The Mishkan at Night

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

The Mishkan at Night, Its Staff, and How the Torah Tells Us About It

The Mizbe’ach at Night

Parshat Tzav starts with rules for an olah, the offering burnt completely to Hashem. Such an offering, we are told, can be burned on the mizbe’ach, the altar, all night. Ramban quotes Rashi (and will build from there); Rashi noted two teachings of the verse: first, hekter chalavim ve-eivarim, the offering of fats and sinews, may happen all night, and, second, the phrase “zot torat ha-olah, these are the rules for a burnt-offering,” tells us that all burnt offerings, even invalid ones, need not be taken off the altar once brought up there.

Ramban adds that R. Yehoshu’a in Zevachim 83a limits that latter rule to the animals of sacrifice. The wine libations (nesachim) that would accompany an olah, for example, would have to be taken off the altar if either they or the sacrifice they accompanied was found to be invalid—despite the fact that the sacrifice itself would not be taken down in that situation. Olot, once they go up, do not come down; other olim, items that went up, do come down if they are not able to be offered in a valid way.

Ramban also understands tradition to restrict what is meant by hekter, offering, of the fats and sinews to turning them over on the fire. Bringing them from off the altar could not happen at night for these offerings any more than for any others. That which is already there can be tended to, he is telling us, but that’s it–nothing new happens to the mizbe’ach at night.

Similarly, the end of the verse speaks of the fire burning all night, which obligates the priests to put enough wood during the daytime to ensure the fire goes all night (Ramban thinks this is a specific Biblical commandment, obligatory on the kohanim, in addition to the prohibition laid out by the final words of the verse, lo tichbeh)

The altar at night was quiescent, for Ramban, with perhaps priests turning over the fats and sinews already on the fire, to help them burn better [he does not draw the connection, but if you recall that Ramban thought the pillar of fire that accompanied the Jewish people at night symbolized Hashem’s Court, which administers strict justice, the fact that the Mishkan mostly has nothing happen at night makes sense, since it was a place for Divine Compassion or Mercy].

Pooling Their Tips

Verse 7;9 names three kinds of menachot, flour offerings, the non-altared parts of each of which go to the kohen who offered them. Unenlightened by Chazal, we would have thought that’s what happened– rather than be divided among the kohanim called to serve that week– perhaps because the offering priest does extra work on them, baking them in an oven or frying them, whether in a deep or shallow pan.  

Menachot 73a disabused us, told us that here, too, all the flour that does not go up on the altar is split among the ritually pure kohanim taking their turn of service in the Mishkan/MikdashLo yihyeh, the phrase the Torah uses, means it goes to kohanim rather than the person who brought it, but not that specific kohen. It goes to all the ritually pure priests assigned that week, since they all offer it, either physically or by their assent to this priest doing it.

We’ve seen before that Ramban held that corporate entities act through their representatives. The serving priests empowered each individual kohen to act and offer sacrifices, so that any one of them represents the group as a whole. Benefits that accrue, accrue to the group.

Ramban phrases it so as to emphasize the point. He says they are all standing over that sacrifice (not physically), and invokes a phrase from I Shmuel 30;24 about spoils of war, that those who went to war and those who guarded the camp should share equally.

His applying it here tells us as much as the phrase itself. For Ramban, when a group acts, each member contributes what s/he can, and the act comes from the group as a whole.

The Torah in Order

Chapter eight of Vayikra starts with Hashem telling Moshe to take Aharon and his sons for the dedication ceremonies. The preceding chapters seemed to already discuss an operating Mishkan, which convinced Rashi that this section of the Torah was said to Moshe earlier, before the Mishkan had been finally set up. He considers this an example ofein mukdam u-me’uchar ba-Torah, the Torah does not insist on chronological order, a principle enunciated in Pesachim 6b.

Ramban objects to its application here. He offers substantive reasons, but after saying “ve-lamah nahafoch divrei Elokim chayyim, why would we switch around the words of the living Gd?”

I have no doubt the points he raised after also were part of what convinced him to disagree with Rashi, but this seems to me to have played a significant role as well. Ramban is bothered, almost offended, by saying the Torah goes out of order.

So he gives another reading.

Presentational Matters

He says that once Moshe completed the Mishkan, Hashem told him how to offer all the kinds of offerings, even those not needed right then. Once the corpus was complete, Hashem moved on to the business of the day, inducting Aharon and his sons.

Ramban does not say why Hashem would want to teach all the offerings at once, especially on as busy a day as the last day of the dedication of the Mishkan. My guess is that he would say that all the subroutines of the Mishkan join into one whole, and Hashem wanted Moshe to see the whole.

Then he tells us what he calls the derech hayashar, a phrase that as far as I can tell he used only here, so it’s hard to know what he meant exactly. The details are beyond our scope, but he shows how this order fits his view that Moshe was commanded about the Mishkan before the sin of the Golden Calf occurred.

He concedes, however, that Shemot 34’s discussion of the Cloud covering the Tent is out of order, since that happened on the eighth day (to which we have not yet arrived in the Torah’s telling). He says that’s the way the Torah works, completing a topic begun, then returning to wherever it had been. I need not doubt or quibble with the claim to notice that this reason for why a text would go out of order did not spark him to cry lamah nahafoch divrei Elokim chayyim, why should we turn around the words of the living Gd. So that what Ramban experienced as Rashi’s mistreatment of the text turns out to be a disagreement between two giants as to what constitutes justifications to discard chronological order in telling a story, not about whether that’s acceptable.

Three comments of Ramban’s turn out to be about what’s “in” and what’s “out.” For the altar, what stays up and what does not as well as what gets put there and when; for the priests, who gets the benefits of sacrifices offered on a certain day and who does not; and for the Torah, what’s essential to the order of the story and where, and what can be told out of order so as to keep it where it best belongs. Belonging matters, for Ramban in Parshat Tzav.

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