Why Do We Need Two Altars?

V’asisa Mizbei’ach miktar ketores atzei shittim taaseh oso (Shemos 30:1)

After instructing Moshe regarding all of the garments worn by the Kohanim and the procedure to inaugurate Aharon and his sons to serve as Kohanim, Hashem commanded Moshe to build a golden Altar for the Mishkan, on which incense was offered twice daily. In Parashas Terumah (27:1–8), the Torah details the requirements and laws governing the copper Altar upon which all other animal offerings were brought. Why was it necessary to build an additional Altar in the Mishkan upon which to offer incense? What unique role did it serve in effecting atonement which could not be achieved through the more traditional sacrifices offered on the copper Altar?

The Kli Yakar explains that when a person sins, it causes spiritual damage to both his body and his soul. The copper Altar discussed in last week’s parashah atoned for the impurities caused to one’s body through his sins. By offering animals on this Altar, atonement was effected for the physical, animalistic body that sinned. This is alluded to by the fact that the copper Altar was three cubits tall, which is the height of the physical body of an average person (Eruvin 48a).

However, the offering of a mundane animal cannot atone for the damage caused by sin to the lofty, eternal soul. This is the purpose of the golden Altar detailed in Parashas Tetzaveh. The incense that was burned on it twice daily created smoke and a fragrant aroma that ascended Heavenward, similar to the neshamah, which is also described (Shir Hashirim 3:6) as possessing a sweet aroma due to its good deeds.

A number of the laws and details of the incense and the Altar upon which it was offered symbolically reflect this concept. The incense Altar was one cubit long by one cubit wide, symbolizing with its singular measurements that it atones for the soul, which is unique in its spiritual purpose. It was covered with gold to hint to the tremendous reward awaiting the neshamah in the World to Come.

The incense was offered in the morning and in the evening, corresponding to the morning of a person’s life when he is born and his neshamah begins to shine like the sun, and to the end of one’s life when his soul departs and his sun sets. The incense service was performed at the time of the cleaning of the Menorah in the morning and the lighting of its candles in the evening, as the neshamah is compared to a light (Mishlei 20:27). In the morning, the Menorah is cleaned, symbolizing the importance of improving one’s soul through good deeds and keeping it clean during one’s youth. In the evening, the flames of the Menorah are kindled, symbolizing the time that one’s soul goes up like a flame to return to its Maker. The afternoon incense service atones for the soul so that it should leave the world as pure as when it entered.

Harav Moshe Sternbuch, shlita, adds that the Gemara in Brachos (43b) teaches that the sense of smell, which enjoys the fragrant aroma of the incense, is associated with the soul. He also suggests that the Kli Yakar’s explanation can help us understand why the Gemara in Yoma (21a) teaches that the Kohen who brings the incense offering becomes rich. Because he disregards his mundane needs to focus on rectifying his spiritual blemishes, Hashem rewards him with physical wealth.

Q: Were the Kohen Gadol and the ordinary Kohanim required to put on their garments (29:5–9) in a specific order, and if so, if they accidentally put them on in the wrong order, were they required to remove them and begin again?

Q: Rashi writes (Devarim 25:19) that in order to completely blot out the memory of Amalek, we must also destroy the possessions of the Amalekites so that their name shouldn’t be mentioned in conjunction with them. How was Esther permitted to accept the house of Haman (Esther 8:1), who was descended from Amalek?

A: The Rambam writes (Hilchos Klei Hamikdash 10:1) that the garments of the Kohanim must be donned in a specific order, which he lists. The Minchas Chinuch notes that the tefillin worn on the arm must be put on before the tefillin worn on the head, but if the tefillin was placed on the head first, it need not be removed. After initially assuming that the law regarding a Kohen who puts on a garment out of order should be the same, he notes that the two cases may not be comparable and therefore the law in such a case is unclear.

A: The Shem MiShmuel and Brisker Rav answer that if somebody is killed for sinning against the king, his possessions aren’t inherited by his family but belong to the king (Sanhedrin 48b). Therefore, when Achashverosh had Haman killed, he automatically inherited possession of Haman’s estate. When Esther and Mordechai accepted it, they weren’t receiving the possessions of an Amalekite, but they were instead taking the possessions of Achashverosh. The Imrei Emes and Harav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita, explain that since Haman was Mordechai’s slave (Megillah 15a–b), whatever he acquired legally belonged to Mordechai, so when Esther and Mordechai received Haman’s estate, they weren’t receiving the possessions of an Amalekite but were simply claiming what had always rightfully been theirs. The Oneg Yom Tov suggests that the obligation to eliminate the possessions of the Amalekites only takes effect after all the people of Amalek have been destroyed. In the time of Mordechai and Esther this hadn’t yet occurred, so it was permissible for them to accept Haman’s possessions.


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. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email oalport@Hamodia.com.