Mordechai and the Incense

V’atah kach lecha Besamim rosh mar dror chameish me’os (Shemos 30:23)

When the Megillah first introduces us to Mordechai, it tells us not only his name, but the names of several of his ancestors, recording that he was Mordechai the son of Ya’ir, who was the son of Shimi, who was the son of Kish. Why does the verse mention all these ancestors, especially when the commentators explain that these weren’t his direct father and grandfather, but more distant ancestors? The Gemara (Megillah 12b) explains that each name teaches us something: ben Ya’ir teaches that Mordechai was me’ir eineihem shel Yisrael b’tefillaso — he lit up the eyes of the Jews through his prayers; ben Shimi indicates that Hashem shama el tefillaso — listened to his petitions; and ben Kish hints that he hikish al dalsei Rachamim — he knocked on the doors of Mercy.

The Vilna Gaon explains that a person has four senses: sight, hearing, smell and speech. Three of these are needed for the purpose of learning Torah: sight to see what one is learning, hearing to listen to what somebody is teaching, and speech to share it with others. The sense of smell has no connection to Torah study, but its place is in the Divine Service in the Temple, as the verses in the Torah which discuss the offerings repeatedly speak about them as being a rei’ach nicho’ach l’Hashem — pleasant smell to Hashem. Today, when we don’t have offerings, we instead have prayer in its place.

The Gemara in Chullin (139b) asks where Mordechai is hinted at in the Torah, and it answers that he is alluded to in the beginning of Parashas Ki Sisa, where the Torah lists the spices that were used in creating the anointing oil. The first of the spices is called mar dror — pure myrrh — which the Targum translates into Aramaic as meira dachya, which sounds like Mordechai.

The Vilna Gaon explains that the Torah is teaching us that the choicest of all of the spices is Mordechai, which means that he is the most connected to the concept of prayer, which corresponds to the sense of smell. For this reason, he had all four of the senses in his prayers, as he lit up the eyes of the Jews with his entreaties, Hashem listened to his prayers, he knocked on the doors of Mercy by speaking his petitions, and his very name and his very essence connote that his prayers were the epitome of a rei’ach nicho’ach l’Hashem.

The Haggadah shel Pesach Rei’ach Duda’im takes this Gemara one step further. The Rambam writes (Hilchos Klei HaMikdash 1:3) that the pure myrrh in the anointing oil was made from the blood of a non-kosher animal from India. The Raavad disagrees vehemently, arguing that no part of a non-kosher animal could ever be part of something that is used in the Beis Hamikdash.

The Kesef Mishneh defends the Rambam by explaining that since the substance in question is dried out and ground into a fine powder, it’s considered a totally different object and is therefore permitted even though it originally came from a non-kosher animal. Even so, why is Mordechai alluded to specifically in an object which has such questionable origins?

The Midrash comments on a verse in Iyov which says (14:4) “Mi yitein tahor mi’tamei” by explaining that this verse refers to the concept of something pure coming out of something impure, such as the red heifer making one person pure but another person impure. One of the examples given is the pure and holy Mordechai, who was descended from the impure Shimi ben Geira. This is alluded to by the fact that Mordechai’s name is hinted at in a non-kosher animal, which, according to the Rambam, finds its way into the Beis Hamikdash.

As an interesting aside, although the Gemara provides a source for Haman from a verse in Parashas Bereishis, Harav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld suggests that he is also alluded to in the section of spices together with Mordechai. Of the 11 spices, all are sweet-smelling except for chelb’nah — galbanum (30:34) — which has a very foul odor. Not surprisingly, the word chelb’nah has the same numerical value as Haman.

Parashah Q & A

Q:Rashi writes (30:31) that the anointment oil will remain for use in the Messianic era. For what will it be used?

Q:Rashi writes (32:29) that the righteousness of the tribe of Levi during the sin of the golden calf earned them the right to serve in the Temple instead of the firstborns. Still, Rabbeinu Bechaye writes that even today it is a great merit to be a firstborn, and this is still considered a spiritual advantage relative to other Jews. Where do we find that this advantage is legally taken into account to give a firstborn precedence due to his additional holiness?

A: The Ramban writes that the anointment received by Aharon and his sons became invalid at the time of their deaths. Upon their resurrection, they will require a new anointment to regain their status as kohanim. Although he is unsure, the Minchas Chinuch discusses the possibility that Moshiach himself will need to be anointed. Alternatively, Harav Aharon Leib Steinman, shlita, cites the Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh, who writes that at that time, the firstborns will once again be able to perform the Divine service, in which case they will need to be anointed.

A: The Mishnah Berurah rules that if there is no Levi present to wash the hands of the Kohanim prior to Birkas Kohanim, it should be done by a bechor, who still possesses an added degree of holiness.


Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email