Touching the Mincha to the Altar – Why?

The Mishna (Menachot 60a) lists all the minchas which require hagasha, touching to the corner of the altar, but does not discuss what function this serves.   It also records a debate between R. Shimon and the Tana Kama whether the mincha of a Kohen, which is fully burnt, also requires the ritual of hagasha.  Again, neither the Mishna nor the Gemara indicate why the act of hagasha would or would not be as meaningful in regards to this mincha as to the other menachot.

What is agreed is that any mincha which comes as its own sacrifice, and not as an adjunct to an animal sacrifice, and whose handbreadth is offered on the altar requires hagasha.  This excludes the minchat nisakhim which come as an adjunct to animal sacrifices, and excludes the shew-bread of the shulkhan of which only the frankincense, but no part of the mincha itself, is offered on the altar.   While it is understandable that this rite is limited to a mincha that is brought on its own accord, it is not clear why it would not apply to the shew-bread, just because no part of it goes directly on the altar.

How can we understand the function of hagasha in a way that makes sense and that also explains some of the limits delineated above?

Two possible explanations for hagasha suggest themselves:

  1. Hagasha on the corner of the altar is the counterpart of the throwing of the blood on the altar.   Consider:
    • The mincha is touched to the corner of the altar. and The blood is thrown on the corners of the altar.
    • The mincha must be touched to a corner that has a yesod, a base, underneath (Menachot 61), and the blood of animal sacrifices must be thrown on a wall or corner which has a yesod (Zevachim 56b).
    • The mincha is touched to the altar, and a part of it – the kometz – is burned.  The blood of an animal sacrifice is thrown on the altar and a part, the fat, is burned.
    • The primary difference is that it is the blood on the altar which is the atoning act for the animal sacrifice, whereas the hagasha does not play this role by the mincha – the burning of the kometz does.
  2. Hagasha is needed to further sanctify the mincha and make it – or, rather, its kometz fit – to be burned on the altar.
    • This parallels the greater need for kedushat keli that why find regarding a mincha over and above such a need by an animal sacrifice
    • It is unclear, however, why this would be done to the whole mincha and not just the kometz

I am clearly inclined to the first approach, because the parallels to the throwing of the blood are very suggestive.  However, this approach does not explain R. Shimon’s position that hagasha is not required for the minchat Kohanim, since even such a mincha should require touching to the walls of the altar, just as an olah which is fully burned, still has its blood thrown on the altar.  Also, it is not clear why the lechem ha’panim would not require hagasha.  Although none of the mincha proper is burned, why not keep the hagasha ritual?  Why should this be different from an animal sacrifice where the part burned (the fat) is never the same as the part put on the walls of the altar (the blood)?

The best explanation that I have found for hagasha that addresses the specifics detailed above, is that of Jacob Milgrom in his commentary on Vayikra 2:9.  Here is what he says:

The presentation by the priest to the altar is an indispensable rite in the sacrificial procedure (see at I:5); but whereas only the burnt parts of the other offerings are presented to the altar, the entire cereal offering undergoes presentation to the altar even though only its “token” is burned. This is done to indicate
that the entire offering in reality belongs to God that he, by his (sic!) grace, has bestowed most of it as a perquisite on the priesthood. This point is stated explicitly in the priestly instructions: “I have assigned it (the cereal offering) as
their portion from my food gifts” (6:10; see 10:12-13; 24:9). Perhaps for this reason, as suggested by Abravanel, the priestly portion may not be eaten leavened (6:9-10) because, theoretically, all of it should he consumed on the altar on
which leaven is prohibited (v 11). In rabbinic terminology, haggasha is the technical term for the priestly presentation to the altar (m Menah. 5:5, 6).

That is, the mincha in general functions as a type of an olah.  It appears in Vayikra after the Torah lists the various olot in descending order of value: cows, sheep, and birds.  The Torah then states the laws of the free-will olah.  The implication is clear: this is a type of poor-person’s olah.  It is given of one’s total free will as a gift to God.  There is only one hitch.  The mincha is not totally given to God.  Its kometz is given to God, but the remainder is eaten by the Kohanim.

The solution to this is the hagasha.  By touching the mincha to the altar the Kohen indicates that it – like an olah – belongs fully on the altar.  It is as if it has been, in a virtual sense, offered on the altar.   When the Kohanim now eat the remnant of the mincha, this is to be seen as a form of the consumption of the altar, and not as merely food for the Kohanim.  Thus, says Abarbenel, the Kohanim cannot bake even the remnant into chametz, and then eat it, because this would be like offering chametz on the altar.

According to this, it is obvious why R. Shimon does not require hagasha for the mincha of Kohanim.  That mincha is fully burnt in actual fact.  Thus, it does not require the rite of hagasha to make it “viritually” offered on the altar.  Who needs virtual reality when you have the real thing?

The exclusion of the minchat nisakhim and the  lechem ha’panim is also understandable according to this.  The minchat nisakhim was never meant to be put on the altar, just to accompany the animal sacrifice.  Thus, no hagasha is necessary.  Similarly, the lechem ha’panim was never meant to function as a type of an olah, was never meant to be placed fully or even partially on the altar.  From the outset they were to be set before God and then eaten by the Kohanim, eaten as bread off of God’s table.  The משלחן גבוה קא זכו, the eating off of “God’s table” (Baba Kama 12b, Beitza 21a) that Kohanim normally do after a part of the sacrifice is offered on the altar, is here achieved by taking the bread literally off of God’s table, the shulkhan.  The frankincense that is offered is the only part that was ever intended to be offered.  No hagasha is needed, since this bread does not need to be treated as an olah, does not need to be placed literally or virtually on the altar.

The only mincha that does not work according to this model is the minchat chotei and, similarly, the minchat ke’na’ot.  These are not functioning as a type of an olah, and in the case of the former, and probably the latter as well, are functioning as a type of a chatat.  The purpose of hagasha here remains unclear.   Perhaps the nature of a mincha is such that even when serving as a chatat it should, in theory, be fully offered up.  When one brings an animal sacrifice, there is blood – the symbolic life-force – which is put on the altar.  This suffices in itself.  However, in the case of a mincha, all one is putting on the altar is flour.  Basic sustenance? Yes.  But life-force? No.  Thus, a mincha – even one serving as a chatat – can only be significant when offered fully on the altar.  And if it is not to be offered fully in actuality, then at least it needs to be so in a virtual sense- it requires the rite of hagasha.

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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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