Parashat Tzav begins with the mitzva of terumat ha-deshen – the removal of ashes from the altar each morning. The daily series of rituals in the Beit Ha-mikdash began with a kohen ascending the ramp to the altar, collecting some ashes, and placing them on the ground alongside the altar.
The Gemara in Masekhet Yoma (24a) addresses the question of how much ashes the kohen was required to collect and remove from the altar each morning. The Torah (6:3) formulates this command with the word “ve-heirim” (“he shall lift,” or “he shall remove”), a term which resembles the Torah’s formulation in Sefer Bamidbar (18:26,28) in presenting the command of terumat ma’aser, the tithe taken by the Leviyim from the portions of produce they receive (“va-hareimotem,” “tarimu”). Accordingly, the Gemara considers, perhaps the kohen was required to remove each day one-tenth of the ashes on the altar. However, the Gemara notes that the term “va-hareimota” is used also later in Sefer Bamidbar (31:28) in reference to the 1/500th of the spoils taken by the nation’s soldiers from Midyan as a donation to the Mishkan. Perhaps, then, the kohen was required to take only 1/500th of the ashes each day. The Gemara concludes that neither figure is correct, as in truth, the kohen is required to take a fistful of ashes. The word “ve-heirim” is used later in Parashat Tzav (6:8) in reference to the kohen’s removing a fistful from the mincha (grain offering) and placing it on the altar. Accordingly, the command of “ve-heirim” in the context of the terumat ha-deshen, too, requires removing a fistful of ashes.
Rashi, commenting on the Gemara, clarifies that this does not mean that the kohen actually takes ashes with his hand from the altar. After all, as the fire on the altar consistently burned, the ashes were always very hot, thus making it impractical for the kohen to take ashes with his hand. Rather, the Gemara speaks here of the minimum required quantity of ashes, which were taken with a special pan designated for this purpose. Rashi writes that if the kohen wished, he could remove even more than a fistful of ashes.
Interestingly, both in Rashi’s Torah commentary here in Parashat Tzav (6:3), and in his commentary to Masekhet Yoma (12b), Rashi writes that the kohen would take a “melo machta” – the amount that would fill the pan used for the terumat ha-deshen. The Maharal of Prague, in his Gur Aryeh (in Parashat Tzav), explains that this is the maximum amount allowed. Rashi does not mean that the kohen must, or optimally should, remove a “melo machta” from the altar, but rather mentions this amount as the maximum quantity that would be removed each day.
Elsewhere, Rashi appears to point to a practical halakhic difference between the first kometz (volume of a handful) removed by the kohen, and the additional ashes. The Gemara in Masekhet Temura (34a) speaks of the prohibition to derive benefit from the ashes removed from the altar as part of the terumat ha-deshen ritual (such as using them as fertilizer). Rashi, curiously, comments that this refers to the kometz of ashes removed by the kohen. Although Rashi, as we have seen, maintains that a kohen could remove as much as a “melo machta,” here he specifies the minimum required amount of a handful. The Vilna Gaon, in his notes to Masekhet Temura, suggests that Rashi perhaps maintained that only a handful’s worth of the ashes removed from the altar becomes forbidden for benefit, whereas the additional ashes do not. As the mitzva requires removing only a handful, the excess ashes are not included in the prohibition against deriving benefit from the terumat ha-deshen ashes.
Rav Eliyahu Sosevsky, in his Lefanai Tamid commentary to Masekhet Tamid (p. 22), suggests further explaining Rashi’s view in light of Rashi’s remarks elsewhere in his writings. The Gemara in Masekhet Yoma (21a) teaches that certain forms of refuse in the Beit Ha-mikdash were miraculously absorbed by the ground. Specifically, the Gemara mentions the portions of bird offerings which are removed from the bird and not placed on the altar (see Vayikra 1:16), the ashes which collect on the incense altar, and the refuse from the lamps of the menorah. Rashi, both in his Torah commentary (Vayikra 1:16) and in his commentary to the Gemara (Pesachim 26, Me’ila 11b), maintains that the ashes of the teruma ha-deshen were likewise included in this miracle, and were supernaturally absorbed by the ground of the Temple courtyard. (Rabbeinu Tam, cited by Tosafot in Me’ila (11b) and Zevachim (64a), disagreed.) Conceivably, Rav Sosevsky writes, Rashi maintained that only a handful’s worth of ashes would be absorbed in the ground, and then the remaining ashes were permitted for use. As a practical matter, the kohen had no possibility of removing only a handful ashes, and so he needed to remove more, but the subsequent miraculous absorption of the ashes revealed which ashes fulfilled the mitzva, and which were the excess. Therefore, once a handful’s worth of ashes was absorbed into the ground, the remaining ashes were permissible, as they were shown not to have been the ashes through which the mitzva of terumat ha-deshen was fulfilled, and thus they are not included in the prohibition against using the terumat ha-deshen ashes.