Purpose and Placement of the Incense Altar

Introduction

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Out of Place?

Shemot 25-29 contain a detailed account of the instructions to build the Tabernacle.  On the whole, the order is easily understandable, proceeding from inside to out.  The instructions begin with the vessels in the Sanctuary (the Ark, Table and Menorah), move to the construction of the Tabernacle itself, describing its coverings and boards, and conclude with the commands regarding the Bronze Altar and courtyard which are found outside.  Shemot 28-29 then focus on the priestly garments, seven days of consecration, and daily burnt offerings, ending with several verses which serve as a culmination for the entire unit of instructions:

EN/HEע/E
(מד) וְקִדַּשְׁתִּי אֶת אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וְאֶת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ וְאֶת אַהֲרֹן וְאֶת בָּנָיו אֲקַדֵּשׁ לְכַהֵן לִי. (מה) וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְהָיִיתִי לָהֶם לֵאלֹהִים. (מו) וְיָדְעוּ כִּי אֲנִי י״י אֱלֹהֵיהֶם אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִי אֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לְשׇׁכְנִי בְתוֹכָם אֲנִי י״י אֱלֹהֵיהֶם.
(44) I will sanctify the Tent of Meeting and the altar: Aaron also and his sons I will sanctify, to minister to me in the priest’s office. (45) I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will be their God. (46) They shall know that I am Hashem their God, who brought them forth out of the land of Egypt, that I might dwell among them: I am Hashem their God.

Somewhat surprisingly, it is only after these concluding remarks that we read in Shemot 30:1-10 of the command to build the Incense Altar.1  Even though it, too, is housed in the Outer Sanctum with the Table and Menorah, it is not commanded together with these vessels.  Moreover, it is not even found in the main body of instructions at all, and appears only as part of the appendix to the unit.2 Why does the Torah distinguish the Incense Altar from the other vessels?  What does this imply about the altar's role and how it relates to the Tabernacle as a whole?  Does it not share the goals and functions of the rest of the edifice?  And why is the nation commanded to offer incense at all; of what use is the fragrance to Hashem?3

Other Mentions of Incense

Outside the context of the construction of the Tabernacle, incense is mentioned several times, and some of these passages may shed light on its function:

Other Questions

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