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Shabbat Parashat Korach| 5770

Parashat Hashavuah: Incense With Everything and for Everyone

Harav Yosef Carmel

      The assembly of Korach was tested by the ketoret (incense), which they were told to bring to the entrance of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) (Bamidbar 16:17-18). Rashi (ad loc.) explains the significance of proving who was right by means of ketoret. On one hand, it is used as a particularly beloved form of service of Hashem. On the other hand, it contains the spice of death, as while handling it, Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, were killed.

This two-sided coin of the ketoret finds expression in our daily religious life even today, when the actual ketoret is not offered. The prevalent minhag in Israel is that we complete the morning prayers with a recounting of the sacrifice of the ketoret in the Beit Hamikdash. On the other hand, most Diaspora communities do not, out of concern that we may skip one of the spices in it. This is a problem, as one who offers ketoret that is missing an element is deserving of death, and this applies, on some level, even to the recitation of the process of the sacrifice (see Aruch Hashulchan, Orach Chayim 1331:4).

The Meshech Chochma adds a new insight to the significance of the ketoret as a test. The heads of the tribes, who were among Moshe’s rivals, thought that the ketoret was actually a proof to their claim, and so it was chosen to specifically prove them wrong. The ketoret sacrifice is an obligation of the tzibbur (community) and cannot be brought by an individual. There was one exception to that rule. The twelve nesi’im (tribe heads) offered ketoret during the period of the consecration of the Mishkan. As opposed to Nadav and Avihu who had paid with their lives for the misuse of ketoret, the nesi’im were very successful with it. Thus, Moshe intended that the ketoret would actually prove that here they were, in their support of Korach’s claims, over-stepping their bounds.

What, though, was the mistake of the nesi’im, and what is it about the ketoret that makes it appropriate only for the tzibbur? The gemara (Kritot 6a) has a famous statement that all public fasts must include sinners among the community, just as the ketoret included the foul smelling chelbena, without which it cannot be brought. Let us suggest as follows. When the nesi’im brought their inaugural sacrifices they did so as representatives of the tzibbur, which, as an exceptional ruling, was considered public even though it came from their personal funding. The nesi’im saw it as a sign of their personal greatness, not of the status of the people they represented. They also erred in their claim that the “entire congregation are holy,” not realizing that there is room within the holy community for sinners who do not at all disqualify the sacrifices.

There are several lessons for us. The tzibbur is a function of all of its parts, including the problematic parts. If one wants to lead the tzibbur as an individual, he will fail. Only if one views all of the individuals as part of the whole will there be a joining together that is worthy of the full blessing. Then our sanctuaries will be properly inaugurated and our prayers and fasts will be accepted with good Divine will.



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R' Meir ben
Yechezkel Shraga Brachfeld

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