“Bread and Smoke” Parashat Vayikra 5782

The Book of Vayikra is also called “Torat Kohanim” – a handbook for the Priests (Kohanim). The Book of Vayikra includes everything a kohen might need to know in order to officiate in the Tabernacle (Mishkan). It begins with animal sacrifices and then segues to plant-based offerings [Vayikra 2:1]: “If a person brings a meal offering (Mincha) to G-d, his offering shall be of fine flour”. After describing the process of offering the Mincha, the Torah adds a proviso [Vayikra 2:11]: “No meal offering that you sacrifice to G-d shall be made [out of anything] leavened. For[1] you shall not cause to [go up in] smoke any leavening or any honey, [as] a fire offering to G-d”. The meal offering is more like the matzo that we eat on Passover than like challah we eat on Shabbat.

Attempting to understand the reasoning behind a particular commandment – ta’amei ha’mitzvot – can sometimes be dangerous and can often be futile. More often than not, the best approach is that the logic behind the commandment is beyond human comprehension, full stop. Nevertheless, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik, who led North American Jewry in the second half of the previous century, teaches that while it is improper to ask “Why did G-d command me to perform this particular commandment?”, it is proper to ask “What can I learn from being commanded to perform this particular commandment?”. With this in mind, we can pose the following question: “What lesson can be learned from the prohibition to offer leavening on the altar?” The Rambam, writing in the “Guide for the Perplexed [3:46]” answers simply that while the Torah is eternally relevant, it is impossible to detach the Torah from the people who received it more than three thousand years ago. The Rambam asserts that the custom of pagan idolaters in those times was to offer all of their meal-offerings in leavened form and all of their sacrifices sweetened with honey. In order to distance the nascent Jewish People from pagan ritual, G-d prohibited the use of leaven and honey on the altar.

Basing an eternal commandment on circumstances that are no longer relevant can be unsatisfying. Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin, known as the Netziv, who was the headmaster of the prestigious Volozhn Yeshiva in Lithuania in the nineteenth century, differentiates between food in its natural state and food that has been enhanced by man. G-d gave man wheat and man converted it into bread. G-d gave man bitter coffee beans and man added sweetener. When man approaches G-d, teaches the Netziv, he must do so on G-d’s terms and not on his own terms. While man is challenged to join G-d in the act of creation, when it comes to worship man is ordered to retreat and to appreciate his own fallibility. He must be cognizant of the great divide between finite man and infinite G-d[2].

The explanation of the Netziv seems to have an Achilles heel. To prepare a meal-offering, flour is first mixed with oil. Afterwards, the kohen takes a small part of the mixture and throws it onto the altar where it is completely burnt. The rest of the batter is either baked or fried and then eaten, either by the kohanim or by the person who offers the sacrifice. But wait a minute – didn’t we just say that human processing of food is prohibited as part of Divine worship? Why is it permitted to process the food with heat but not with yeast? And now that you mention it, animal sacrifices undergo a similar process: the animal is slaughtered and then it is placed on the altar where part of it is completely burnt and the rest is roasted to a state where it can be eaten. We can reduce the sting of our question by noting that the Netziv would likely agree that man is permitted process a sacrifice in order to prepare it for human consumption. After all, no person wants to eat raw meal-batter or raw meat. This can explain the roasting, the frying, and the baking, but how can the service of G-d require burning the food on the altar?

To answer this question, we turn to a seminal essay by Rabbi Ezra Bick, who teaches at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shvut[3]. Rabbi Bick begins his essay by noting that most people instinctively think of sacrifices as things burnt on an altar and, conversely, that an altar is essentially a structure designed for the burning of sacrifices. He then proceeds to offer a completely different understanding that “seems today to be so obvious to me, that I hesitate to write a shiur about it.” He goes so far as to “ask forgiveness for anyone who will find it all simple and obvious”. I most certainly did not.

The Hebrew verb that describes the offering of a sacrifice on the altar is “hiktir”. These words have traditionally been translated as “to burn”. Nevertheless, most of the newer Jewish translations of the Torah, including the JPS translation on Sefaria and the online Chabad Tanach[4] – translate “hiktir” as “to turn into smoke”. Rabbi Bick explains the difference between the two: “Burning is a negative action. We burn something in order to get rid of it. We destroy our leftover chametz (leaven) before Pesach by burning it. We do not destroy a sacrifice: “Hiktir” has a positive sense of moving the object forward; burning has the opposite sense of negating its existence”. Rabbi Bick suggests that the inner meaning of turning the flesh into smoke means converting the physical into the spiritual. The sense of smell, in general, and smoke, in particular, has always been a symbol of the spiritual, not only in Judaism, but in nearly every religion, especially in the east – the smell of incense on the streets of Bangkok is overwhelming – but also in western churches. Just as meat is the food of the corporeal body, smoke is the sustenance of the spiritual soul. “Haktara” – “To turn to smoke” – is the process by which man converts the ultimate symbol of the physical – flesh and meat – into the ultimate symbol of the spiritual – smoke rising towards the heavens.

Rabbi Bick concludes by explaining the significance of this process: “The central problem of relationship between Man and G-d is the infinite gap that exists between them, between the perfect and decadent, between the absolute and the relative, between the eternally Divine and the temporally mundane.  This problem does not exist in polytheistic paganism, where the gods are part of nature and freely cavort with humans, but appears to be unbridgeable in Judaism… Communication, ultimately in both directions, bridges the gap.  The gap, however, remains, and the question is whether real influence can take place.  I contend that [sacrifices are] the answer to that question.  The [sacrifice] creates an actual metaphysical link by bridging the gap, by actually turning the physical into the spiritual”.

Now we can return to the Netziv. The act of burning the sacrifice on the altar is one hundred and eighty degrees different than adding leaven or honey. When we add leaven or honey, we are attempting to enhance food for human consumption. But by doing this, we are not bridging the gap between man and G-d – we are reinforcing it. Man desires fluffy bread and sweet coffee, not G-d. Offering a sacrifice on the altar, on the other hand, attempts to sublimate that gap by turning solid into gas, by turning the physical into the spiritual. At the end of the day, while bread might rise, only smoke elevates.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5782

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, and Geisha bat Sara.

[1] I have used the English translation on the Chabad website. The Hebrew “ki” in “ki kol se’or v’chol devash” has been translated as “for”. Prima facie, it seems like the Torah is using circular reasoning: “Do not offer leavened meal because you should not offer anything that is leavened”. I prefer to translate the word “ki” as “rather”: “Do not offer any leavening. Rather, any leavening shall not be offered to G-d”. Using this translation, the second half of the verse explains the first half.

[2] This tension between man’s unquenchable urge to lead and his simultaneous need to retreat forms the basis of Rabbi Soloveichik’s “The Lonely Man of Faith”, perhaps the most important book on Jewish Philosophy I have ever read.

[3] I have mentioned Rabbi Bick’s article numerous times in these essays. It is one of the most profound essays I have ever read. Here is the link:

[4] These are my go-to online translations.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
Related Topics
Related Posts