The Holy Anointing-Oil and the Pure Incense

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Dan Margulies

The baraita of Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair, which is quoted in many rabbinic sources (e.g. Avoda Zara 20b) and formed the scaffolding for Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto’s Mesillat Yesharim, lists a ladder of ascending character traits. The version quoted by many of the rishonim includes the phrase: “and purity leads one to holiness”. To the modern reader, the traits identified as “purity” and “holiness” may be somewhat obscure, but beyond their technical halakhic meanings in the world of the temple service, they speak to broader themes in our service of God and our construction of Jewish society.

Parashat Ki Tisa introduces us to two preparations—the incense and the anointing-oil—which can shed some light on the meanings of purity and holiness through their similarities and differences.

The anointing-oil (described in Shemot 30:22-33) and the incense (Shemot 30:34-38) share many points in common. They are both made up of a variety of exotic spices, they are described variably as “holy”, “holiest of holy” and “for use with holy objects”. And their production or misappropriation for personal use carries the punishment of karet.

The contrasts are highlighted by the rabbinic interpretations of these details. The anointing-oil was only made once, in the time of Moshe (Menachot 88a) while the incense was made yearly or as needed (Keritot 6a-b). According to rabbinic tradition, the anointing-oil only needed to be made once because it exists in miraculous perpetuity without being consumed:

“Of the 12 log of oil … the fire burned some off, and the wood absorbed some, and the kettle absorbed some, and it was used to anoint the entire mishkan and its vessels … and Aharon and his sons and all of it remains for future times” (Yerushalmi Sota 8:3, Bavli Horayot 11b)

Part of the defining nature of the anointing-oil is that it will not run out, and thus will never need to be replaced. It exists “for [God] for generations to come” (Shemot 30:31). It, like the aron, is a part of the original mishkan that will never be destroyed.

In commenting on the phrase “and [Betzalel] made the anointing-oil—holy” (Shemot 37:29), Rabbi Ovadia Seforno connects the holiness of the anointing-oil to its permanence. He writes: “this points to the idea that it will not be lost [i.e. consumed] as [God] said, ‘This will be holy to me for generations’ (Shemot 30:31)”. Sforno makes explicit the notion that the holiness of the anointing-oil is bound up with its permanence; that is, we are meant to understand that things that attain a holy state retain it permanently. This is reflected by the rabbinic dictum “we only ascend is matters relating to holiness,” as well many of the halakhot regarding misappropriation of temple property (meila), and specific laws concerning the anointing-oil itself (Keritot 7a).

Unlike the anointing-oil, the incense mixture was meant to be consumed—to be burned on its altar twice daily—and thus needed to be replaced regularly. Although it too is called “holy” (Shemot 30:35), the Torah twice refers to the incense as “pure” (Shemot 30:35, 37:29). In Shemot 37:29 it is quite explicitly being contrasted with the “holy” anointing-oil. In his comments on Parashat Vayakhel, Rabbi Shmuel Bornsztain (author of the Shem Mishmuel) asks why the pasuk poses this contrast between the incense being “pure” and the anointing-oil being “holy”.

The Shem Mishmuel’s question was preempted by Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (author of the Sfas Emes) in his comments on Parashat Korah 5658, who based on the Zohar (Naso 121b and Shoftim 275b in Raya Mehemna) explains that the kabbalistic aspect of a levite is “purity” and of a kohen is “holiness”. He goes on to explain that this is because “holiness” is something that comes from God down to human beings, but “purity” is something based in human initiative. The ability to bring the incense was unique to someone who possessed both qualities—purity and holiness—and that was Aharon and not Korah.

This paradigm can help explain further why the anointing-oil is called “holy” while the incense is called “pure”. The anointing-oil was produced once and lasts forever—it has a kind of stasis to it, while the incense needed to be produced regularly by generations of experts who dedicated their skill to perfecting it. The incense required human effort, expertise, and regular input to maintain its purpose. In our service of God we can strive for holiness, but as the Sfas Emes suggests holiness can be difficult to cultivate since it stems from a Divine source. But we can also strive for purity, a human trait that grows and is enriched by our input and our effort in our service of God.

Dan Margulies (Winter Beit Midrash 2016) is a fourth-year semikha student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School and teaches Talmud at the Temple Emanu-El Streicker Center.


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