Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va-Yaqhel-Pequdei 5769 /March 21, 2009

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,


Adam and the Incense Altar

Yonah Bar-Maoz

Mikraot Gedolot Ha-Keter


The incense altar is exceptional among all the components of the Tabernacle; the commandment to make it (Ex. 30:1-10) appears last, after all the other instructions for erecting the Tabernacle had been given. However, the account of how it was actually made, given in our parasha, appears in its proper place: it was fashioned after the candelabra and the table (Ex. 37:25-28), according to the order in which these implements were placed in the Tabernacle.  In this article we will suggest an explanation for this difference, based on the idea that in describing the construction of the Tabernacle, Scripture deliberately spoke in terms that allude to Creation in Genesis. The outstanding Bible teacher, Nehama Leibowitz, discussed this compa-  rison at length, following Rosenzweig and Buber, and listed seven language parallels: [1]


Genesis (unless otherwise noted)

The story of Creation

Erection of the Tabernacle



G-d made (‘a-s-h) the expanse

(and six more repetitions of the verb ‘a‑s‑h)

And let them make (‘a‑s‑h) Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them (and approx. 200 more repetitions of the verb ‘a-s-h)


Ex. 20:11

For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth

The Presence of the Lord abode on Mount Sinai, and the cloud hid it for six days


Ex. 20:11

and He rested on the seventh day

On the seventh day He called to Moses from the midst of the cloud



The heaven and the earth were finished, and all their array.  On the seventh day G‑d finished the work that He had been doing

Thus was completed all the work of the Tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting

When Moses had finished the work






And G‑d saw all that He had made

And when Moses saw that they had performed all the tasks



and found it very good

as the Lord had commanded, so they had done



And G‑d blessed the seventh day

Moses blessed them



The stylistic parallels between the creation of heaven and earth and building the Tabernacle in the above verses suggest that one should also look for substantive parallels between them.  Furthermore, we find a structural parallel too, since the details of the Tabernacle are recounted twice in Scripture, once in the planning stage and once in its execution, just as we find in the story of Creation – for example, “G‑d said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” [2]

Adam and the Golden Calf

In addition, there is an obvious comparison between the story of the sin of primordial man and that of the Israelites and the golden calf, since both created a distance between human beings and their G‑d.  Adam started out in the Garden of Eden, presumably close to his Creator, and upon committing his sin by eating from the tree of knowledge, he hid himself from G‑d and ultimately was expelled from the Garden.  Likewise, when the golden calf was made the special intimacy between the people of Israel and G-d was broken.  At Mount Sinai the Israelites had been privileged to see the Presence of the Lord and hear His voice, and after their sin they were in disgrace before Him, and Moses even pitched his tent outside their encampment (Ex. 33:7), because he was embarrassed to dwell among them. [3]

If follows from all we have said that there is good reason to look for additional parallels between the story of Creation and the erection of the Tabernacle, even if we do not view the Tabernacle as an allegorical representation of the world or of human beings. [4]  The difference between the location of the command to make the incense altar and its order in the actual construction might be explained well by this parallel.

 Assuming that the account of preparations for making the Tabernacle hints at divine plans as they were prior to the sin of the Golden Calf, whose parallel would be “prior to Adam having sinned,” then the command to build the incense altar hints at the status given to human beings in the primal plan of Creation.  Man was created last, the epitome of Creation, and his formation was prefaced by an unprecedented declaration concerning his value and status – he was created in the image of G-d and sovereign over all other created things: 

            And G‑d said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.  They shall             rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all      the creeping things that creep on earth’ (Gen. 1:26). 

Likewise, man’s special location, prior to sinning, is emphasized:  “The Lord G‑d took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden, to till it and tend it” (Gen. 2:15). In the garden Adam was close to G‑d. Having been made in the image of G‑d, great value is attached to his life, a value shared by no other created being, and therefore a severe prohibition was issued against harming that life:

            But for your own life-blood I will require a reckoning:  I will require it of             every beast; of man, too, will I require a reckoning for human life, of every             man for that of his fellow man!  Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man             shall his blood be shed; for in His image did G‑d make man (Gen. 9:5-6). 

Likewise, having been created in the image of G‑d, he was forbidden to eat of the tree of knowledge, for only human beings have free will.

Adam and the Altar

A similar picture emerges with respect to the incense altar.  The altar is mentioned as the very last detail, after the rest of the blue-print of the Tabernacle, its implements, and those who would officiate in it are spoken of, as if it were the ultimate purpose of the Tabernacle.  In addition, the incense altar is special in two other regards, indicating its lofty value:  its location is described in the words, “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” (Ex. 30:6).  Redoubled emphasis is given to its standing in front of the special place where the Divine Presence would dwell, whereas the table and the lampstand, situated in the same part of the Tabernacle, even closer to the curtain and the ark cover, are beyond the curtain:  “Place the table outside the curtain, and the lampstand by the south wall of the Tabernacle, opposite the table, which is to be placed by the north wall” (Ex. 26:35). [5]

The special nature of the incense altar is also brought out by the prohibitions associated with it:  1) a double prohibition against using it for any other purpose than that for which it was made:  “You shall not offer alien incense on it, or a burnt offering or a meal offering; neither shall you pour a libation on it” (Ex. 30:9); 2) a prohibition regarding the incense that may be used on it, the punishment for violating this prohibition being severance from one’s people:  “But when you make this incense, you must not make any in the same proportions for yourselves; it shall be held by you sacred to the Lord.  Whoever makes any like it, to smell of it, shall be cut off from his kin” (Ex. 30:37-38).

There is one other parallel:  the incense altar entirely concerns the sense of smell, and this sense is hinted at in the creation of man:  “the Lord G‑d formed man from the dust of the earth.  He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7).  The word “nostrils” (apav) denotes a human organ used in breathing, but also in smelling; the word “blew” (vayippah) is also used in connection with smells being carried in the wind to a person’s nose, as we read in Song of Songs (4:16):  “Blow (hafihi) upon my garden, that its perfume may spread.”  In addition, smell provides a significant means of identification for human beings, as we learn from Genesis 27:27:  “and he went up and kissed him.  And he smelled his clothes and he blessed him, saying, ‘Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of the fields that the Lord has blessed.’”

Thus we see that of all the implements of the Tabernacle, the incense altar is most appropriate for alluding to the status of man in Creation and thereafter.  As with man, initially the altar is more elevated than the rest, but in the wake of the sin committed, it becomes swallowed up among the others. [6]  As with man, its very existence is bound up with prohibitions, and like man, it always stands before G‑d.  The similarities that we have found are sharpened by the clear linguistic parallel:  the unique use of the word tzela in both stories, in exactly the same form: In Creation, “He took one of his ribs [Heb. tzal’otav]” (Gen. 2:21); for the altar, “And make two gold rings for it under its molding; make them on its two side walls [Heb. tzal’otav]” (Ex. 30:4).  The word tzela, both in the singular and the plural, is frequently mentioned in describing the Tabernacle, but only with regard to the incense altar does it appear twice with the possessive suffix, as with the story of primordial man.

Body and Soul

All these parallels between the account of Creation and of the incense altar enable us to understand the special nature of the sacred incense.  From the outset, this incense was intended as the primary means of expiation, once a year.  Therefore it is offered inside and out of the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement, thus averting death from those who have sinned.  Used spontaneously by the appropriate person, this incense can save life and give life, as we read in Numbers (17:11-12).  On the other hand, incense which is offered not according to the rule is dangerous; it caused the death of Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu (Lev. 10:1-2), and of the two-hundred and fifty collaborators with Korah who offered incense (Num. 16:35).  This tension between the two aspects of the sacred incense parallels the continual tension existing in the human body, between death which lurks at any moment and the human soul, which is immortal and constantly stands before G‑d in a desire to please Him. [7]


[1] Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Shemot, part 2, The World Zionist Organization: Jerusalem, 1976, pp. 475-482.

[2] A further parallel: one could perhaps view the entire account of Creation as being presented once in the planning stage, in Genesis chapter 1, and then again as actually carried out, with changes, in chapter 2, similar to the double account of the Tabernacle.  This follows from the homily of the Sages in Pesikta Rabbati ch. 40, ha-shevi’i.

[3] The very insertion of the story of the golden calf between the instructions for making the Tabernacle and the account of carrying out these instructions becomes more understandable when compared with the story of Creation.  It would have been more reasonable to have a continuous, uninterrupted narration of the entire account of the Tabernacle, since the Torah is not an historical book bound by time sequence (even if we accept the interpretation that the entire story of the Tabernacle happened after the sin of the golden calf, as is suggested in Midrash Tanhuma, Terumah 8, and in Rashi’s commentary on Ex. 31:18).  The given order of the text intimates that just as the entire universe was changed in the wake of the sin of primordial man, so, too, the Tabernacle that was built after the sin of the golden calf was not identical to the Tabernacle that had been planned prior to it (see the Meshekh Hokhmah commentary, among others).

[4] We would subscribe to the parallel that Nehamah Leibowitz draws in her book, Studies, p. 481: “The Lord created heaven and earth and all therein for man to dwell in, and created them in six days and rested on the seventh day. Similarly, Moses was summoned on the seventh day to the cloud to see the pattern of the Tabernacle that it was his duty to erect, in order to provide a place on earth for the Divine Presence. It is incumbent on man to imitate his Creator, His ways and attributes and assume the role of being His partner in Creation.”

[5] This linguistic distinction is also preserved in the text the follows; cf. Ex. 40:4-5 and 22-26.

[6] Chapter 2 of Genesis describes the creation of man as if it took place before creation of the animals, but in the midrash the creation of man last in Chapter 1is turned from something positive to something negative:  “If a person has merit, he is told:  You were made before the ministering angels; but if not, he is told:  even flies, mosquitoes, and the lowly earthworm were created before you” (Genesis Rabbah, Vilna ed., 8.1).

[7] Therefore Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel had good reason for believing that the incense altar was an allusion to the immortality of the soul (see his commentary on Exodus 25).