadvertently omits one item, even in its verbal recitation, one is considered “culpable of death.”

One might say that the ketoret has two different, related, but also contradictory functions: of propitiation and atonement of the Divine wrath, and of itself representing a kind of pristine, very refined level of purity and holiness, as symbolized by its altar being directly opposite the Holy of Holies. Since I’m ending with more questions than answer, perhaps we can also say: the ketoret symbolize that aspect of our relation to God which is above understanding, lema’alah min ha-sekhel veha-yediah. (But more on this next week.)

In the summers, Rav Soloveitchik used to teach a yeshiva-level shiur in a more informal, “vacation” atmosphere: when his wife was alive, at his cottage on Cape Cod; in later years, at Maimonides School in Boston. One summer he studied the first chapter of Keritut. When he arrived at the sugya on p. 6a known as Pitom ha-ketoret, he commented: “Ashkenazim recite it every Shabbat; Hasidim and Sefardim say it every day; and nobody understands it!”

To conclude our discussion by drawing a connection between the incense and the festival of Purim. It seems to me not merely chance that, except on leap years, Purim, the day of drinking, referred to by the Talmud as besumei, is always adjacent to Tetzaveh and Ki Tisa, the parshiyot which mention the besamim that make up the ketoret. Nor is this mere word-play: both relate to that place which is far beyond human reason and understanding.


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