24.3. The Altar of Incense (30:1-10)

(1) You shall make an altar for burning incense; make it of acacia wood.

(2) It shall be a cubit long and a cubit wide — it shall be square — and two cubits high, its horns of one piece with it.

(3) Overlay it with pure gold: its top, its sides round about, and its horns; and make a gold molding for it round about.

(4) And make two gold rings for it under its molding; make them on its two side walls, on opposite sides. They shall serve as holders for poles with which to carry it.

(5) Make the poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with gold.

(6) Place it in front of the curtain that is over the Ark of the Pact — in front of the cover that is over the Pact — where I will meet with you.

(7) On it Aaron shall burn aromatic incense: he shall burn it every morning when he tends the lamps,

(8) and Aaron shall burn it at twilight when he lights the lamps — a regular incense offering before the Lord throughout the ages.

(9) You shall not offer alien incense on it, or a burnt offering or a meal offering; neither shall you pour a libation on it.

(10) Once a year Aaron shall perform purification upon its horns with blood of the sin offering of purification; purification shall be performed upon it once a year throughout the ages. It is most holy to the Lord.

(1) You shall make an altar for burning incense; make it of acacia wood: This is the smaller of the two altars. It stood inside the Tabernacle, and was used mainly for the burning of incense. This altar should not be confused with the much larger altar, made of wood, and sheathed in copper, that stood in the Tabernacle courtyard (see 27:1 ff.), and was used for performing the daily sacrifices and for the burning of their parts, as prescribed.

After describing the garments of the priests and the sacrifices, the Torah thus returns to the Temple accessories, because two of those, although essential to the Temple service, have not yet been mentioned: the altar of incense, and the laver for washing the hands and feet of the priests.

The altar of incense is described here, at the end of this weekly portion, Tetzaveh, and not in the previous portion, Terumah, because the altar’s purpose is associated with Aaron, not Moses. The laver, however, is described only in the upcoming portion, Ki Tissa. This is because the laver is an element of neither Moses’ nor Aaron’s “ideal” Temple; rather, it is an element of correction for the sin of the golden calf (a central theme of Ki Tissa), as we shall explain below.

(2) It shall be a cubit long and a cubit wide — it shall be square — and two cubits high, its horns of one piece with it: This altar is fairly small in size, measuring only one cubit square, as compared with the altar of the sacrifices that stood in the courtyard and was five cubits square (27:1). A cubit is defined as the average length of a man’s forearm from the tip of the middle finger to the bottom of the elbow.

Like all the altars, this altar has “horns,” i.e., ledges that protrude upward from each of its four corners, as if pointing toward Heaven. These horns must be cast from the same material as the altar and fashioned with it and as a part of it. The horns must not be created separately and then attached to the altar.

(3) Overlay it with pure gold: its top, its sides round about, and its horns; and make a gold molding for it round about: In this respect, the altar of incense is like the other accessories that are located inside the Tabernacle.

A gold molding: The literal translation is “a crown of gold.” This is the “crown of the priesthood,” the third of the three crowns found in the Temple (the other two crowns are the ark’s crown (25:11), which represents the “crown of the Torah,” and the table’s crown (25:24), representing the “crown of royalty”). The Torah, the kingdom, and the priesthood are to become the three independent lines of power within the Jewish people[1].

(6) Place it in front of the curtain that is over the Ark of the Pact — in front of the cover that is over the Pact — where I will meet with you: The altar of incense is actually in the same category as the other vessels of the Tabernacle that were described earlier, in the Terumah portion. And yet, the description of the altar of incense appears here, not there.

The altar of incense is described only here, after the description of the priests and their service, because this altar is an element of Aaron’s, not Moses’, Temple. In Moses’ ideal Temple nothing prevented anyone at all from entering, and proceeding directly to the Holy of Holies. But in Aaron’s Temple this is impossible: The golden altar of incense, and the cloud of incense above it, are blocking that path.

Aaron’s Temple exerts a particular influence on the human imagination. The “cloud” of the incense (Lev. 16:13) is a reminder of the cloud that cloaked Mount Sinai (Exod. 19:16, 20:18, 24:15 ff.). Moses passes at will directly into this cloud, but for the common man, the cloud hides that which is most high and incomprehensible.

(7-10) On it Aaron shall burn aromatic incense: he shall burn it every morning when he tends the lamps … at twilight … Once a year Aaron shall perform purification upon its horns with blood of the sin offering of purification: Atonement is effected on this altar every day of the year, but only at the level of incense, while atonement through blood happens daily only on the altar of the outer courtyard. Only once a year, on Yom Kippur, is atonement made on this inner altar, by sprinkling sacrificial blood upon it.

It is most holy to the Lord: The Temple vessels acquire the level of “most holy” as described in this verse, but literally translated as “Holy of Holies” – that is, the most exalted level of holiness. In this particular case, the altar of incense earns this status by virtue of its special role in the Yom Kippur rite.

[1] This system (to which also a fourth line, prophecy, is added) is described in detail in the book of Deuteronomy, in weekly portion Shofetim.

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Bible Dynamics, VOL. 2. EXODUS Copyright © by Orot Yerushalaim / P. Polonsky / English translation of the Torah by the Jewish Publication Society, New JPS Translation, 1985. With sincere gratitude for the permission to use. All Rights Reserved.

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