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Class Notes - Class #25

Mitzvot #131 – 133 deal with the fire on the mizbeah.  Mitzvah #132 requires the cohanim to keep the fire burning on the mizbeah, mitzvah #133 prohibits putting the fire out, and mitzvah #131 requires the cohanim to clean up the ash that accumulates.

            Mitzvah #132 requires the cohanim to replenish the fire on the mizbeah each morning and evening.  According to the midrash halachah, the fire on the mizbeah was provided miraculously, but the cohanim had to tend the fire anyway.  The author explains that when God does miracles, God keeps them as natural looking as possible.

            The author wonders why we need a mitzvah to light the fire on the mizbeah.  A fire is necessary in order to burn the sacrifices on the altar, so the fire would be there in any case.  Why does maintaining that fire constitute a separate mitzvah?  The author’s answer is based on the science/philosophy of his time.  God gives us a mitzvah involving some entity to remind us to pray that God will bless us through the entity.  The author makes an analogy to the lehem hapanim that he discussed earlier.  We have a mitzvah of lehem hapanim, involving bread, so we will pray that God will bless us with enough food.  Here, we have a mitzvah involving fire and we hope God will bless “the fire within us.”  In medieval thought, the world and everything in it consisted of a combination of four elements: earth, air, fire and water.  These are not just physical elements but also character elements.  The element of fire in a person is the energy that motivates the person to do whatever the person does.  We use a similar expression when we say someone is “fired up,” although I suspect the English phrase comes from the Industrial Revolution’s use of steam engines.  When we have a mitzvah to renew the fire on the altar, we are reminded that God is the source of our energy, our fire.  We need that fire in just the right amount.  Too little and we are unable to function.  Too much and we burn up with fever.  We pray to God that our level of fire be just right.  Although the author explains this concept in terms of medieval thought, the thought itself remains relevant.

            In the dinei hamitzvah section, the author explains that the altar had three fires: 1.  A large fire for burning sacrifices.  2.  A small fire which was the source of the flame needed to burn the incense and light the menorah.  3.  A fire maintained simply to fulfill this mitzvah.  The rabbis derive the need for three fires from parts of three different mentions of the fire on the altar. 

Each morning the cohanim would bring a large stack of wood to the top of the altar.  One cohen would bring two additional logs each morning to add to the fire in order to burn the morning olah, and two cohanim would each bring one additional log in the evening to fuel the fire to burn the evening olah.  This procedure comes from a close reading of the source verses.  The verse describing the morning procedure, Leviticus 6:5 says “the cohen,” one cohen, will bring “eitzim,” plural for wood, so one cohen brings two logs.  The verse describing the evening procedures, Leviticus 1:7, says “bnei aharon,” the plural sons of Aaron, so two cohanim bring up the wood.

Mitzvah #133 prohibits putting out the fire, even an individual coal that is still burning.  The violation is punishable with malkos.  One violates this mitzvah even if the coal was extinguished after it was removed from the mizbeah.  But if the coal was taken from the fire kept for lighting the incense and menorah,  the person who extinguished it after the coal was removed from the fire on the altar did not violate this mitzvah since that fire was intended for removal from the altar.

Mitzvah #131 requires the cohanim to clear the ashes off the altar each morning.  This was a sought-after job and the cohanim drew lots for the privilege of doing it.  It happened at dawn on ordinary mornings, but was done even earlier on holidays.  The cohen removing the ash wore a special uniform because his uniform was likely to get dirty.

The author provides a vivid description of the procedure.  The designated cohen would get up very early.  He would start by immersing in a mikveh, and then wash his hands and feet.  The other cohanim would remind him to wash before he started his work.  There were special tools for separating the coals and removing the ash, and the cohen stood in a designated place for each part of the job.  When the ashes were removed the cohen would come down the ramp and go to a designated garbage heap on the east side of the ramp.  This heap was used to collect the ashes, parts of sacrificed birds that the cohanim removed on the altar, as well as the ash from the incense altar and the menorah. Then other cohanim would rush to wash their hands and feet and go up to the altar to make sure the remaining coals were reconstituted into a proper fire on a spot called the “tapuah,” “apple.”  Periodically the garbage heap would be removed to a large storage container and then emptied outside the Temple.


Mitzvot #134 – 137 fill in details about minchah sacrifices. M’nachot were meal offerings, and there were several different varieties.  For m’nachot brought by cohanim, the entire minchah was burned on the mizbeah.  For other m’nachot, the cohanim would remove a handful of each minchah to burn on the altar; then the cohanim or other designated people would eat the remainder. 

            An individual cohen might bring a minchah as a voluntary or required offering.  In addition, mitzvah #136 requires the cohen gadol to bring a minchah twice daily.  This was a personal korban, not a communal one.  The author explains the shoresh of this mitzvah as a way to help the cohen gadol take his job with appropriate seriousness.  Most of his time is taken up with communal sacrifices, but the author thinks his focus will be enhanced by a daily personal sacrifice.

            There was a special procedure for preparing the minchah of the cohen gadol.  Since each minchah had to be in issaron units, the cohen gadol took one issaron of flour each morning, and divided it in two equal parts.  The flour got mixed with three log of oil.  He would mix the flour with the oil and briefly pour boiling water over the combination.  Then he would divide each half into six pieces for a total of twelve individual loaves, and knead each loaf.  Each loaf was then baked, and after that cooked on a machvat pan. All of that had to happen without the loaves becoming hametz.   He then broke each loaf in half, folded each half-loaf over, and sprinkled frankincense on each.  Twelve half-loaves were brought in the morning and the other twelve half-loaves were brought in the evening.

            Like all m’nachot brought by cohanim, the daily m’nachot of the cohen gadol were entirely burned on the altar; mitzvah # 137 prohibits eating them.  The author explains that the cohanim need to be properly focused.  If a cohen prepares a minchah and then gets to eat it, the cohen will feel less like he is involved in holy service and more like he is just making lunch.  The author tries to describe how the cohen would remove the portion of m’nachot to burn on the altar.  He used his three middle fingers to grasp some of the minchah to the palm of his hand, making a fist.  If he tried to scoop more by spreading out his fingers to gather in extra the minchah was disqualified.

            Mitzvah #134 requires the cohanim to eat the parts of m’nachot that were not burned.  As the author explained earlier, it is considered a distinction that the holy cohanim should eat the sacrifice someone brought.

            In this essay the author mentions a “cohenet,” the female form of “cohen.”  This term refers to the wife or unmarried daughter of a cohen.  The minchah of a cohenet was treated like the minchah of an ordinary person rather than the minchah of a cohen.  One might think that her minchah should be entirely burned like that of a cohen, but since she did not eat most of the m’nachot that the cohanim ate, her minchah is treated like the minchah of an ordinary person.            The author also points out that sometimes a Torah verse is phrased in the future and the rabbis interpret that verse to mean we have a mitzvah to do what the verse describes.  This mitzvah is an example.

            Most m’nachot were already fully baked by the time they were ready for the cohanim to eat, and mitzvah #135 prohibits allowing them to become hametz while the minchah is being prepared.  The mitzvah does not apply to a minchah that was previously disqualified or to a minchah after it was done being offered and was ready for the cohanim to eat.  Each act in creating the loaf of hametz, i.e. adding sourdough, shaping the loaf and baking the loaf, was considered a separate violation.  Even though the dough had already become hametz, someone shaping it or baking it violated this mitzvah.

Mitzvah #130 requires a person who stole property to return it to the owner.  We are prohibited from stealing anything, no matter how small its value.  But there is no mitzvah of restitution if the stolen object is worth less than a prutah.  The author explains that Jews are generous and will forgive so small a debt.

The source verse here has extra words, “return the stolen property which he stole,” repeating that the property was stolen.  The rabbis understand the repetition to teach that if the thief has the stolen object, he or she must return the actual object and not just pay damages.

            That principle creates some complicated cases.  Let’s say that the thief has the object but the object has been altered.  If it is possible to undo the alteration, the thief must undo the alteration and return the original object.  The author gives an example of stolen lumber that was built into a box.  The thief is obligated to take the box apart and return the lumber.  But if the change cannot be undone the thief pays damages instead of returning the item.  So, for example, if that stolen lumber had been cut or had holes drilled in it, the thief pays the value of the stolen lumber but does not return the lumber because the lumber is no longer in the same condition as when it was stolen.

            Then the author tests what we mean when we say that if the stolen item is worth less than a prutah the thief need not return it.  Let’s say someone stole three items worth one prutah each, and then the items dropped in value so the total was worth two prutot.  The general principle is that the value is measured at the time of the theft, not at the time of restitution.  The thief has to return all three; each item was worth a prutah at the time of the theft and we measure at the time of the theft.  If someone stole two items worth a prutah in total and then the thief returned one item, the thief has violated this mitzvah.  The thief is required to make restitution because the theft was worth a prutah.  But once the thief returns one item, the thief need not return the other item since it was worth less than a prutah when it was stolen.

            Several other factors work together to create complex issues.  First, if someone loses something or has something stolen and gives up hope of recovering the item, the item becomes hefker, ownerless.  Once the thief steals an item, the thief might keep it in tact or the thief might alter it so it is no longer the same item.  Or the thief might sell the item to a new owner who has paid good money for something he or she has no way of knowing had been stolen. The author plays with some cases at the intersection of those factors.

            If the thief still has the property or his heirs have the property, and it has not been irreparably altered, then d’oraita the thief has to return the item even if the owner has given up hope of retrieving it.  This is the result even if the item’s value has gone up, as an implication of the rule we saw before that the thief is Biblically required to return the original item.  But the rabbis thought that rule would discourage thieves from returning stolen property; the thief might be willing to return the item but might hesitate to return the profits earned in the meantime.  So the rabbis ruled that if the owner had given up hope of recovering the item, the thief need only return the value of the item at the time it was stolen, and could negotiate with the owner about who gets the increased value.  The rabbis legislated to encourage Jewish thieves to return stolen property, so this rule does not apply when the benefit would go to a non-Jew.

            This is a surprising outcome, since the rabbis here are changing the d’oraita rule, taking money the owner is entitled to and giving it to the thief, because the rabbis thought that was better public policy than the original d’oraita rule.  We have seen the rabbis erecting fences to keep us farther away from d’oraita violations than we might have been otherwise.  But here, the rabbis benefit one party at the expense of the other party.  The author explains the justification for this outcome:  hefker beit din hefker,”  “whatever the court declares ownerless is ownerless.”  That principle means that the rabbis can overturn anyone’s ownership of anything.  The author does not defend that principle; he just says the rule is well known.

            Next the author considers cases where the thief has sold the stolen item to someone else.  If the thief has a widely known reputation as a thief, the person who bought the item is required to return the value to the owner.  The buyer bought from a fence, and ought not benefit from that transaction.  To make himself whole, the buyer can sue the thief.  But if the thief has an upstanding reputation, the purchase is completely innocent.  That buyer need not return the value of the stolen item to the owner, and the owner’s only recourse is to sue the thief. 

            Underlying this result is the question of whether any of these transactions result in a change of ownership or whether they merely reflect a change in possession.  And that depends on whether the owner has given up hope of retrieving the item.  If the owner has given up hope, the item is technically hefker, so it is possible for one illicit possessor of the item to transfer ownership to another possessor.  If the owner has not given up hope, though, the owner is still the owner, and other possessors cannot transfer more than possession.

            The thief is obligated to return the stolen goods on the thief’s own initiative, not just when the thief is sued by the owner.  Even if the stolen item was only worth a prutah, the thief has to find the owner and return the item, no matter how far the thief has to go.  Again, the rabbis see this as a disincentive to thieves who want to go straight, so the rabbis created an escrow arrangement.  The thief can deposit the stolen item with a beit din, telling the court who the owner is, and then the owner can come and claim the item.  The author does not say whether the thief or the beit din have any obligation to try to notify the owner.

            The author ends the dinei hamitzvah section of this essay with more questions for further study.  These are worth noting because we can figure out, for most of them, why each of the cases the author mentions might generate disagreement on what the outcome should be.  What if the thief stole a beam and built it into a house.  In theory the thief should return the beam, which has not been irretrievably altered, but the expense of doing so is enormous.  What if the thief stole in one place and wants the owner to come retrieve the property in some much less convenient place.  Does that fulfill the thief’s mitzvah to return the item?  What if the thief dedicated the stolen property to the Temple?  The thief has an obligation to return the property, but the property, once consecrated, cannot be unconsecrated.  What if the thief stole a baby animal and kept it so long it grew up?  Is the adult animal must the object he stole, in which case the thief has to return the animal, or is that considered a significant change in the animal, in which case the thief can pay damages.   What if the thief stole a slave who then worked for the thief?  Does the thief have to pay the owner for the work the slave did, or just return the slave? If someone stole a boat and used it the thief has to return it.  Does the thief also have to pay for the any use of the boat while the thief had it?  For any damage that occurred to the boat while the thief was using it? 

            The author says he will expand on some of these topics later in the essay on the mitzvah that prohibits stealing.  We see again that the author is thinking of his work as a unified curriculum, and that he is giving us little teasers about later material to keep us enthusiastic about what is coming up.

            The author ends the essay with a reminder:  when we have done something wrong that can be rectified, God wants us to make it right, and woe to those who chose not to do so.