The Routine vs. The Novel

The rituals of the tabernacle and Temple called for strictly defined roles--but also allowed for new expressions.

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This view is particularly striking given that the actual construction and dedication of the mishkan are bookended by two catastrophic divine responses to inappropriate ritual experimentation. In each case, it is gold or incense that is central to the original infraction. The simplest understanding of the biblical chronology would have the incident of the golden calf brewing even as God showed Moses the plans for the golden altar. Nadav and Avihu, Aaron's sons, were killed (according to Ramban, at that very altar) as they offered up incense in a way not commanded by God, thus ruining the culmination of their appointment as Kohanim [priests].

Avoiding Disaster

Ramban's interpretation is not extraordinary in its sensibility that in human encounters with the divine, strict adherence to ritual is the only way to avoid utter disaster. Indeed, the very incense itself would seem to deter innovation. Omitting or changing even one ingredient (T.B Kreitot 6a) makes one liable for the death penalty. Yet, Ramban's interpretation of the golden altar, as a concession to the possible need for human failure, and the need to expiate for such variances, in and of itself reflects a degree of flexibility within the ritual tradition, a responsiveness to human needs and weaknesses.

Even within the routine, daily offering of the incense, an allowance was made to ensure continued novelty and freshness of the time-honored ritual. According to the Mishnah (Yoma 2:1-4), in the ancient temple there were systems of rotations and lotteries to determine which priests would be assigned the various tasks associated with the daily Tamid offering and other aspects of the rite that were carried out day in and day out without fail. The third lottery, for offering the incense, was unique because it was only open to those who had never done it before.

The Talmud (T.B Yoma 26a) proposes one reason for this practice--anyone who offered the incense was assured of wealth, and there was a desire to make sure that that blessing would be spread as widely as possible. This practice had the equally important auxiliary effect of ensuring that each day, there would be someone coming to the morning's routine with the excitement of doing something for the first time. The incense was not only a column of smoke, but also a breath of fresh air.

To be sure, there are positives and negatives to having a particular role always filled by a novice. No one wants to be a surgical resident's first patient, but in ritual matters the question is more nuanced. In synagogues where there is a Bar/Bat Mitzvah every week, the haftarah [prophetic reading] can be a weekly trade-off between the electricity of a new, life-changing moment and the comfort of a talented "old hand" at work. What is not in doubt is that each new person who comes to a ritual brings his or her own unique signature and point of view, and has the capacity to enrich the communal understanding.

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Rabbi Joshua Heller

Rabbi Joshua Heller is the rabbi at Congregation B'nai Torah in Atlanta, GA. Previous to that, he served as director of the Distance Learning Program at the Jewish Theological Seminary.