Menachot 26 – Is Burning the Kometz like Putting Blood on the Altar?

The kometz of the mincha plays an analogous role to the blood of animal sacrifices, insofar as both serve as matirs, that is, through the placing/throwing of the blood and the burning of the kometz, the korban and mincha are made valid, and the remainder may now to be eaten or, in the case of the fat of animal sacrifices, burnt on the altar.  It is for this reason that the Gemara compares the stages of the taking and the burning of the kometz to the classic 4 avodot of an animal sacrifice – shechita, kabbalat ha’dam, holacha, and zerikat ha’dam (Menachot 13b).  It is also for this reason that a pigul thought can invalidate at any of these four stages – the taking and burning of the kometz is just like the catching and placing of the blood.

This comparison, however, is not fully adopted by R. Shimon.  The mishna on yesterday’s daf yomi, Menachot (26a), records the opinion of R. Shimon that a keli sharet is not needed for the kometz once the act of kimitza is done.  The Gemara presents 3 explanations of this position, listed here in ascending order of requirements:

  1. No keli at all is required, and as long as the kometz is somehow placed on the fire of the altar it is valid (Rav Yanai)
  2. If the Kohen uses his right hand, no vessel is needed.  If he uses his left hand, he must use a keli sharet (Rav Yehudah the son of R. Hiyya)
  3. The kometz must be placed in a keli sharet, but after that point it can be offered on the altar by any means (Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak).

The Gemara rejects the third position, and thus we are left with 2 interpretations of R. Shimon’s position, both of which are in agreement that there is no need that the kometz needs to be put in a keli sharet. Now, while the second approach (R. Yehuda the son of R. Hiyya) does not demand a keli sharet, it does demand the use of the right hand when no keli is being used.  This can be understood in two ways: either (a) in principle a keli sharet is needed, but the Kohen’s right hand serves as such or (b) the kometz, does not, for its sanctity, require a keli. However, the act of placing something on the altar must either be with a keli or with one’s right hand.  Explanation (b) is more consistent with the source of this law – a comparison to how blood is put on the altar – and thus even in principle neither Rav Yehudah the son of R. Hiyya, and certainly not Rav Yanai (explanation 1, above) demand any vessel to sanctify the kometz.

If the kometz does not require a keli at all, then it is already on a different path than the blood of an animal sacrifice – there is no parallel to the avoda of kabbalat ha’dam (see, in contrast, the discussion on 13b).  More to the point, Rav Yanai’s approach seems to reject any notion of an act, or avoda, of placing the kometz on the altar.  According to his read of R. Shimon, as long as the kometz gets on the altar, and burns there, the mincha is valid.  No keli sharet is needed, nor need the Kohen use his right hand – there is no specified act or process at all.

What would be the reason that the placing of the kometz on the altar would be so radically different from the placing of the blood on the altar?  The first thing that we may point to is the formal similarity of the burning of the kometz with the burning of other things that were placed on the altar – the fats, and the limbs (of olot).   These things are not what validates the korban, and are not the object to which we attached central significance.  The acts done to these objects are not considered avodot which effect kapparah. Burning these on the altar is more the wrap-up of the avodah, and it is for this reason that they can be burnt in the evening.  So, it would be accurate to say, that putting these on the altar is not a significant act, is not an avodah per se, and rather the requirement is that the fat and the limbs be burnt. Thus, although the kometz is the matir, since it is burnt like these – reasons R. Shimon – there is no formal act of putting it on the altar, rather the only requirement is to ensure that they are burnt.

The braitta that the Gemara quotes strongly suggests this comparison, as it first lists three things which are not matirs – wood, fats, and limbs – for which no process is prescribed (it can be without a keli and without the Kohen’s right hand) and then lists three things which are likewise burnt, but which are matirs, and which similarly no specific process is prescribed- the kometz, the levonah, and the ketoret.  The obvious implication is that for things that are burnt, even if it is a matir, what matters is the fact of its burning, and not the act of placing it on the altar.

This approach leaves open the question of why R. Shimon does not argue on all the previous mishnayot which assume that the burning of the kometz is an avodah, and that a pigul thought at that time turns invalidates the mincha.  Perhaps one would have to say that according to R. Shimon the burning is an avodah, but it is so in virtue of the result – that the kometz is now burning, and not the process – that it was placed on the fire.  Indeed, it is interesting to consider the fact that in English we do not have a verb that is the counterpart to the Hebrew li’haktir.  The closest translation would be “to cause its smoke to rise” – an action which is defined completely by the result (and note the hif’ill, causative tense of the Hebrew verb).

This issue may be connected to the statements  of R. Chanina and R. Yochanan on (26b) who debate at what stage of the burning of the kometz the mincha becomes valid.  R. Chanina states that this occurs as soon as the fire takes hold of the kometz, while R. Yochanan requires that most of the kometz be burning.  It seems that R. Chanina is stating the the burning of the kometz is an act, so as soon as it is placed on the fire, the act is done.  R. Yochanan, on the other hand, focuses on the actual burning of the kometz, not the act of its placing on the altar alone.

Now, both R. Chanina and R. Yochanan are presumably talking according to the Chachamim who argue on R. Shimon, and who say that a keli is needed and that there is an act of haktarah.  Thus, even R. Yochanan states that the act of putting the kometz on the fire must take place before sunset, like all avodot. [It is worth speculating whether this would also be true according to R. Shimon.  It is possible that he would allow the placing on the fire even after sunset, like the simple sense of the beraita on 26b.  Alternatively, he may believe that placing is not enough ].  So while, unlike R. Shimon, there is a formal act of placing on the altar, this – according to R. Yochanan – is not the entirety.  This is an act that is meaningful because the end result is achieved, and only when that end result is achieved, does the mincha become valid.

An instructive comparison is to the act of cooking on Shabbat.  One would only violate Shabbat if he put food on the fire while it was still Shabbat.  However, if cooking does not achieve its end result – if the food falls off the fire and never cooks – then it will have turned out that one never violated Shabbat.  What if the food finishes cooking, but it does so after Shabbat?  Is it considered like one did the melakha because he placed it on the fire before Shabbat, or is it not like he did the melakha because the completion of the act only took place after Shabbat?  This issue is debated in the Achronim, and it depends on whether one stresses that the melakha is about putting it on the fire, or about getting it cooked.  What R. Yochanan is saying in our case is that there is an act of avodah – the placing on the fire, but just like cooking on Shabbat, it is only meaningful – and the korban only valid – when it culminates in the kometz fully being seized by the fire and the smoke rising from it.  And this can happen even after sunset, because in the end, the emphasis is on the act of placing.

There are thus 3 possibilities as to how much, or whether, putting the kometz on the fire is an avodah:

  1. R. Shimon, as explained by Rav Yannai – it is not an avodah act – there are no specified procedures, and the entire obligation (and validation of the mincha) is to ensure that the kometz is actually burnt.  [Does this mean it can be done at night?  Or the opposite, that it must be burnt, and not just placed on the altar, during the day?  Does this mean it truly is not an avodah and a pigul thought is irrelevant?  Or is it still an avodah, but defined fully in terms of “whatever means gets it burning”?]
  2. The Chachamim who argue on R. Shimon, according to R. Yoachanan, who state that there is a formal act, and of course an avodah in burning the kometz, but that this act -like putting something on a fire to cook – requires that an end result take place – that the kometz be seized by fire and that the smoke rise.   And it is only when this result takes place that the mincha becomes valid.
  3. The Chachamim according to R. Chanina, who state that it is just like placing the blood on the altar – there is a formal act, and it begins and ends with the placing of the kometz on the fire.

The final question to consider, is to return to the tantalizing position of R. Shimon (according to Rav Yanai) and ask why it is that this is not like the blood.  Why should we not focus on a formal act of placing the matir on the altar?  I think that the answer lies somewhere in understanding that the blood is inherently powerful.  It is the life-force: “For the soul (or “life-force”) of all flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you [to be placed on the altar] to atone for your souls… for the blood through the soul (or “life-force”) will achieve atonement.” (Vayikra 17:11).  The power of the blood means that once it hits the altar, once a gesture is made to direct this life-force, this symbol of our own life, to God, then the korban has been offered, it is valid, and atonement is achieved.

On one level, a mincha is on the continuum with an olah and is essentially a poor-person’s olah – if you cannot afford an animal, give a grain-offering, and in the end, whether one does a little or one does a lot, as long as one’s intent is to God.  But on another level, it is a different sacrifice.  While an olah can vary in value – it can be a cow, it can be a sheep, it can even be a bird – but it is a life; it is the symbol of devoting one’s life, one’s self, to God.  A mincha is not that.  A mincha is a gift.  It is not life, it is just flour and oil.  It signifies food and sustenance, or the fruits of a person’s labor, but it is not intrinsically powerful.  The word mincha itself means gift – whether to God or to people (cf., Breishit 33:10), and this is different than giving of one’s life, one’s self.

This may have been at the heart of the difference between the sacrifices of Kayin and Hevel.  Why did God turn to Hevel’s sacrifice and not Kayin’s?  The Torah does not say.  It is possible that Hevel gave a more expensive sacrifice – “the first of his flock and their fat” – as opposed to Kayin’s less expensive “fruit of the land.”  This would show his greater devotion to God.  On the other hand, Kayin was the one who initiated giving a sacrifice, and Hevel just followed in his footsteps, “And Hevel brought, even he…” (Breishit 4:4).   Kayin’s initiative should count for at least as much as Hevel’s larger gift.

The difference, rather, lies not in the size of the gift but in its symbolism.  Kayin only brings a mincha, a gift to God: “And Kayin brought from the fruit of the land a mincha to God” (Breishit 4:3).   The symbolic significance of a mincha is that one acknowledges that God is to thank for one’s success, and that some of one’s wealth must be given back to God.  Hevel, on the other hand, brought an animal sacrifice, a sacrifice symbolizing that his life is God’s and that he is prepared to devote his life to God.  This may be the very meaning of the verse, והבל הביא גם הוא, “And Hevel brought, even he…”  That is, Hevel brought not a mincha, but he brought himself: “And Hevel brought even himself” as a sacrifice to God.

Because a mincha is a gift, and not life, and not the very giving of one’s self, pacing it on the altar does not suffice.  What is required is that the smoke rise up – that it become a symbolic gift to God.  Once it is given to God, and by rising to the Heavens, symbolizes that God has accepted it, then a significant religious act has been done.

When one gives of oneself – when one gives ones life-force, there is power in that very gesture, the very reaching of the altar.  When one makes a donation of funds, the true significance comes only once that gift is received.    And while when one gives of one’s self the power of the life-force is such that the korban is effective as soon as the blood hits the altar, as soon as the gesture is made.  When one gives a gift, one needs to wait that small amount of time for the gift to be accepted.  The gesture itself is a little less intrinsically significant – at least for R. Shimon.  For R. Shimon, the ultimate significance lies not in the action itself, but on its impact, on the result that is achieved.

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About Rabbi Dov Linzer

Rabbi Dov Linzer is the Rosh HaYeshiva and Dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, a groundbreaking Orthodox smicha program. Rabbi Linzer spearheaded the development of YCT to create an innovative four year smicha program which provides its students with rigorous talmud Torah and halakhic study and sophisticated professional training in the context of a religious atmosphere which cultivates openness and inclusiveness. Rabbi Linzer has published Halakha and machshava articles in Torah journals and lectures widely at synagogues and conferences on topics relating to Halakha, Orthodoxy, and modernity. He is most recently the awardee of the prestigious Avi Chai Fellowship.
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