In the Dark: The Incense Altar


Moshe Ben-Chaim



My friend Jessie was reviewing the Incense Altar in Parshas Tetzaveh. She wondered why it was omitted from inclusion in last week’s Parsha Terumah, where the other vessels were discussed. The incense altar is one of four vessels located in the Temple. The other three are the Ark, the Showbread Table and the Menorah. Why was the Incense Altar not included in the discussion of the other three vessels?


I started to look over this section and noticed that the command to burn incense is connected to both; the cleaning and lighting of the Menorah, each morning and evening respectively:


“And on it Aaron shall fumigate a spice incense every morning, when he cleans the lights, he shall incense it. And when Aaron lights the lights in the evening, he shall incense it, a regular incense before God for your generations.” (Exod. 30:7,8)


What is the connection between the Incense Altar and the Menorah? Is the burning of incense only accidentally tied to these two parts of the day, or does something in the incense require this timing? The Talmud teaches that the incense is to be burned quite literally “during” the cleaning of the Menorah: the priests would clean the wicks and ashes from 5 of the 7 bowls of the Menorah; interrupt their cleaning with the lighting of the incense, and return to clean the remaining two bowls. What is the reason for this interruption? Which demands which: does Menorah demand incense, or does incense demand Menorah? Perhaps, they require each other. Reading the actual verses below, it appears to me that the Incense Altar follows the ‘lead’ of the Menorah: it is fumed, only when work is done with the Menorah. So we conclude that the time of burning incense is subordinated to the Menorah. What is this relationship? What purposes do these two vessels serve? God’s laws must be reasonable.


Another interesting point is the Torah’s law regarding the Incense Altar’s position. It is actually described first:


 “And you shall place it before the Parochess, which is over the Ark of Testimony; before the Kaporess which is on the Testimony, by which I meet you there.” (Exod. 30:1)


Of course we wonder why two relationships are stated. The Incense Altar is to be placed, 1) before the Parochess (separating curtain) and, 2) before the Kaporess (the Ark’s cover with the golden Cherub figurines). So which one is this Incense Altar to be placed in front of: the Parochess or the Kaporess? And why is its position considered “before” the Parochess? It is in fact not directly in front of it: this Incense Altar is further away from this Parochess curtain, than are the Menorah and the Showbread Table. Rashi answers: it is equidistant from the left and right walls as one enters the Temple. In contrast, the Table was at the north side at the right, and the Menorah on the south side at the left, not centered, as was the Altar. Rashi states that “before the Parochess” teaches that one must align the Incense Altar to be directly in line with the Ark’s position. This means that there is a relationship between the Altar and the Ark. What is it?


An interesting chapter in Maimonides work, the “Guide” is apropos at this point.


Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed – Book III, CHAPTER IX

“THE corporeal element in man is a large screen and partition that prevents him from perfectly perceiving abstract ideals: this would be the case even if the corporeal element were as pure and superior as the substance of the spheres; how much more must this be the case with our dark and opaque body. However great the exertion of our mind may be to comprehend the Divine Being or any of the ideals, we find a screen and partition between Him and ourselves. Thus the prophets frequently hint at the existence of a partition between God and us. They say He is concealed from us in vapours, in darkness, in mist, or in a thick cloud: or use similar figures to express that on account of our bodies we are unable to comprehend His essence. This is the meaning of the words, “Clouds and darkness are round about Him” (Ps. xcvii. 2). The prophets tell us that the difficulty consists in the grossness of our substance: they do not imply, as might be gathered from the literal meaning of their words, that God is corporeal, and is invisible because He is surrounded by thick clouds, vapours, darkness, or mist. This figure is also expressed in the passage, “He made darkness His secret place” (Ps. xviii. 12). The object of God revealing Himself (on Sinai) in thick clouds, darkness, vapours, and mist was to teach this lesson; for every prophetic vision contains some lesson by means of allegory; that mighty vision, therefore, though the greatest of all visions, and above all comparison, viz., His revelation in a thick cloud, did not take place without any purpose, it was intended to indicate that we cannot comprehend Him on account of the dark body that surrounds us. It does not surround God, because He is incorporeal. A tradition is current among our people that the day of the revelation on Mount Sinai was misty, cloudy, and a little rainy. Comp.” Lord, when thou wentest forth from Seir, when thou marchedst out of the field of Edom, the earth trembled, and the heavens dropped water” (judges v. 4). The same idea is expressed by the words “darkness, clouds, and thick darkness” (Deut. iv. 11). The phrase does not denote that darkness surrounds God, for with Him there is no darkness, but the great, strong, and permanent light, which, emanating from Him, illuminates all darkness, as is expressed by the prophetic simile, “And the earth shined with His glory”. (Ezek. xliii. 2).”


Maimonides makes it quite clear that God orchestrated Revelation at Sinai with clouds. This was done precisely to teach our ignorance of what God is. One might think – especially at Sinai – that he has received some positive knowledge of God. Therefore, God cloaked that event amidst darkness, cloud and rain. He desired no one to walk away, assuming they acquired any positive knowledge about Him. Moses too reminds the people: “you saw no form” when referring to that awesome event. So disastrous is the fallacy that we might know anything about God, that God killed 57,000 people when they looked into the Ark upon its return from the Philistines. Once someone feels there can be something “seen” in relation to God, he has forfeited his life, as he errs in the most primary of all areas: what God is and what He is not. He is worthy of death.




God manifests His providence over Israel via cloud - both in the Temple, and during the Exodus. God uses cloud to embody the idea that He cannot be understood: His true nature is “clouded” by our very physical natures, as Maimonides stated. On Yom Kippur the High Priest smokes the entire Holy of Holies, lest he too fall prey to a notion that something may be seen in connection to God, in that exalted room housing the stunning Cherubs and the miraculous Ten Commandments.



Ramban’s Equation

The first Ramban on Parshas Terumah states that of one were to study the account of Revelation at Sinai, he would understand the Temple and Tabernacle. I did uncover that, to which Ramban alludes. His equation is strictly limited to a parallel between the Temple and Sinai, and nothing else. However, I did notice some eye-opening parallels:


1) The Jews left Egypt behind them – where, via the first Passover sacrifice, they denounced animal worship.

2) Upon their exit from Egypt, the Jews were led by God’s cloud by day, and His pillar of fire at night.

3) They were sustained with Manna, God’s miraculous bread.

4) All of this took place en route to Sinai where the Torah was given.

5) Sinai took place amidst a flaming mountain.

6) God’s words emanated from the darkness.


Now compare those to these:

1)      The priest leaves the altar behind him outside the Temple – where animals are killed.

2)      Upon entrance in the Temple, he first encounters the Gold Altar of incense, which makes clouds only by day, while he lights the Menorah only at night.

3)      In the Temple is the Table housing the showbread, twelve loaves correspond to the Twelve Tribes.

4)      All of this is en route to the Holy of Holies, where God’s Torah is housed.

5)      The Ark is a golden structure that mimics the flames.

6)      God’s words emanate from the concealed Holy of Holies.



History Reiterated – Temple Embodies God’s Providence

I am not offering a conclusive explanation here. I merely wish to suggest my observations. But I do find them intriguing. Why do we reiterate the cloud, the pillar of fire, Manna, and Sinai in the Temple’s vessels and design? These events imparted to us levels of knowledge of God’s providence – this is how God works. Such knowledge is our objective: to arrive at an ever growing knowledge of God’s ways, His justice, kindness, mercy, and all other methods. These historical events become eternally solidified in the Temple’s vessels. Each one alludes to some aspect of how God relates to man, teaching us more truth about the Creator. Although we never experienced it first hand, all future generations benefit from what God imparted to those Jews who left Egypt, by studying or experiencing the Temple. The Divine providence they experienced, teaching them new truths about God, is also available to us through studying the Torah’s record of those events, and through Temple.



Subordinate to the Menorah

I again suggest inconclusively. Besides recalling the pillar of fire, perhaps the Menorah’s light also alludes to “knowledge of God”. Its seven branches certainly remind one of Creation’s seven days…an allusion to God’s wisdom. Light too in Torah is equated to Torah knowledge, “For a flame is a mitzvah, and Torah is light”. (Proverbs, 6:22) Perhaps then, our limited knowledge of God must be tempered by the Incense Altar’s cloud. As Maimonides taught, cloud always encompasses God. Similarly, cloud must encompass light. The Altar must always provide cloudy fumes when actively working with the Menorah. That which embodies the knowledge of God – the Menorah’s light – must be accompanied by the realization that we never achieve positive knowledge of God: He is cloaked, and thus, the incense must cast a veil with its billows.


For this reason, the Altar is to follow the Menorah’s lead: when one works with the Menorah, only then does the Altar enter the picture. The Altar “negates” something, and does not exist of its own. It is therefore not recorded together with those other three vessels that impart positive concepts. The Incense Altar reminds man that he cannot possess any positive knowledge about God.


Not only is it true that we have no positive knowledge of God, but if we were to assume this, we would then follow with an additional error: we would ‘project’ onto God. It is man’s nature that when he is familiar with something, that he assumes more than what reality dictates. You might meet someone new who is similar to an old friend, and then you might assume other similarities to exist, although you never witnessed such similarities. The same is the case in connection to God. If one were to make one false assumption, he would make others. Perhaps this is an additional reason why we are so careful not to make any assumptions about God. The very existence of this Incense Altar addresses the need to constantly reiterate never to cross that line.




This approach would also answer the positioning of the Incense Altar. It was aligned with the Parochess, as this very “curtain” carried the same function as the Incense Altar: they both serve to “cover” something. I found the verse describing the positioning of the Incense Altar quite interesting. I will note it again: “And you shall place it before the Parochess, which is over the Ark of Testimony; before the Kaporess which is on the Testimony, by which I meet you there.” (Exod. 30:1) The verse keeps shifting what it is exactly that we place the Altar before: is it the Parochess, the Kaporess, the place where God speaks to us?


Perhaps the very structure of this verse alludes to the elusive nature of knowledge of God. We are not told to place the Altar before one, single object, but many references are given, as if to say, even in Temple, there is no such idea of “before God”. He is not physical. He takes up no space. He is not “in” the Temple.


On this point, my friend Shaye suggested this verse conveys “degrees of separation” between God and us. And this is conveyed only in the Temple. For it is only when a ‘relationship’ exists – in Temple – that degrees of separation may apply.


However, the Parochess is mentioned first in our verse because of its similar function to the Altar. However, ultimately, we are to arrive at the purpose of the Temple: greater knowledge of God. Thus, the end of the verse refers to the place where God speaks from, from where knowledge emanates. This is the objective of Temple.




On a micro level, Menorah and the Incense Altar create light and darkness respectively. Through them we are mindful of what we can and cannot know. On a macro level, again we see this parallel: God’s first creations included light and darkness. As if these two entities precede all others in importance, and rightfully so: knowledge is the purpose in God’s creation of a universe…for mankind to study His wisdom. The parallel continues even into man’s very workings: man’s conscious and unconscious minds deal with what is known, and what is hidden.


In Genesis, God created lights from the darkness. Of all his physical creations, most stupendous are His heavenly luminaries. Conversely, man moves in the opposite direction: declaring his ignorance of He who is all knowing. God created the great lights, while man strives to escape his “night”.


Perhaps we have shed some light on the fact that we are in the dark.