“The Central Role of the Golden Altar and the Incense”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

The order of the Torah’s instructions, regarding the furnishings of the Tabernacle and the vestments for the priests that are found in parashiot Terumah and Tetzaveh, is rather perplexing.

In parashat Terumah, Moses receives the instructions of how to build all the furnishings for the Tabernacle with the exception of one item. Parashat Tetzaveh begins with the lighting of the Menorah and continues with an exceedingly precise description of the priestly garments–the four lay vestments and the four special vestments for the High Priest. This then is followed by the inauguration ritual in which the priests are consecrated into the service of the priesthood. Only after all this, in the final chapter of parashat Tetzaveh, chapter 30, do we find the instructions for building the Golden Altar.

Exodus 30:1 reads: “V’ah’see’tah miz’bay’ahch mik’tar k’toh’ret, ah’tzay shee’teem ta’ah’seh oh’toh,” You shall make an altar on which to bring incense up in smoke, of acacia wood shall you make it. The Torah then describes the dimensions of the Golden Altar. Its length and width are one cubit, its height, two cubits. The acacia wood structure shall be covered with gold, and the top of the altar shall have four horns. There shall also be two rings on the sides of the altar to enable the altar to be transported from place to place on gold-covered staves.

The Torah instructs that the Golden Altar be placed inside the Tabernacle, in the less sanctified area known as “holy,” together with the Menorah and the Table of Showbread. Every morning and afternoon the priests were to burn incense on the Golden Altar. Consequently, the Golden Altar was also known as Mizbach ha’Ketoret, the incense altar, and Mizbach ha’P’neemee, the inner altar.

The commentators wonder why the Torah separates the Golden Altar from all the other furnishings in the Tabernacle by describing it at the end of parashat Tetzaveh. The Ramban suggests that it was positioned alone because of the the ketoret, the incense that was brought on the Golden Altar, which represents judgment. After all, Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons, died before G-d when they brought ketoret utilizing a strange fire.

There are those who say that, while the Tabernacle brought G-d’s presence into the People of Israel, the altar and the incense were to serve as a means of sheltering the nation from any potential danger now that G-d was so close to them.

The Tzror Hamor suggests that, aside from the Ark itself, the Golden Altar was the most special vessel in the entire Tabernacle. This was because the altar achieves atonement for sinners, brings prosperity and happiness to the people and drives away anger from Israel. Therefore, as a sign of respect, it is the last furnishing mentioned. (The sages of the Midrash were wont to say that the last is the most beloved, Bereishit Rabba 75:11).

The Siftei Cohen suggests that the altar is recorded last as a sign of distinction because the foremost of all the offerings is the ketoret, the incense. It is brought early in the morning, before all other sacrifices and in the evening, after the others have been completed. Its value is considered to be equal to all the other offerings that are brought.

The Sforno maintains that all the other vessels of the Tabernacle were created in order to attract G-d’s presence to the Tabernacle.   The Golden Altar, however, is intended to provide honor and dignity for G-d once He arrives, so that He would accept with mercy the offerings of all His people, both morning and evening.

The Chidah, in Nachal Kedumim, suggests that the reason that the Golden Altar is mentioned last is because its consecration takes place together with the ketoret, the incense, in the late afternoon. Since it is the last vessel to be consecrated, it is mentioned last.

The Or HaChaim maintains that all the original vessels of the Tabernacle were eventually transferred to the permanent Temple that Solomon built, with the exception of the Golden Altar. The new Golden Altar manufactured by Solomon, was made entirely of gold without the acacia wood.

The Vilna Gaon suggests that all the other vessels of the Tabernacle received their meaning only when the Al-mighty’s presence dwelt in the Tabernacle. The Golden Altar, however, had an innate holiness, even before the presence of G-d descended upon the Tabernacle.

The Pri Tzedek states that the altar is special due to the golden crown around the periphery of the Golden Altar that recalls the crown of the priesthood. Another reason for its special status, is due to the power attributed to the Golden Altar and the incense to stop the Angel of Death (Deuteronomy 17:13).

Like other commentators, Eliyahu KiTov suggests that the altar is last because of the importance of the ketoret, the incense. Offering a novel reason, however, KiTov says that human beings enjoy both faculties of taste and smell. However, humans are never satisfied until they actually taste the food. In distinction, G-d is satisfied with smell alone.

Of the various ingredients that are found in the composition of the ketoret is one foul-smelling spice known as chelbanah. But, when mixed together with the other spices, the incense mix becomes sweet-smelling. It is the ketoret, together with the Golden Altar, that has the ability to achieve atonement for the sinners of Israel who come out of the purification ritual smelling like a rose. The altar and the incense are, therefore, critically important since they possess the ability to transform sinful Jews into forgiven Jews, foul-smelling Jews into pleasant-smelling Jews.

The Golden Altar is, in effect, the greatest gift that G-d has given His people.   But, it does not come easily. First, we need to build a Tabernacle and its furnishings, and to clothe the priests in their beautiful vestments. With this majestic welcome, G-d enters into our Tabernacle, and, hence, into our midst. Once the Al-mighty arrives, it is the sweet savor of the ketoret, the incense, that penetrates the hearts and souls of the Jewish people causing them to repent and achieve forgiveness.

May you be blessed.

Please note: Since Purim is observed this year on Saturday night and Sunday, February 27-28, and the Fast of Esther cannot be observed on Shabbat, it will be observed on the previous Thursday, February 25, from dawn to nightfall.

This coming Shabbat is known as Shabbat Zachor. It is the second of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion is read from Deuteronomy 25:17-19 about remembering Amalek. Most authorities consider it a positive commandment for both men and women to hear this particular Torah reading.

The festival of Purim marks the celebration of the great salvation of the Jews of the Persian empire from the hands of the evil Haman in the year 520-519 BCE. It is celebrated this year on Saturday night and Sunday, February 27-28, 2010. For more information, click here.