This week’s parsha discusses the two items in the משכן that use spices, the anointing oil:
and the incense:
I want to look at a subtle difference between the two: the שמן המשחה is קדש, while the קטרת is טהור קדש. And what is even more interesting, that is not how they were made. There are many subtle differences between the command to build the משכן and the description of how בצלאל actually built it. Famously, בצלאל understood the משכן better than Moshe did, and got to הקב״ה's actual intent.
So what did he do with these two things?
He what happened to the קדושה of the קטרת? There is a halachic implication of this. Simply mixing the קטרת does not make it holy. It is not until it is ground for use on the altar that it becomes holy, in the technical sense:
And that is implied by the original description. Note the sins that lead to כרת: for the שמן המשחה, the rule is איש אשר ירקח כמהו ואשר יתן ממנו על זר ונכרת מעמיו. For the קטרת, the rule is איש אשר יעשה כמוה להריח בה ונכרת מעמיו. There is no mention of taking the actual קטרת and burning it for my own purposes. If I take the actual קטרת and use it in my house, there is no כרת (there is an איסור of מעילה); it belongs to the מקדש, but it does not have קדושת הגוף.
Now, from a Brisker perspective, I’m done. שמן המשחה is קודש when it is made; קטרת is קודש when it is used. That is a halachic distinction; the “why” is irrelevant.
But we’re not Briskers. We want some philosophic “why”. Rabbi Dan Margulies points out another difference between שמן המשחה and קטרת. The שמן המשחה was made once and lasted forever:
The קטרת is different. It is explicitly consumed, and needs to be made every year. It has no inherent holiness, and so no similar permanence.
That ties to the difference between קדושה and טהרה.
The קטרת requires human beings, every year, to make it (טהר) and imbue it with קדושה. That human involvement is inherent in the very command to make it. ה׳ only specifies four of the spices in the קטרת:
The well-known gemara lists eleven ingredients:
The Ramban says that the very מצוה דאוריתא of קטרת requires the רבנן to determine what to put in:
To quote myself from תשע״ז: The Ramban explains that the purpose of the קטרת is to protect us in our relationship with ה׳. It’s the ritual re-enactment of the ענן that covered הר סיני (see Rabbi Leibtag’s shiur on Tzaveh).
The קטרת protects us from the ineffable experience of the divine, (שמות לג:כ) לא יראני האדם וחי. The שמן המשחה designates the part of the מקדש that is ה׳'s domain. קטרת is what we bring with us to that relationship. The It’s only appropriate that we (as finite human beings) be a part of that.
And more than that: everyone has to be a part of the קטרת:
We do not have the קטרת today, but our תפילות serve that purpose. We need to see those תפילות as something that needs to be constantly recreated and made holy. That is what gives us a role in determining the nature of our relationship with הקב״ה.