The Golden Mizbeach

וְעָשִׂיתָ מִזְבֵּחַ מִקְטַר קְטֹרֶת

You shall make an altar for offering the incense (30:1)

Why is the Golden Mizbeach in our Parsha?

Then final topic discussed in our Parsha is the golden Mizbeach upon which the ketores was offered twice daily as part of the avodah in the Mishkan. The Rishonim have already noted that here does not seem to be the intuitive place for discussing this Mizbeach. Our parsha is devoted primarily to the bigdei kehunah – the garments worn by the kohanim, while the Mishkan and its keilim were discussed in the previous Parsha – Terumah. Why is the golden Mizbeach not discussed together with them?

Numerous answers have been offered to this question. Not surprisingly, the Meshech Chochmah has a unique approach. He suggests that the “deferred presentation” of the golden Mizbeach to the end of our Parsha reflects an exceptional feature of this Mizbeach. As a rule, the halacha is that if a vessel of the Mishkan is not in its place, the avodah associated with that vessel cannot be performed. Hence, for example, in the absence of the Menorah, there can be no kindling of the lights, and in the absence of the Shulchan, there can be no Lechem Hapanim. The exception to this rule is the golden Mizbeach. The Gemara states:[1] “מזבח שנעקר מקטירין קטורת במקומו – If the Mizbeach has been removed, we offer ketores in the place where it normally stands.” In other words, while the mitzvah of ketores involves offering it on the golden Mizbeach, the Mizbeach is not critical to this avodah and, if need be, the ketores can be offered without it.

This, says Meshech Chochmah, is why the golden Mizbeach is discussed at the very end. The Torah first discusses all the items which are critical to the performance of the avodah, i.e., the Mishkan and its vessels as well as the bigdei kehunah, and then concludes by discussing the one vessel which is not critical to its primary avodah of the ketores – the golden Mizbeach!

Reverberations in the Navi

As he frequently does, the Meshech Chochmah proceeds to show how this idea, which is rooted in the Chumash, reverberates later on in the Nevi’im as well; for ultimately, the Torah Nevi’im and Kesuvim comprise an integrated unity.

In Melachim-1,[2] the pasuk describes korbanos which Shlomo Hamelech arranged to be brought in the Beis Hamikdash:

עֹלוֹת וּשְׁלָמִים עַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ אֲשֶׁר בָּנָה לַה’ וְהַקְטֵיר אִתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר לִפְנֵי ה’

[He had] burnt offerings and peace offerings brought on the Mizbeach that he had built for Hashem, and had incense burnt with it before Hashem.

We note that with regards to the korbanos, the pasuk mentions explicitly that they were brought “on the Mizbeach,” while the ketores is referred simply as being offered “before Hashem,” with no mention of the Mizbeach upon which it was offered! With this, the pasuk is bearing out the distinction mentioned in the Gemara, namely, that in contrast to the offering of korbanos where the presence of the Mizbeach is crucial, the essential requirement for offering ketores is only that it be “before Hashem!”

Once a Year

In addition to the daily offering of the ketores, the golden Mizbeach performed a specific function once a year. On Yom Kippur, there were two sin-offerings whose blood was sprinkled, first on the Aron in the Kodesh Hakodashim, then on the Paroches and subsequently on the corners of the golden Mizbeach.[3] This annual avodah is referred to in the final pasuk of our Parsha,[4] which reads:

וְכִפֶּר אַהֲרֹן עַל קַרְנֹתָיו אַחַת בַּשָּׁנָה מִדַּם חַטַּאת הַכִּפֻּרִים אַחַת בַּשָּׁנָה יְכַפֵּר עָלָיו לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם קֹדֶשׁ קָדָשִׁים הוּא לַה'

Aharon shall atone on its corners once a year, from the blood of the sin-offering of the atonements once a year he shall atone on it for your generations, it is holy of holies to Hashem.

There is a basic difficulty with this pasuk, for the second half appears to simply be a repetition of the first half, stating that once a year blood is sprinkled on the corners of the Mizbeach!

Upon closer inspection, however, we note something very interesting. The first half of the pasuk places the mitzvah (“shall atone”) before its timing (“once a year”), while the second half reverses this order, stating first “once a year” and then “he shall atone.” As such, the pasuk forms a sort of “halachic palindrome.”

What is behind the change in order?

Aharon’s Unique Status

The Meshech Chochmah explains that the background to the double reference in the pasuk lies in a fascinating comment of the Midrash,[5] which states that whereas as a rule, the Kohen gadol  may enter the Kodesh Hakodashim only once a year on Yom Kippur, Aharon’s situation was different:

אמר לו הקדוש ברוך למשה... בכל שעה שהוא רוצה להיכנס יכנס, רק שיכנס בסדר הזה

Said the Holy One, Blessed is He, to Moshe, ‘Whenever he (Aharon) wants he may enter, provided he enters with the following order (of korbanot).”

In other words, in contrast to kohanim gedolim of future generations, Aharon was granted the opportunity of performing the avodah specified in Parshas Acharei Mos – known to us as “the avodah of Yom Kippur” – at any time![6]

Returning to our pasuk, the Meshech Chochmah explains that the two references to atonement do not represent a repetition at all, but rather are referring to two different time-frames, that of Aharon and that of future kohanim gedolim.

Verbs and Nouns

We noted that in the first half of our pasuk the verb (“shall atone”) is mentioned before the time (“once a year”), while in the second half the order is reversed. What is behind this reversal?

  • When the verb is mentioned first, it can serve to indicate that the scope of the verb extends beyond the noun which follows. For example, the Torah says[7] “לֹא תַחְסֹם שׁוֹר בְּדִישׁוֹ — you shall not muzzle an ox while it threshes.” The Gemara[8] states that since the words “lo tachsom” came first, the meaning is expanded to denote “מכל מקום — under any circumstances.”[9]
  • In contrast, when the noun comes first, it serves to limit the verb that follows to the noun.

With this in mind, the Meshech Chochmah brings us back to our pasuk.

The first half reads:

וְכִפֶּר אַהֲרֹן עַל קַרְנֹתָיו אַחַת בַּשָּׁנָה

Aharon shall atone on its corners once a year

When the pasuk mentions “Aharon,” it is not merely as a way of referring to kohanim gedolim generally, but rather, it is referring to his unique status. As such, the verb “he shall atone” is mentioned before stating “once a year,” For although Aharon was required to perform this avodah once a year like every other Kohen gadol, nevertheless he was allowed to perform it at any time of the year! This broader scope is reflected in the pasuk placing the words “he shall atone” first.

In contrast, the second half of the pasuk reads:

מִדַּם חַטַּאת הַכִּפֻּרִים אַחַת בַּשָּׁנָה יְכַפֵּר עָלָיו לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם

From the blood of the sin-offering of the atonements once a year he shall atone on it for your generations

As the pasuk mentions, these words reflect the halacha as it applies to the Kohen Gadol “for your generations!” As such the words “once a year” are mentioned before the verb “shall atone”, thereby limiting the avodah to that time, for indeed, subsequent Kohanim Gedolim are not allowed to perform this avodah more than once a year.[10]

In this exquisite section, the Meshech Chochmah takes a pasuk concerning which, if we had any comment at all, we might perhaps have noticed that it seems repetitive and then moved on. Through fusing the world of Midrash with the discipline of exacting parshanut, the pasuk is opened up to reveal two tiers: the halachah as it applies to the Kohen gadol generally, and as it applied to Aharon specifically.

[1] Zevachim 59a.

[2] 9:25.

[3] See Vayikra 16:14-19.

[4] Pasuk 10.

[5] Vayikra Rabbah 21:7.

[6] See Meshech Chochmah Parshas Acharei Mos (16:3) for a discussion as to why it was appropriate for Aharon to perform this avodah more than once a year.

[7] Devarim 25:4.

[8] Bava Metzia 90a.

[9] This includes even before the ox has started threshing (Bava Metzia ibid.).

[10] Meshech Chochmah, Vayikra 16:3.