Purpose and Placement of the Incense Altar
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 (Shemot 29:44-46):
(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? Finally, 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:
- Yom HaKippurim Service – The Incense Altar is mentioned twice in this context:
- Vayikra 16:12-13 describes how as part of the day's service, the High Priest takes a censer of incense into the Holy of Holies, where the cloud of incense covers the kapporet (the cover of the ark) so that the priest "will not die". What is the import of this action, and why does it prevent death?
- A few verses later, in Vayikra 16:18-19, the priest is instructed to sprinkle blood and make atonement on the altar,4 a rite unique to it and the kapporet. Does this suggest that the altar played a role in achieving atonement, or only that it needed to be expiated? Interestingly, this atonement is mentioned already in Shemot 30 ("וְכִפֶּר אַהֲרֹן עַל קַרְנֹתָיו אַחַת בַּשָּׁנָה מִדַּם חַטַּאת הַכִּפֻּרִים") making the Incense Altar the only vessel in the construction chapters by which there is an allusion to Yom HaKippurim.5 What is the significance of this?
- Rebellion of Korach – In this story, too, the incense plays two roles:
- In Bemidbar 16:5-7, after complaining about the priestly position, the rebels are told to offer incense as a test by which Hashem would indicate whom He had chosen to serve Him. What can be learned from the fact that it was specifically this ritual which was chosen as the test?
- Bemidbar 17:9-13 recounts how in the aftermath of the rebellion, a plague begins and Aharon is commanded to stop it via the bringing of incense. Does this suggest that the incense had some inherent powers of protection and atonement? Or, was the incense chosen merely because of its role in the earlier part of the story?
- Location in the Ohel Moed – The Incense Altar is located in the Outer Sanctum, suggesting that it might share some common purpose with both the Menorah and Table. It is not at all clear, though, what the three share in common. Moreover, in describing the altar's location, Shemot 30 mentions only that it is to face the Ark, omitting mention of its proximity to either of these vessels. Does this imply that the Incense Altar had more in common with the Ark than with the other vessels? Why, then, are they all placed together in the Outer Sanctum? Is the Incense Altar placed on the side of the Outer Sanctum which is closer to the Ark or on the opposite side?6
- Why an "Altar"? – Why is the vessel called an "altar" if no sacrifices are brought upon it?7 Does it share anything in common with the Bronze Altar and sacrificial service? The fact that the command regarding the incense is placed right after discussion of the burnt offering, might suggest that perhaps the two are indeed connected. But if so, how?