Parshat Shemini (2011)

Leviticus 9:1-11:47

Does the Torah and Prayerbook Mess Up This Story?

As we come upon the month of Nissan and Pesach (the Passover holiday) the Torah details the erection of the Mishkan (the Tabernacle) for the first time in the desert. The first chapter of our parsha concerns itself with the procedure for dedicating this sacred space.

TabernacleThis procedure for consecrating the Mishkan is something that most religious Jews are familiar with if we think about it for a second, as it is detailed in the liturgy of the daily Shacharit and Minchah services. The section relating to the Ketoret (the incense offering) quotes Exodus chapter 30 concerning this process. Noticeably, however, this reference is not presented in the biblical order when it appears in the Siddur (the Hebrew prayerbook) the verses are juxtaposed, starting first with verses 34-36 and then it returns back to verses 7-8. Why is this?

Surely the sages who codified our prayers were more knowledgeable than we are, and knew that this was presented out of order. Every word, in-fact every letter, was chosen for the purpose of teaching us something. There must be a lesson in this. The siddur presents the text as follows:

“And Hashem said to Mosheh [Heb. Moses] take for yourself sweet spice, stacte, and onycha with galbanum; sweet spice with pure frankincense; they shall be of equal weight. And you shall make incense of it, a frankincense like a perfumer makes; with salt, pure and holy. You shall take a portion of it, and grind it finely; and you shall place the portion before the testimony by Tent of Meeting, that I shall meet you there; holy of holies, it shall be to you.

And it is said: Aharon [Heb. Aaron] shall burn therefore incense of sweet spice, every morning, when he dresses the lamp he shall burn it. And when Aharon lights the lamps at dusk, he shall burn it; a perpetual incense before Hashem, throughout your generations.”

וַיֹּאמֶר יְיָ אֶל מֹשֶׁה, קַח לְךָ סַמִּים, נָטָף, וּשְׁחֵלֶת, וְחֶלְבְּנָה, סַמִּים, וּלְבֹנָה זַכָּה, בַּד בְּבַד יְיָ: וְעָשִׂיתָ אֹתָהּ קְטֹרֶת, רֹקַח מַעֲשֵׂה רוֹקֵחַ, מְמֻלָּח טָהוֹר קֹדֶשׁ: וְשָׁחַקְתָּ מִמֶּנָּה הָדֵק, וְנָתַתָּה מִמֶּנָּה לִפְנֵי הָעֵדֻת בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, אֲשֶׁר אִוָּעֵד לְךָ שָׁמָּה, קֹדֶשׁ קָדָשִׁים תִּהְיֶה לָכֶם

וְנֶאֶמַר: וְהִקְטִיר עָלָיו אַהֲרֹן קְטֹרֶת סַמִּים בַּבֹּקֶר בַּבֹּקֶר, בְּהֵיטִיבוֹ אֶת הַנֵּרֹת יַקְטִירֶנָּה: וּבְהַעֲלֹת אַהֲרֹן אֶת הַנֵּרֹת בֵּין הָעַרְבַּיִם יַקְטִירֶנָּה, קְטֹרֶת תָּמִיד לִפְנֵי יְיָ, לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם

 From the Siddur, Seder Ketoret, Exodus 30:34-36, 7-8

If we look at the text we see that these selected verses from Exodus 30 are all related to the incense offering, whereas the rest of the chapter is about the materials of the Mishkan, how to acquire them and used them for the construction. This is appropriate to be said at that time because twice a day incense was offered in the tabernacle, during the morning service which is Shacharit and the afternoon service which is Mincha.

The reading presents us first with Mosheh Rabbeinu (Moses our Teacher) being commanded to make incense; it then explains what the composition of the mixture was and how to process it. (v.34-35) We are told that Mosheh himself is commanded to grind some incense down and place it before the tent, and that when this was done G-d would appoint a time to “meet you.” (v.35) The place would then become most holy. (v.36) Notice he is not told to burn it.

The siddur digresses, reminding us that it is was first written that Aharon was the one actually commanded to burn the incense, (v. 7) he was to do it in the morning and the afternoon (v.8).

This is important for to know in order to understand what is going on this parsha, as it presents us with a very disjointed story. All kinds of things seem to happen out of order. Surely the holy Torah, written by the hand of Mosheh Rabbeinu as given by G-d, should be expected to be more logical and sensible than even the siddur composed by our sages. Surely there is a reason for the seeming juxtaposition of the biblical narrative.

“And he [Mosheh] said to Aharon,

‘Take for yourself a bull-calf

for a sin offering,

and a ram without blemish for a burnt-offering,

and offer them before Hashem’”

| Vayomer el aharon

| kach lach eigel

| ben bakar l’chatat

| v’ailu l’olah tamim

| v’hakereiv lifnei Hashem

Leviticus 9:2

We read that on the 8th day of the month of Nissan that Mosheh is said to have called Aharon, the Kohen Gadol – the High Priest, his sons who served as priests unto the people, and the elders who are representatives of the assembly of the people. They are to meet in front of the ohel moed (the Tent of Meeting). Aharon was to bring a bull-calf and a ram to offer for his own self. Notice that it says a bull “l’chatat/for a sin offering” and a ram “l’olah/for offering.”

The people are then commanded by Aharon to bring a male goat for their sin offering, and a first year calf and sheep for a burnt offering. Next the entire congregation was to provide for a bull and a ram for a peace offering, and a meal offering mixed with oil. They were to do this, in order that G-d would appear to them. This is presented in the same tone as given to Aharon, that they were bring the goat “l’chatat/for a sin offering” and the other two young animals “l’olah/for offering.” Of course we understand that the people of the general population did not offer these items themselves. Clearly the peace offering and the grain offering was only allowed of priests. It merely says what they were for, not that the people offering them up themselves.

However, when we think of the priests one tends to automatically assume that the offerings that Aharon brought were actually offered at that moment in the flames, because that was his function as High Priest. But the wording itself does not explicitly say that he actually burned them. The text seems to suggests that he merely brought the items, just like the congregation did; it uses the exact same wording.

As we read through chapter 9 we read that the animals were slaughtered and all the offerings were offered up on the altar outside of the tent. Then Aharon blesses the people, and steps down from the altar. Next Mosheh and Aharon together go into the Tent of Meeting, then they come out and bless the people again. We are told that G-d then appears to the people and that fire came down from heaven and consumed the offerings on the altar.

Now here is where we run into our problem with the text, how is that the offerings and the fat of the various animals is only then consumed by fire? We clearly read that Aharon did slaughter the animals and dismembered them as an offering. We then read that after he blesses the people he steps down from offering the items. They next go into the ohel moed – Tent of Meeting, outside of the partition veil – for some unexpressed reason. When they exit from there the people are blessed a second time. Then presence of G-d only then appears, along with fire from heaven to consume the items of the offering.

From a critical perspective of the narrative, and even in light of our tradition there is something very wrong. If the items were offered, there would be nothing for the fire to consume at the end of this chapter. Secondly, we know that the task of the priests was to bless the people after the offering. (see Parshat Nasso 2012) But here in both cases we see that a blessing comes before the items are consumed by fire as an offering. Thing seem to be stated all out of order when we walk ourselves mentally through the procedure of sacrifices step-by-step.

However, if we look at this chapter in light of the instructions given in Exodus 30 we see things very differently. The instructions that they received was that even though Aharon was to burn the offerings himself everyday, that Mosheh was appointed to offer the incense in front of the Tent of Meeting. Normally the incense was offered inside, in the place only the high priest could go. In our parsha we see Mosheh going inside with Aharon. This also seems perplexing, their going inside together seems unnecessary and was normally not allowed.

When Rashi deals with the text of Exodus 30 he sees it as Mosheh being told to instruct Aharon in how to perform his service. That is why he makes the incense, even though we are told at the start that Aharon was going to actually burn the incense on a daily basis. So when Mosheh goes inside with Aharon, he sees it as Mosheh physically instructing Aharon in how to perform his service. Rashi’s makes sense, as they did not go in to actually offer incense that day. Instead it tells us that Mosheh offered it upon the altar “lifney haeidut vohel moed / before the testimony of the Tent of Meeting.” (Exodus 30:35) Their trip inside was only a dry run, they didn’t offer anything at all and just went through the motions as instruction in the priestly service.

It is very likely that the offerings of Aharon, the grain and the fat of the animals which was offered up outside, was just him going through the motions as well. It details how he separated the animal parts, wash and placed them so they would go up in smoke with the other offering of incense; then the blood was dashed on the altar in the normative fashion. But it says nothing of any actual fire at that time.

The closest thing we have to any implication that they were burned is the use of the word “hiketir” over and and over again, which in biblical Hebrew normally means “to burn completely as a sacrificial offering.” However, this word plainly means “to light incense” in everyday speech. Keep in mind, the incense offering was a tamid offering; it was a perpetually burning offering upon the altar that was lit in the morning, with more incense to sustain it added in the afternoon. Elective offerings were then placed on top of that burning tamid offering. Here in our parsha we do not read anywhere that Mosheh lit the incense offering. The only thing we have Mosheh doing is speaking to the people, instructing them. How could Aharon burn these other offerings on the smoldering incense offering if Mosheh had not yet burned it? We don’t read of anything burning until verse 11 when the skin and flesh was “saraf b’eish/burned by fire” outside of the camp. We will not find any other mention to burning or fire again until the end of the chapter.

I believe Mosheh did not burn the incense; he merely placed it upon the altar outside. Likewise Aharon did not burn his offerings, but only placed them upon the altar.

If this is true, then we have a perfect reason for why the elements of the offerings were still on the altar at the end of this entire procedure, to be consumed by fire from heaven. They could not, and did not act until G-d Himself consecrated the Mishkan. G-d was the one who started the fires of the offerings, providing for it miraculously. Mosheh was not out of place in doing the task of offering the incense, because he merely present it and G-d lit the fires that consumed it. Aharon then followed the example of Moses, presenting but not burning his offerings. And thus the incense offering and the sacrifices of the animals are present on the altar at the same time just like it says, to be offered up in smoke.

So now as we read the text it is logical why all the details are presented in this order. In verse 5 we see the people bringing everything that Mosheh commanded them, and assembles before them outside of the tent. As they stood there, in verse 6, Mosheh speaks to everyone telling them what to do in order that the presence G-d be reveal to them. He showed them specifically how to do it when he says “zeh ha davar asher tziuah Hashem ta’asu/this is the thing that Hashem has commanded you to do.” Which is when Mosheh places the incense upon the altar.

Then in verse 7, Mosheh calls to Aharon to draw close to the altar and offer up the elements of the sacrifices and offerings. In verse 8, Aharon goes up to the altar and offers up the bull sacrifice for himself. In verse 9, he places the blood upon the altar outside. In verse 10, the fats and the organs he added to the incense offering that was upon the altar “as G-d instructed Mosheh;” which hints that Mosheh was instructed by G-d, and now Aharon was instructed by Mosheh. In verse 11, the flesh and skin are burned outside the camp. In verse 12 begins the offering of the ram, with Aharon placing the blood upon the altar. In verse 13, we learn that the sons of Aharon then bring each of the offerings piece-by-piece to him to be offered. Verses 13-21, he does the tasks of offering all the items upon the unlit altar. In verse 22, he blesses the people and leaves the altar with the items still on it. Verse 23, they go into the Tent of the Meeting for Aharon to be instructed on the tasks relating to the service of high priest in the holy sanctuary; when they come out the people are blessed again, and G-d then appears to all the people. Thus in verse 24, all the sacrifices and offerings are taken up by fire from heaven together at once as a sign of their acceptance.

They went through all the tasks of the tabernacle service, in a unique place and in a unique way. It was done this way in order to learn how to perform it. They took every element of it seriously, even down to the detail of blessing the people in this dress rehearsal (thought we are not sure what the words of these actual blessings were). When G-d saw their faithfulness in fulfilling their duty, G-d accepted Mosheh’s incense offering and Aharon’s sacrifices. Through this act G-d also accepted the sacrifices to sanctify Aharon, and received the sacrifices and offerings to sanctify the people; to forgive their sins so that they could enter into the sacred space. Only then did G-d make the Mishkan holy, now that they were able to come in and knew how to perform the holy functions as commanded.

This also provides us a reason for the juxtaposed presentation of this text in the siddur. It was necessary to first understand that Mosheh was the one who was doing the offering of the incense in that example, and it was Mosheh that first created the incense mixture in order to show this thing to Aharon. Though this task would be given to Aharon to do on a daily basis from that point on. When placing this section of scripture in the Ketoret reading the rabbis presented it in the most logical fashion. Mosheh’s role as instructor presented first, going through the motions that Aharon would do in the Mishkan after dedication. It is very appropriate, because in our morning prayers and in our Mincha prayers we too merely mentally go through the motions of this service and recite the laws pertaining to them from Talmudic sources until the Holy Temple of G-d is reestablished (may it been soon and in our days!).

Something to think about:

  • The Duchan, the Blessing of the Birkat Kohanim (Priestly Blessing)  that is said on holidays, is a extension of the blessing give by Aharon as prescribed in Numbers 6:24-26. This is said at the end of the Musaf offering, at the end of the Amidah because it was given after the sacrifices were offered. If the offerings were not yet completed until fire came from G-d, Aharon must have said some other blessings. Rashi tells us that Aharon recited Psalms 90:17 when they came out of the ohel moed, a verse of a Psalm written by Mosheh. Maybe Aharon composed his own blessing too when he blessed the people the first time, one that was appropriate to the situation. What do you think he said?

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