Toward the end of Parashat Bamidbar, the Torah outlines the procedure that was followed to prepare the sacred articles of the Mishkan for transport when Benei Yisrael needed to travel. We read that the kohanim would wrap each article in an especially designated garment. As a general rule, each article’s accessories were also placed in that garment. For example, the Torah instructs that the bowls, ladles and jars used in conjunction with the shulchan (table) were placed in a sky-blue garment together with the shulchan (4:7), and the oil lamps and tongs used with the menorah were stored with the menorah in its special bag (4:9). A glaring exception is the incense altar, which was placed in one garment while its utensils were placed in a separate garment (4:11-12). The question arises as to why these utensils were not kept together with the altar, just as the utensils of the other sacred articles were kept together with the article with which they were used.
Some suggested answering this question based on the Gemara’s ruling in Masekhet Zevachim (59a) that the incense may be offered even in the absence of the incense altar. Although the incense is generally offered on the altar, nevertheless, if, for whatever reason, the altar was removed from the Beit Ha-mikdash, the incense is offered at the site of the altar. This ruling is codified by the Rambam, in Hilkhot Temidin U-musafin (3:2). Accordingly, it could be suggested that the utensils used in offering the incense – specifically, the spoon used to place the incense on the coals, and the pan which held the coals – are not integrally linked to the altar. Since they can be used even in the altar’s absence, they should be seen as separate and apart from the altar, and they were thus kept in their own bag, and not together with the incense altar.
This answer was suggested by Rav David Soloveitchik (Shiurei Rabbeinu Meshulam David Ha-levi, Parashat Bamidbar, p. 197), who then refuted this explanation. Tosafot in Masekhet Zevachim (60b) write that this is true also of the other altar – the mizbach ha-ola, upon which the animal sacrifices were offered. If this altar was removed from the Temple courtyard, then the eimurin – the portions of sacrifices which are to be placed on the altar – are placed on the site of the altar. Accordingly, the utensils used with the mizbach ha-ola, too, should perhaps be regarded as separate from the altar itself. And yet, the Torah states explicitly that all these utensils were placed together with the mizbach ha-ola in a special purple garment (4:14).
Rav Yitzchak Zev Diskin, in his Zivchei Tzedek, suggests a different explanation. In Sefer Shemot (27:3), the Torah mentions the machtot (firepans) used with the mizbach ha-ola, and Rashi explains that these pans were used to take coals from the mizbach ha-ola and bring them to the incense altar. The coals upon which the incense was placed were taken from the mizbach ha-ola, and the firepans used for this purpose are included among the utensils of the mizbach ha-ola. It emerges, then, that the utensils used for offering incense are included as part of the “equipment” of the mizbach ha-ola, and not of the incense altar. Rav Diskin supports this theory from the comments of the Ramban later in Sefer Bamidbar (7:1) regarding the special offerings brought by the twelve tribal leaders on the day of the Mishkan’s consecration. The Ramban explained that the nesi’im (tribal leaders) offered every type of sacrifice in order to inaugurate the mizbach ha-ola. Now the nesi’im’s offerings included incense, which is offered on the incense altar – and yet, the nesi’im brought incense as part of the consecration of the mizbach ha-ola. Apparently, the Ramban understood that since the coals for the incense are taken from the mizbach ha-ola, the incense offering is associated with that altar, even though the incense is actually placed on the incense altar.
As such, the utensils used with the incense are associated not with the incense altar, but rather with the mizbach ha-ola. In theory, then, they should have been placed together with the mizbach ha-ola in its special garment. However, since these utensils are used inside the Mikdash, where the incense altar is situated, whereas the mizbach ha-ola is situated outside, in the Temple courtyard, these utensils have a higher level of sanctity than the mizbach ha-ola, and so they were placed in their own bag, separate from the mizbach ha-ola.