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Responding to God


I. Incense and Presence

The surprising placement of the command to build an incense altar teaches how to properly apprehend and respond to God’s presence. Is a feeling of divine immanence unique to Israel’s holy places or can we find Him wherever we are in the world? A debate over an aspect of the mishkan (tabernacle) opens a window into a Medieval philosophical debate on this crucial issue.

The details of building the mishkan is described in Parashas Terumah (Ex. 25-27:19). Subsequently the priestly garments and priestly inauguration are described in Parashas Tetzaveh (Ex. 27:20-29:46). After all that, we return to describe the incense altar in the mishkan (Ex. 30:1-10). Shouldn’t this passage appear in the prior Torah portion?

II. Why Incense?

Many answers are suggested for this. I believe the Rambam had it in mind when he explained the purpose of the incense altar. Noting a mundane challenge of the sacrificial order of the Temple, Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 3:45) suggests that the incense was intended to mask the horrible stench of slaughter. Unlike other elements of the sacrificial order, the incense was purely pragmatic and therefore, presumably, separated in the text from the primary section of the mishkan.

Ramban (Commentary to Ex. 30:1) explains that the passages of the mishkan and priests discuss bringing God’s presence into our midst. The incense is our response to God’s presence. To my reading, Ramban sees two purposes two the incense: it appeases God’s anger to our misdeeds and warns us to behave appropriately in the sacred space. (Tur [ad loc.] states that, according to Ramban, the incense is in God’s honor.) Rabbenu Bachya Ben Asher (ad loc.) argues that Ramban’s approach successfully undermines Rambam’s functional explanation. However, perhaps we can explains the different views based on a debate elsewhere.

III. Synagogues as Temples

That a synagogue has sanctity is clear from the Mishnah but the nature of that sanctity is a matter of debate. The Ran (Commentary to Rif, Megillah 8a sv. u-man de-shari) suggests the status is rabbinic but quotes Ramban as saying that synagogues have the biblical sanctity of an item used for a mitzvah (like a lulav). The Yere’im (no. 324) believes that a synagogue, as a “small sanctuary” (mikdash me’at), attains the same sanctity as the Temple and mishkan. According to most commentaries, Rambam agrees with the Yere’im (e.g. Arukh Ha-Shulchan, Orach Chaim 153:4; Achiezer 2:49).

According to Ramban, God’s presence in the Temple is unique. No other place can compare. Synagogues are merely gathering places for prayer, facilitators of a communal mitzvah. However, according to Rambam, the divine presence rests on a synagogue much like it dwells in the Temple. Of course, there are different levels of God’s presence. The two need not be identical to be of the same type.

IV. Responding to God

Returning to the incense altar, according to Ramban we respond to God’s presence with the incense offering. Rambam cannot accept this because, according to him, we regularly confront God’s presence outside of the Temple and mishkan and do not respond with incense. If we must offer incense when encountering the shekhinah, why don’t we do so in our synagogues? After all, according to the Rambam our synagogues attain a similar sanctity. We encounter the shekhinah every day, even in exile.

Rather, according to the Rambam, the incense is unconnected to God’s presence. We do not need to respond that way. Therefore, the Rambam is free to speculate of more pragmatic reasons for the incense altar in the mishkan and the Temple.


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Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Torah Musings.

The opinions and facts here are presented solely by the author. Torah Musings assumes no responsibility for them. Please address religious questions to your rabbi.

17 Responses

  1. Shlomo says:

    Of course: even two people learning Torah together, or a husband and wife if they merit it, have the shechina between them. And no incense…

  2. joel rich says:

    IIRC R’YBS spoke of the mikdash as HKB”H’s home which we visit and the beit knesset as our home which he visits, maybe also that the kdushat mikdash flows from the luchot in the mikdash and the kedushat beit knesset from the sefer torah.

  3. Mair Zvi says:

    Perhaps a scientific explanation for the use of incense in the Mishkan and Temple can be postulated.
    Perhaps the burning of the components of the incense produced a chemical reaction which when the resulting smoke was inhaled, produced a type of “psychedelic” mind-expanding effect which raised the spiritual level of “d’veikus” (closeness) to HKB”H.

  4. Hoffa Araujo says:

    “Perhaps the burning of the components of the incense produced a chemical reaction which when the resulting smoke was inhaled, produced a type of “psychedelic” mind-expanding effect which raised the spiritual level of “d’veikus” (closeness) to HKB”H.”

    Timothy Leary approves of this pshat. “Turn on, tune it, drop out”.

  5. Nachum says:

    There is a theory that one of the ingredients in the ketoret was hemp.

  6. David Tzohar says:

    The real question is how the presence of Hashem can be limited to any place be it the synagogue, the mishkan or the temple. The answer is “asu li mikdash veshachanti beTOCHAM. The schina resides within us, that part of the Divine which resides in the neshama of every Jew. In chassidut there is less emphasis on the synagogue as a place of the shcina. The most extreme expression of this is in chassidut Breslav where communion with Hashem is best reached through hitbodidut, crying out to “Tatteh”!(heavenly father} in the middle of a forest or a field far from any synagogue.

  7. Mair Zvi says:

    Hoffa Araujo:
    Before you dismiss my theory, recall that at the Revelation at Har Sinai the entire mountain was engulfed by thick smoke as well as thunder, lightning and the ever-increasing sound of a shofar. The thunder, lightning and shofar were apparently necessary to induce fear and trepidation in Am Yisroel. But what was the function of the thick smoke? To hide something from view? Definitely not: There was nothing to view! And yet, something about the experience caused every Jew to rise to a level of “prophesy” greater than that of the Prophet Ezekiel.
    Perhaps there was a connection between the “consciousness-raising” awareness experienced by the people and the smoke?
    Why is this not a serious,legitimate question and not something to be simply ridiculed by comparing it to Timothy Leary?

  8. Mr. Cohen says:

    I respectfully suggest that when speaking of the Avodat Beit HaMikdash, we refrain from using phrases like: “horrible stench” and “slaughter,” because these words create negative or disrespectful images in peoples’ minds concerning the Avodat Beit HaMikdash.

    Thank you!

  9. Mr. Cohen says:

    How can we reconcile Moreh Nebuchim chapter 3 paragraph 45 with משנה מסכת אבות פרק ה which teaches: וְלֹא הִסְרִיחַ בְּשַׂר הַקֹּדֶשׁ מֵעוֹלָם ?

  10. Mair Zvi says:

    David Tzohar:
    One of the many reasons the Vilna Gaon was opposed to Chassidim was that they smoked! What was wrong with smoking tobacco? There was no known connection between tobacco smoking and lung disease at that time.
    It is said that Rav Nachman of Breslov “smoked” before he prayed.
    Another Chassidishe Rebbe whose name I don’t recall is reported to “smoke” every erev Shabbos and Yom Tov.
    Now, David Tzohar, is it possible that some Chassidim smoked something other than tobacco?

  11. Mair Zvi says:

    I remember the name of the Rebbe who would smoke erev Shabbos and Yom Tov: Rebbe Levi Yitchak of Beredichev.

  12. Hirhurim says:

    Mr. Cohen: See the Tosafos Yom Tov on that Mishnah. It’s talking about meat left over for 2 to 3 days not spoiling. It doesn’t mean there wasn’t a slaughterhouse smell.

  13. Hoffa Araujo says:

    Mair Zvi – I wasn’t ridiculing you. It was just a joke. Guess I will stick to my day job….

  14. minyan lover says:

    Mair Tzvi, if your statements re gra/smoking are factual, then what is your point ? That gra was correct whether it was hashish or tobacco ? Or are u suggesting that hasidic pot heads and rebbe based weed gardens are where the true teachers of devout dveikut can be found,growing spiritually. I would recommend secular spiritual rooftop weed gardens in honor of Rav Rechumia. Especially for the high holy holidays.

  15. minyan lover says:

    One additional note for devout dvekuit lover husbands , when building the R Rechumia Rooftop weed gardens one shld probably include some roses (stormy weather, peace, dick clark,abaya de cluny, loves promise..) for the inevitable abandoned wife back in bavel. Sustainable rose wreaths in the shape of Jerusalem,Robinsons Arch,the manhattan skyline or the bais hamikdash (similar to R Akibahs gold ornament sentiment ) as a token of hakoras hatov for the “mesiras nefesh” of the abandoned wife and abandoned bayis (neeman no more.) It goes without saying that this husband/ wife relationship can be expanded to include denominations (although its not clear which denomination is the husband and which denomination is the wife or why they would be obligated to each other as if they were ) but it definitely includes buildings (I fall in love with buildings all the time and love all sanctuaries equally).

    In 2013 instead of the foreign concepts described in the original post I would recommend rose gardens(originally created for fragrance iirc) for all sanctuaries.

  16. Ephrayim says:

    “we respond to God’s presence with the incense offering. Rambam cannot accept this because, according to him, we regularly confront God’s presence outside of the Temple and mishkan and do not respond with incense.”

    As Ramban proves, the burning of ketores is most definitely associated with the presence of the Shechina. To claim that Rambam disputed this based on his understanding that a synagogue had biblical sanctity equivalent to that of the mishkan seems far fetched.

    In addition, I doubt that you or anybody ever really thought that according to Rambam the presence of the Shechina is the same in the mikdash maat as that that was in the Mikdash. Only the greater revelation of the Shechina necessitated the burning of the ketores. Ramban makes this point very clear in pointing out that the pesukim specifically mention that the mizbeiach haketores was before the peroches and before the aron. This difference is so obvious I can’t fathom Rambam rejecting the Ramban based on the question you claim he had.

  17. Y. Aharon says:

    The apparent view of the Rambam in the Moreh concerning the function of ketoret suffers the same problem as does his conecture as to the function of karbonot whose ‘aroma’ must, apparently, be neutralized by incense. The rationales suggested result in what could be considered a trivialization of what the torah regards as very significant rituals. Besides, if the function of the ketoret was to insure that the mishkan/mikdash was sweet smelling, then offering it in the ohel/haichal makes little sense. Why shouldn’t it be offered on the same altar on which karbonot are brought?

    The instructions about the golden incense altar after all the furnishings of the mishkan and priestly garments were set out is the best indication that it was an afterthought. It was not part of the original plan, and was introduced as a result of the sin of the golden calf. Nor is the incense altar and the copper wash basin the only such revisions. Originally, silver donations were no different than the other free-willed offerings. After the calf episode, it became a head-tax. The point is that the environment of the mishkan was to become more akin to what the people experienced during the divine giving of the 10 instructions. Just as the mountain was enveloped in a cloud, so, too, is the mishkan. The object is to impress upon the people the sanctity of the place designated as the ‘resting place’ of the divine presence.


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