Parshat Ki Tisa: The Anointing Oil

“And you, take for yourself spices of the finest sort: of pure myrrh five hundred [shekel weights]; of fragrant cinnamon half of it two hundred and fifty [shekel weights]; of fragrant cane two hundred and fifty [shekel weights].” (Shemot 30:23)

The laws regarding the construction of the Mishcan – the Tabernacle – compose one of the most fascinating areas of halacha – Jewish law. This week’s portion discusses the creation of the Shemen HaMishchah – the oil of anointing. The process of appointing a Kohen Gadol – a high priest – included being anointed with this oil. The original components created for the Mishcan were anointed with this oil. Some of the kings of Bnai Yisrael were anointed with this oil. In our pasuk, Moshe is commanded to create this oil. The pasuk also lists various ingredients that are included in this fragrant oil.

The Torah is an immense system of law that impacts virtually every aspect of personal, communal and national life. However, the multitude of individual laws is subsumed within Taryag mitzvot – six-hundred thirteen commandments. For example, the Torah tells us that we must honor our parents. This is a commandment. There are many laws that define the manner in which we are obligated to express this honor. These laws are all subsumed within the single mitzvah to honor our parents. The Torah does not expressly provide a list of the Taryag mitzvot. However, various scholars have suggested possible lists of the 613 commandments. It is not easy to compose such a list. The scholar must first develop a set of criteria for defining a mitzvah. Only after these criteria have been delineated, can the scholar develop a list of commandments.

One of the most famous lists of the 613 mitzvot was developed by Maimonides. His list is the subject of his Sefer HaMitzvot. Maimonides provides an extensive introduction to his list. In this introduction, he identifies fourteen criteria for defining mitzvot. For example, one criterion is that Taryag mitzvot only includes those commandments that are specifically included in the Torah. Any obligations or prohibitions established by the Sages are not included in the list.[1] Therefore, the obligation to observe Purim cannot be included. Another criterion is that only obligations that apply for all generations are included in the 613 commandments. But obligations or prohibitions that were commanded by Hashem for a specific moment in history are not included in Taryag mitzvot. Although, at Revelation, only Moshe was commanded to ascend Sinai and the rest of the nation was forbidden from ascending or approaching the mountain, these instructions cannot be included in Taryag mitzvot. These instructions were intended for a specific moment in time – Revelation.[2]

Maimonides’ tenth principle is that it is not appropriate to count as mitzvot obligations that are prerequisites or preliminary steps in the fulfillment of some greater objective. Maimonides offers a number of examples that illustrate the application of this principle. One example deals with our passage. Maimonides explains that Hashem’s instructions to Moshe regarding the creation of the Shemen HaMishchah cannot be counted as one of the 613 commandments. This is because the Shemen HaMishchah is only created in order to accomplish a more fundamental objective. This objective is the actual anointing of the Kohen Gadol, the original components of the Mishcan and some kings. The mitzvah of Shemen HaMishchah is to anoint the appropriate individuals and the components of the Mishcan. The instructions to Moshe for the creating of the Shemen HaMishchah should be regarded as a prerequisite, or preliminary step, to this mitzvah.

There are a number of problems with these comments. The most obvious of these difficulties is identified by Kinat Soferim. In his code of law – Mishne Torah – Maimonides introduces each section with a brief list of the mitzvot that will be discussed in the section. The first mitzvah listed in his introduction to the laws regarding the vessels of the Bait HaMikdash is “to create Shemen HaMishchah.” Kinat Soferim objects that this formulation of the commandment regarding Shemen HaMishchah directly contradicts Maimonides’ comments in his Sefer HaMitzvot. There, Maimonides argues that the sole commandment regarding the Shemen is to use it for anointing. Creation of the oil is regarded as a prerequisite to this objective. However, in his Mishne Torah, Maimonides identifies the creation of the Shemen as the fundamental element of its mitzvah.[3]

There is an even more obvious question that Kinat Soferim does not ask. In his tenth principle, Maimonides explains that the mitzvah regarding the Shemen HaMishchah is to use it for anointing. However, in the actual list of commandments in Sefer HaMitzvot, Maimonides suggests an alternative definition for the mitzvah regarding the Shemen. He writes that the mitzvah regarding the Shemen is to have it available for use when needed.[4]

In short, Maimonides offers three different formulations of the mitzvah regarding Shemen HaMishchah. In the discussion of his tenth principle, he explains that the commandment is to use the oil for anointing. He insists that the creation of the Shemen HaMishchah cannot be the fundamental element of the mitzvah. In his Mishne Torah, Maimonides defines the mitzvah as the creation of the Shemen. Finally, in his actual enumeration of the mitzvot in Sefer HaMitzvot, he states that the commandment regarding the Shemen is that it should be available for use as needed.

Kinat Soferim does not note the discrepancy in Sefer HaMitzvot between the definition of the mitzvah of the Shemen suggested in the tenth principle and the definition offered in the actual enumeration of the commandments. This suggests an important inference. Kinat Soferim does not acknowledge the difference between these two definitions. He maintains that the two formulations are really alternative expressions of the same idea; they are the same idea viewed from two perspectives. This is difficult to understand. Anointing with the oil and having the Shemen available for anointing seem to be different ideas. How can Kinat Soferim regard these two formulations as alternative expressions of the same idea?

Kinat Soferim is suggesting an important subtlety in Maimonides’ position. An object can be defined by its physical characteristics. It can also be defined by its objective or purpose. For example, we can define a pencil as an object that is composed of a thin stick of graphite encased in a tube of wood. Alternatively, we can define an object by its purpose. A pencil can be defined as an implement designed for writing. Sometimes, both of these methods can be combined to define an object. According to Maimonides, Shemen HaMishcheh is defined by both of these means. It is a material substance. Its ingredients are essential to its definition. But, this oil is referred to Shemen HaMishchah – oil of anointing. This name is not just a convenient means of identification. The name communicates that the oil is designated for a specific purpose and that this purpose is part of the fundamental definition of the oil. The oil must be used for the anointing. If it is not used for this purpose, it does not meet the definition of Shemen HaMishcheh.

This formulation has important ramifications. Assume a Kohen Gadol is appointed and the available Shemen HaMishchah is not used. What mitzvah is violated through this omission? Obviously, the Kohen has not been properly appointed. But according to Maimonides, there is an additional issue. The mitzvah of Shemen HaMishchah has been violated. The Shemen has not been used for its designated purpose. Therefore, the commandment to have the Shemen available for anointing can be described as an obligation to use the oil for anointing. This purpose is an essential element of the definition of the Shemen! In other words, the use of the oil does not fulfill an independent commandment to appoint people properly. It is a fulfillment of the commandment to have the Shemen HaMishchah available for its proper and designated use. When the oil is used, the mitzvah of Shemen HaMishchah is fulfilled. With its use, the Shemen fulfills its design and purpose.

This insight resolves explains another nuance on Maimonides’ treatment of the Shemen HaMishchah. Part of the process of appointing a Kohen Gadol is his anointing with Shemen HaMishchah. We would expect Maimonides to explain the process of anointing the Kohen Gadol in his discussion of his appointment. However, in discussing the appointment of the Kohen Gadol, Maimonides merely mentions that anointing is required. The details of the process are not mentioned. Where does Maimonides discuss the details of the process? This discussion is included in the laws regarding the Shemen HaMishchah. Why does Maimonides discuss these details in this context? Maimonides maintains that the details of how the Shemen is used are part of the mitzvah of Shemen HaMishchah. The oil – by definition – is designated specifically for anointing. When the anointing is performed properly, the mitzvah of Shemen HaMishchah is fulfilled. Therefore, the details of the process of anointing are included in the laws of the Shemen HaMishchah.

One question remains. How can Maimonides state in his Mishne Torah that the mitzvah of the Shemen is its creation? In Sefer HaMitzvot, Maimonides explicitly rejected this formulation!

Kinat Soferim suggests an interesting interpretation of the tenth principle. Maimonides explains that instructions that are prerequisites for the fulfillment of a mitzvah are not to be counted as a mitzvah. But what is the status of these instructions? After all, they are legal requirements. Are they merely practical measures that must be undertaken to fulfill a mitzvah or are they subsumed within the mitzvah they facilitate? Kinat Soferim suggests that a prerequisite is not a separate mitzvah. But it may be part of the mitzvah that it facilitates. In our instance, the creation of the Shemen HaMishchah is part of the commandment to have the Shemen available. In his Mishne Torah, Maimonides is not stating that the commandment of the Shemen is merely to make it. The commandment is to bring it into existence so that it will be available.[5] In other words, Maimonides consistently maintains that the fundamental mitzvah regarding the Shemen is that it should be available. But, in Mishne Torah, he is explaining that part of the mitzvah is the process of creating this availability.

Kinat Soferim’s comments do resolve the apparent contradiction between Mishne Torah and Sefer HaMitzvot. Nonetheless, it is interesting that in his Mishne Torah, Maimonides focuses on an element of the mitzvah that is de-emphasized in his Sefer HaMitzvot. Kinat Soferim does not address this issue.

In short, the mitzvah of Shemen HaMishchah has three components: an action, an outcome, and a purpose. These are all components of the mitzvah. The action is the creation of the Shemen — creating the state of availability. Maimonides explains that this action cannot be counted as a separate mitzvah. It is performed in order to produce an outcome – the state of availability. The required outcome is that Shemen must be available. Finally, this Shemen has a purpose that is fundamental to its definition. It is designated to be used for all required anointing.

[1] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Sefer HaMitzvot, Principle 1.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Sefer HaMitzvot, Principle 3.

[3] Rav Chanaya Kazis, Kinat Soferim, Commentary on Maimonides’ Sefer Hamitzvot, Principle 10.

[4] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat Aseh 34.

[5] Rav Chanaya Kazis, Kinat Soferim, Commentary on Maimonides’ Sefer Hamitzvot, Principle 10.