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The Smoke of the Incense: A Torah Thought for Parashat Tetzaveh by Rabbi Mordechai Rabinovitch

Image courtesy of the Temple Institute

At the end of this week’s parshah, the Torah (Shemos 30:1-10) gives instructions on building the “incense altar”.  But the instructions for making all the other furnishings of the Tabernacle were presented in Parshat Terumah; why then were the instructions for the incense altar kept until now? (Ramban).

Rabbi Moshe Galanti, a leading seventeenth century Jerusalem sage, offered the following explanation.  He notes that concerning the twice-daily incense offering, the Gemara (Zevachim 59a) teaches that even if the incense altar had for some reason been removed, the incense is offered on the sanctuary floor where the altar usually stood (Rambam, Temidin U’Musafin 3:2).  But curiously the Gemara does not reveal the source for this ruling.  R’ Moshe Galanti therefore suggests that the displacement of the section dealing with the incense altar is the source.  That is, by locating the instructions for the incense altar here, rather than in Parshat Terumah, the Torah teaches that even though the altar is “out-of-place”,  the incense is still burned (Korban Chagigah p. 58a).

But, why does the Torah make this exception? Perhaps the following can be suggested.

One of the purposes of the smoldering incense was to produce a cloud of smoke (see Yoma 53a; Da’at Zekeinim MiBaalei HaTosafos Shemot 25:6).  In the Torah clouds of smoke indicate the Divine Presence (see Shemot 19:18; Vayikra 16:2).  If so, smoldering the incense was in order to “represent”, as it were, the Divine Presence. This is not merely an act of worship, like the rest of the service; rather, it is symbolic of the Divine Presence itself, as if to say: If you worship Hashem, His Divine Presence will dwell in your midst.   This aspect of the incense burning distinguishes it from all the other parts of the Temple service, and accordingly, this ritual is allowed even without the prescribed appurtenance.  Moreover, in the verses immediately preceding our section (Shemot 29:43-46) the Torah emphasizes that in response to the Temple service, G-d will cause His presence to dwell in the Temple and in the people of Israel.  As if to drill in that point, the Torah then turns to the building of an incense altar, and instructs concerning burning the incense.  May we merit speedily in our days to again be witness to the Divine presence!


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