The Symbolism of the Menora and the Incense

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash


The Symbolism of the Menora and the Incense

Based on a speech by Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Translated by Kaeren Fish


When discussing the daily ritual of the Tabernacle, the Torah links the offering of the incense with the preparation of the menora and the kindling of the lights:

"And Aharon shall offer sweet incense upon it every morning; when he prepares the lights he shall offer it. And when Aharon kindles the lights in the evening he shall offer it, a constant incense before God for all your generations." (Shemot 30:7-8)

It seems reasonable to assume that these verses do more than simply point out that the incense is offered at the same time the menora is tended to; rather, they point to a fundamental connection between these two.

The central theme of Chanuka is the menora – the miracle of the cruse of oil. But the menora cannot be separated from the incense. Aside from the above verses, we also find mention of the incense in the Torah reading of Chanuka (the parasha of the princes): "One spoon of ten measures of gold, full of incense." What, then, is the symbolic significance of the menora and the incense?

Light is a symbol of those things which are clear and orderly, rational and comprehensible (as in the term "enlightenment"). Light also hints at intellectualism and logic. These characteristics – logic and order – typified Greek culture at its best. Indeed, if we were to relate only to the menora and its lights, we would celebrate the victory of the values of pure thought and intellect, which are associated with our opponents. But in fact, the Torah teaches us that the incense always accompanies the lighting of the menora. These are related not only in terms of time, but also on a much deeper and more fundamental level.

The incense introduces a note of mystery: smoke wafts from it and rises, transcendental clouds hover over it and shroud the surroundings in a numinous haze. This is the antithesis of the clarity of light. Incense belongs not to our rational and logical world, but rather to the world of mysticism, outside our understanding and beyond our grasp. "They shall place incense in Your nose and a burnt offering on Your altar" (Devarim 33:10). The sacrifice belongs to the altar, while the incense belongs, as it were, to God Himself.

Here we find the crux of the ethical and cultural conflict between our "menora" and what we identify with the world-view and lifestyle of Greek culture. (I am referring to the higher elements in Greek culture, although of course we have a conflict with the lower pagan and hedonistic elements as well.) Our conflict with the Hellenistic world centers around the extent to which we perceive reason and human comprehension as being supreme. The Greek world strives to be one of pure light, but our world is different: the menora is vital, but it is dialectically balanced by the incense. On the one hand, we of course esteem understanding and intellect, order and logic; on the other hand, we value an awareness of the mysteries of the universe and the mysteries within man, and first and foremost an awareness of the hidden God. We always see the light of the menora through the perspective of the smoke of the incense.

The fire and cloud at the time of the exodus from Egypt had a practical purpose – "with a pillar of cloud to show you the way, and a pillar of fire at night to make light for you." But at Sinai we encountered fire and cloud in a different context: "And there was thunder and lightning and a heavy cloud upon the mountain." Here the significance is symbolic, conceptual. We strive to study and understand the Torah with the best of our intellectual effort (the light, the fire), but the very contact with the teaching of God is enveloped in a sense of mystery (the cloud).

Avraham is commanded to offer up Yitzhak as a sacrifice in "the land of Moriah." Rashi explains this name in two different ways:

"Our Rabbis explained [that it was called thus] because from there came forth teaching – 'hora'ah' – to Israel. But Onkelos translates it as being derived from the offering of incense, which contains myrrh ('mor'), nard and other perfumes."

Both of these explanations are true. The name "Moriah" symbolizes the Torah, which illuminates and clarifies, but it also represents the incense, symbol of mystery and transcendence. This dual derivation indicates to what extent the Torah is also part of the world of mystery, the world of the incense.

These two elements enhance each other. The intellectual endeavor is nourished by the sense of contact with mystery and eternity, while – at the same time – understanding and insight nourish the sense of infinity and secrecy.

Today, as in previous ages, our belief in the mutual fructification of intellect and mystery is subject to attack from two opposite directions, each of which denies one of these elements. Our approach draws fire both from rationalistic circles, which deny the element of holiness, reverence, and transcendence, and also from those mystical schools which wallow in confusion and lack of understanding.

We pray, "Illuminate our eyes with Your Torah, and make our hearts cleave to Your mitzvot, and unify our hearts to love and fear Your name." This combination of menora and incense is the dream and vision of the yeshiva, and – we hope – also the aspiration of each of its students. Like Avraham, who alone saw the "cloud attached to the mountain," so Rav Amital, prior to the establishment of the yeshiva, when there were only mountains here and not even the most temporary structure, saw and understood that this would be the place to combine the menora and the incense. May this path continue to guide us like a pillar of fire and cloud.

(Adapted from a speech at the Mesibat Chanuka of Yeshivat Har Etzion, 5760 [1999], which marked Harav Amital's 75th birthday.)


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