Parshat Tetzaveh: the Role of the Incense Altar

How does the Lower Altar differ from the Higher Altar, and why doesn’t the commandment regarding the Incense Altar appear in its natural place?

by Rabbi Baruch Kehat, senior faculty of the Joseph and Gwendolyn Straus Rabbinical Seminary and the Robert M. Beren Machanaim Hesder Yeshiva

“There I will arrange meetings with the children of Israel, and it will be sanctified by My glory. I will sanctify the Tent of Meeting and the Altar, and I will sanctify Aaron and his sons to serve Me [as priests].” (Exodus 29:43-46)

The text describing the service in the Tabernacle ends with these lofty words. However, this conclusion is immediately followed by several additional chapters about the construction of the Tabernacle. The first commandment concerns the construction of an Incense Altar (ibid., 30:1-10), a text that we would have expected to encounter after the end of chapter 25, which discusses the creation of the Menorah. The fact that this commandment appears later in the text, after the concluding verses, raises major difficulties.

To solve this problem, we must understand the true role of the incense. We learn about this role from two places in the Torah: 

A. When Aaron enters the Holy of Holies, he is commanded as follows: “And he shall take a pan full of burning coals from upon the Altar, from before Hashem, both of his hands’ full of fine incense, and bring [it] within the dividing curtain. And he shall place the incense upon the fire, before Hashem, so that the cloud of the incense shall envelope the Ark Cover that is over the [tablets of] Testimony, so that he shall not die.” (Leviticus 17:12-13). The role of the incense in the service is clear. Since Hashem is seen above the Ark Cover, Aaron needed to create a sort of screen, which would screen him off from the Glory of Hashem, keeping him safe as he stands directly in front of Hashem, fully exposed to His presence.

B. In response to the complaints leveled against Moshe and Aaron by the Israelites, after Korah’s congregation was punished, Hashem’s glory could be seen by the entire nation. This revelation led to the outbreak of a plague, which decimated the Israelites. To stop this plague, Moshe commands Aaron to perform the following ceremony: “Take the censer and put fire from the Altar top into it and add incense. Then take it quickly to the congregation and atone for them, for wrath has gone forth from Hashem, and the plague has begun. Aaron took [it], just as Moses had said, and he ran into the midst of the assembly, and behold, the plague had begun among the people. He placed the incense on it and atoned for the people. He stood between the dead and the living, and the plague ceased.” (Number 17:11-13)

This “incense screen” acts a divider, separating the place that the effects of the revelation of Divine Glory had spread to, i.e. the plague that had smitten the nation, from the nation that hadn’t yet been affected by the plague. The incense served to protect them from the plague. If so, we now understand that the incense is a protective screen between the Glory of Hashem and human beings, who are fashioned from earthly materials. These human beings, when standing before Hashem, feel that they may lose their lives on account of their sins: “Now who can abide the day of his coming, and who will stand when he appears, for it is like fire that refines and like fullers’ soap.” (Malachi 3:2).

The Incense Altar is at the center of the Tent of Meeting, in front of the Ark of the Covenant, upon which the Glory of Hashem is revealed. If so, it would appear that the role of the perpetually burning Altar, where offerings are made daily ­– once in the morning and once again, in the evening – is to serve as a screen between the spot where the Divine Presence is revealed, and the opening to the Tabernacle, which the Israelites face, so that they don’t stand in front of the Glory of Hashem unprotected. We can use this information to understand the text concerning the positioning of the Incense Altar: “And you shall place it in front of the dividing curtain, which is upon the Ark of Testimony, in front of the Ark Cover, which is upon the testimony, where I will arrange to meet with you.” (Exodus 30:6). The incense is burned in front of the covering of the Ark – the very spot that Hashem met with Moses.

After the events at Mount Sinai, the Glory of Hashem dwelled on the mountain, and Hashem commands Moses to take measures to transfer the Divine Presence from the mountain into the midst of the Israelites: “Now see and make according to their pattern, which you are shown on the mountain.” (Exodus 25:40). This means that Moses saw the Heavenly Tabernacle when he was on the mountain, and he was to replicate that altar, building a similar one that would be located amongst the Israelites. The vessels of the Tabernacle are in this Heavenly Tabernacle, and these are the instruments used to cause Hashem’s glory to dwell there. However, in this Heavenly Tabernacle, there is no need or space for an Incense Altar, which is designed to act as a screen between the Israelites and the Divine Presence, and not to cause the Divine Presence to dwell in the camp. This is why the commandment concerning the Incense Altar does not appear among the body of commandments concerning the construction of the Tabernacle. It appears only after the commandment to construct the Tabernacle and the presentation of the final product are completed: “…there I will arrange meetings with the children of Israel, and it will be sanctified by My glory. And I shall dwell amongst the children of Israel” (Exodus 29, 43-45). The final product required an Incense Altar to protect the nation, and so it is at this point that the Torah issues the command regarding its construction.

The knowledge that Hashem dwells amongst the Israelites is uplifting for the nation, and it forces the people to adapt its ways and habits in a way that befits this status. However, the nation must also remember that while Hashem “dwells among them in their impurity” (Leviticus 16:16), the result is that “an outsider who approaches shall die” (Numbers 18:7). On the one hand, the Incense Altar allows the Divine Presence to dwell among Israel. On the other hand, it reminds the nation of the caution that must be taken when this Divine Presence is in their midst, “lest they break their formation to go nearer to Hashem, to see, and many of them will fall…” (Exodus 19:21).


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