The Rabbi's Study

Well isn’t that strange…

I’ve long been fascinated by all things related to sacrifices. I think it’s because I find ritual to be, well, strange. I’ve always been one who finds more meaning in seeing other people find meaning in ritual than I actually personally find in the ritual itself. Performative ritual can feel so forced, but there are some people who connect so deeply through those experiences. For me, personally, I am fascinated by the metaphor, but the actual performance of ritual feels, like I said, kind of strange. Maybe this is why the most meaningful part of the traditional morning prayers for me is the recitation of the sacrificial service – there’s no performance left, just the metaphor remains. The recitation of the sacrificial service (which was removed from non-Orthodox prayer books) includes seven sections:

  • The description of the basin in which the priests would wash their hands and feet
  • The ritual removing of the previous night’s ashes
  • The korban ha’tamid – morning whole-burnt offering
  • The incense offering
  • The order of the Temple service
  • The laws of the sacrifices
  • The thirteen exegetical rules of deriving law through Torah interpretation

The last section, in context, is strange (that’s the theme here!). I believe the idea is two-fold: 1) that in the absence of the Temple we accept a system of interpretation reflecting the same rigor and rigidity reflected in the Temple service, and 2) that there is an “acceptable” way and “unacceptable” ways, let’s call the latter “strange”…

My two favorite sections of the seven are the order of the Temple service and the incense offering. So let’s take a closer look. The order of the Temple service in our liturgy comes from Talmud Bavli Yoma 33a:

Abaye ordered the sequence according to the tradition and opinion of Abba Shaul (who would have been a child when the Temple service was still practiced): The large arrangement of the wood for the altar preceded the second arrangement of wood used for incense. The second arrangement of wood for the incense preceded the setting up of the two logs of wood burned atop the large arrangement. The setting up of the two logs of wood preceded the removal of ashes from the inner altar. The removal of the ashes from the inner altar preceded the cleaning of the five lamps (of the menorah, leaving one burning and one ready to receive the flame). The cleaning of the five lamps preceded the blood of the daily offering. The blood of the daily offering preceded the cleaning of the remaining two lamps. The cleaning of the remaining two lamps preceded the incense. The incense preceded the burning of the limbs. The burning of the limbs preceded the grain-offering. The grain-offering preceded the griddle-cakes. The griddle-cakes preceded libations. The libations preceded the mussaf-offerings (on days when there were additional offerings). The mussaf-offerings preceded the vessels (of frankincense which are offered on Shabbat). The vessels preceded the daily evening offering, as it is said: “burn upon it the fats of the peace-offerings,” (Lev. 6:5) – “upon it” implies completing all the other offerings (after the morning sacrifice so that the evening sacrifice is always the final offering).

There’s no real reason why this is my favorite part, I just like the power of imagination on the one hand, and the metaphoric ability of moving through an entire day’s work in about a minute’s worth of reading.

Within the section dealing with the incense offering, there are two distinct parts: the laws of the incense offering and the recipe. Of the two, I am more intrigued by the second. And here’s the recipe (from Talmud Bavli Keritot 6a):

The Rabbis taught: How was the incense compounded? There were 368 elements in it – 365 corresponding to the solar year, portioned each day, a portion in the morning and a portion in the evening; and three additional elements which the High Priest would add by handful on Yom Kippur. It would be ground in a mortar on Erev Yom Kippur. It would be ground very, very well so that it would be the finest of the fine. There were 11 ingredients in it, and they were: balsam resin, tziporen, galbanum, and frankincense each weighing seventy maneh; myrrh, cassia, spikenard, and saffron each weighing sixteen maneh; twelve pieces of kosht, three pieces of kilufa (a variety of cassia or cinnamon), nine pieces of cinnamon. Nine kav of vetch lye (prepared in) three se’ah and three kav of caper wine – if  one cannot find caper wine, one can use old hivver wine – a quarter kav of Dead Sea salt and any amount of fumaria flowers. Rabbi Natan the Babylonian says: even kipat ha’yarden (some type of herb growing near the Jordan River) could be used in any amount, but if someone puts date-honey in it, the incense becomes invalid. And if any one of these ingredients is missing, one is liable for the death penalty.

Wait… what was that last part? Liable for the death penalty?! Wow. That’s… yeah, that’s strange!

These ingredients are not listed in the Torah, but in Parashat Tetzaveh we do have the basic structure of these traditions. The parsha includes the description of the priestly garments and the consecration ritual, part of which includes seven days of learning the sacrificial service. At the end of the Torah portion, it gives the instruction of constructing the incense altar and when it is to be used, and then it says: “Do not bring up upon it strange incense, or a whole-burnt offering, or a grain offering, and you must not offer libation upon it,” (Ex. 30:9)

“Strange incense”? Well, that’s a strange phrase! How do we understand the meaning of that phrase? Let’s look at three of our old friends –

Rashi, based on Menahot 50: Any incense that is offered by one’s own free will is “strange,” and any incense other than the commanded incense is “strange” to the altar

Ibn Ezra: If it is not the intended incense, it is “strange”

Ramban, based on the Aramaic translation of Onkelos: Any incense that does not comply to this specific recipe is “strange.”

So none of these really disagree with one another, but they focus on different aspects. Rashi’s concern is whether or not is was commanded, Ibn Ezra’s concern is whether or not it is with the proper intention, and Ramban’s concern is whether or not it is the correct incense.

Returning to the Talmud quoted above, “if any one of these ingredients is missing, one is liable for the death penalty.” Also, remember, that the priests – who at this point consist of Aharon and his sons Nadav, Avihu, Elazar, and Itamar – were to be trained in this for a week. Now, in the context of Parashat Tetzaveh, the Mishkan is yet to be built and these are just the instructions. But the Mishkan will come to be built, and we read of it in Parashat Vayak’hel and Parashat Pekudei at the end of the Book of Exodus. Then towards the beginning of the Book of Leviticus, in Parashat Tzav, we get the ceremony fulfilling the description from Parashat Tetzaveh of the ordination of the priests. And remember, they got to practice all of this for 7 days, and then in Parashat Shemini we read: “It was on the eighth day (after the seven days of practice) Moshe called to Aharon and his sons, and to the elders of Yisrael,” (Lev. 9:1) and they do all the things described in Parashat Tetzaveh. And the first offerings are made, and everyone is celebrating, and it’s amazing, and then…

The sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, each man took his censer and placed fire in them, and put incense upon it, and they brought an offering before Hashem of strange fire of which they were not commanded. Fire came out from before Hashem and consumed them and they died before Hashem. (Lev. 10:1-2)

The question is always, why? Why were Nadav and Avihu consumed by the fire? Well, they definitely brought an offering on their own free will (apropos Rashi), and according to tradition they were drunk so they didn’t have the proper intention (apropos Ibn Ezra), and perhaps they didn’t use the proper incense (apropos Ramban). Back to the Talmud: “It would be ground in a mortar on Erev Yom Kippur.” And from where do we receive the ritual sacrifices of Yom Kippur? They were designed to ritually purify the Mishkan after the death of Nadav and Avihu! So the production of the incense, made once a year and used twice a day, was essentially a memorial service for Nadav and Avihu!

Well isn’t that strange…


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