The Message of The Ritual of the Incense Altar

Updated on February 28, 2020
David AZ Cohen PhD profile image

David Cohen is an Orthodox Jew, therapist and Bible Scholar, currently retired after 28 years in the civil service.


Placement of the Incense Altar

This week's Bible Portion opens with the commandment of lighting the Menorah (Candelabra) in the Tabernacle, continues with a description of the Priests' Garments and their consecration, and ends with the commandment of the "Incense (Golden) Altar". The Bible is very specific in where this altar should be placed: "… Before the veil that is by the ark of the testimony, before the ark-cover that is over the testimony" (Exodus 30:6). The Bible also links the rituals of this Altar to those of the Candelabra: "And Aaron shall burn thereon incense of sweet spices; every morning, when he dresses the lamps, he shall burn it. And when Aaron lights the lamps at dusk, he shall burn it…" (Exodus 30:7-8).

Framing the Question:

The first commandment in this portion, that of the lighting the Menorah, comes directly after the commandment to build the "Sacrifice (Copper) Altar, on which animal sacrifices were burnt.

What is the significance of the order of these commandments: Sacrifice Altar, Candelabra, Priests and Incense Altar?

Why must the Incense Alar be placed before the "ark-cover", and used immediately after the ritual of the Menorah?

I would like to try to answer these questions with an answer based on the work of Rabbi Shalom Noach Berzovski of Slonim (died in Jerusalem, 2000).

A Possible Answer:

People aren't perfect. They do wrong, they sin; sometimes by accident, sometimes on purpose. Sometimes, they sin in a way which makes them culpable for corporal or capital punishment. Tangible sins with tangible punishments like these may be atoned for by sincere repentance and the bringing of a sacrifice on the copper altar. In most cases, the sinner will realize himself what he has done and seek atonement, in other cases someone will have to point out what he has done and the need for atonement.

Bringing an animal sacrifice necessitates accepting responsibility for ones actions, before the animal is offered. The idea of the sacrifice itself is to remind the person that he deserved punishment, but after accepting responsibility (and possibly paying other applicable penalties) the animal he sacrificed is paying the "ultimate price" in his place.

So the "Sacrifice Altar" symbolizes atonement for tangible, acknowledged, sins.

However, not everyone commits acts which necessitate such drastic forms of atonement. There is a general commandment to "Be Holy" (Leviticus 19:2), or in modern terms: "Live a moral life". Sins against "being holy" aren't so tangible: they involve over-indulgence in things that are desirable in moderation, as well as personality traits: over indulgence in sexual behavior, in food, alcohol (or other legal psycho-active substances); traits such as entitlement, laziness, anger, impatience, etc. People don’t always notice these issues, and when they're pointed out, may not accept the critique. "After all", one may think, "I haven't really done anything wrong. Which law have I broken? Which commandment have I transgressed"? These "sins against morality" are intangible and hard to acknowledge.

The truth is, though, that "sins against morality" damage the soul (in religious terms), weaken ego-defenses, desensitize against more blatant destructive behavior, strengthen dysfunctional cognitive schema (in more therapeutic terms).

How does one atone for that? The atonement comes via the Incense Altar. The smell of the incense is intangible; the "moral sinner" doesn't even see it. The incense is burnt twice daily, without his knowledge. Just like the "moral sins" he doesn't see.

How does that work, and what's the message behind it?

First, one needs to seek and find "enlightenment". This is symbolized through the rituals of the Menorah. One needs to realize that he is equal to others, and that others need to be treated with respect (see previous article). This is symbolized by the Ark cover, on which were engraved two cherubim, one male and one female, facing each other as equals. So, the incense altar is opposite the ark cover, and the ritual is performed immediately after lighting the Menorah.

But "enlightenment" (for our purposes, we can also call it "insight") isn't enough. One also needs a facilitator, or a therapist. This is symbolized by the Priests, who are not only responsible for the Tabernacle and Temple rituals, but are also spiritual (moral) leaders: "They shall teach Jacob Thine ordinances, and Israel Thy law; they shall put incense before Thee, and whole burnt-offering upon Thine altar" (Deuteronomy 33: 10). Moral guidance, facilitators of atonement and ritual, all in the same job description.

To wrap it up:

In order for a person to gain true insight to his problems, he needs, first, the will and ability to learn about them in order to bring about change. Triggers for change may be sudden and drastic. Like the smell of an animal burning on an altar. Also, like with an animal sacrifice, a person must accept responsibility for the moral sins. Afterwards, to facilitate change, a person must seek "enlightenment" or insight (Menorah or candelabra) and needs to learn to be empathic (empathy doesn't come naturally to all of us, and it can be learned), to learn to recognize other's feelings and react in a pro-social way (The Ark Cover). He needs help from a professional (the Priests). The entire process is symbolized by the ritual of the altar of incense, which, like the therapy process itself, works almost intangibly.

That, I believe, is one of the messages inherent in the ritual of the incense altar, in its placement in the Tabernacle, and in the placing of its commandment in the Bible.

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 David A Cohen


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