Parshat Ki Tisa: The Shemen HaMishcha

“And make of it sacred oil for anointing as made by a skilled perfumer. It shall be sacred oil for anointing.” (Shemot 30:25)

The Mishcan, its utensils, Ahron and the other Kohanim were anointed with special oil. The anointing was a component of the process by which each was sanctified.

The Shemen HaMishcha – the Oil of Anointing – was created using two ingredients. These were olive oil and various fragrant spices. Maimonides explains that the spices were not added directly to the oil. Instead the spices were soaked in water. The water absorbed the fragrance of the spices. The oil was then added to the fragrant water. The water was boiled away leaving only the pure oil. However in the process of boiling off the water, the oil absorbed the fragrant odor of the spices.[1]

Why were the spices not ground and added directly to the oil? This would have been a simpler procedure! Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Ztl explained that the Torah is very specific in its terminology. In this case, the Torah requires that Oil of Anointing be created. This implies that the substance used for anointing be an oil. It must consist of this single ingredient. It may not be composed of various ingredients joined in a compound. However the Torah also requires that fragrant spices be used in creating the oil. How can these two opposing laws be fulfilled? The unique production process met both requirements. The Oil of Anointing was composed solely of the oil. The fragrance was added without adding an additional substance.[2]

“Between Me and Bnai Yisrael it is an eternal sign that in six days Hashem made the heavens and the earth. And on the seventh day he ceased and rested.” (Shemot 31:17)

Hashem commands Bnai Yisrael to observe Shabbat. Even the construction of the Mishcan cannot take place on Shabbat. Shabbat represents the creation of the universe in six days and the cessation of that process with the entry of the seventh day. This symbol of the creation was entrusted to the Jewish people.

The Talmud explains it is prohibited for a non-Jew to observe the Shabbat.[3] This prohibition seems odd. Shabbat represents one the most important truths. It would seem reasonable for the no-Jew to be encouraged to observe Shabbat. Through observance the non-Jew would confirm that the Almighty created the universe! What is the reason for this prohibition?

Rashi offers an interesting explanation. Through our labors we contribute to society. An idle person does not support or cultivate the world. Idleness should be avoided and constructive endeavors should be pursued. The non-Jew is not commanded to observe Shabbat. Therefore, the moral obligation to occupy oneself in constructive activities applies throughout the week.[4] This does not mean that it is immoral to enjoy an occasional vacation or period of relaxation. The prohibition is to set aide a specific day of the week which is regularly excluded from useful endeavor.

A different explanation is suggested by the Shabbat liturgy. The section of Chumash that includes our pasuk is included in the Shabbat morning Amidah. This section is followed by an explanatory paragraph. “And Hashem our God did not give it to the peoples of the land. And our King did not bequeath it to those worshipping idols. In addition, the uncircumcised may not take part in our day of rest. Rather to Israel, His nation, He gave it, with love.” What is the message of this paragraph?

Shabbat was created as a constant reminder of creation. However, the responsibility of observing Shabbat and demonstrating the truth of creation was not placed upon all of humanity. The Almighty chose Bnai Yisrael. The Jewish people was given the Torah and the duty of Shabbat observance. We are to teach humanity through our actions and observances. This selection of the Jewish people is the essence of our covenant with Hashem. This is a special relationship with Hashem that does not extent to the other peoples of the world.

Viewed from this perspective, Shabbat does not only represents creation. It is symbolic of the covenant between Hashem and Bnai Yisrael. This seems to be the message of the Amidah.

Now let us return to our original question. Why can the non-Jew not observe Shabbat? The Amidah suggests an important consideration. Observance of Shabbat is an expression of the unique relationship between Bnai Yisrael and Hashem. This association does not extend to the non-Jew. The non-Jew observing Shabbat is assuming a responsibility assigned to the Jewish people and denying the distinct role of the Jewish nation.

“And Hashem passed before him and He proclaimed, “Hashem, Hashem Omnipotent, merciful and kind. He is slow to anger and is abundant in kindness and truth.” (Shemot 34:6)

Our pasuk introduces one of the most profound prophecies revealed to Moshe. In this prophecy, Hashem reveals to Moshe His thirteen midot – attributes. Among these attributes is that Hashem is merciful and slow to anger.

This pasuk presents an apparent problem. One of the fundamental principles of the Torah is that Hashem is an absolute unity. Every day we declare our acceptance of this principle in the Shema. We say that Hashem is one. This does not merely mean that there is only one G-d. This statement means that Hashem is an absolute unity. He has no parts.

It is inadequate to merely enunciate this principle. This is a basic principle of our Torah. We cannot claim affinity to this truth without understanding its meaning. We must appreciate the meaning of Hashem’s absolute unity.

Maimonides discusses the meaning of this unity in his commentary on the Mishne. He explains that Hashem’s unity is unique. There is no other example of absolute unity. He cannot be compared to a single entity that is a compound. A compound has components or elements that join to create the whole. He cannot be compared to an elemental unit. This unit has dimensions or aspects. Imagine a block of pure metal. The block has a back and front.[5] In his Mishne Torah, Maimonides adds that this concept of unity precludes attribution of any characteristic to the Almighty. The attribution of any characteristic compromises the absolute unity of Hashem. This is because Hahsem would possess the characteristic. By definition, a distinction would exist between Hashem and the characteristic He possesses. This is impossible.[6]

An example will help illustrate the problem. Let us assume that a certain individual – Reuven – is merciful. This means that Reuven possesses the characteristic of mercy. Reuven is not mercy. Mercy is a characteristic that Reuven possesses. Reuven and the characteristic are separate. In the same sense, it seems impossible to ascribe the characteristic of mercy to Hashem and simultaneously declare His absolute unity!

We can now identify the problem presented by our passage and the thirteen midot. The term midot is translated as characteristics. How can the Torah attribute characteristics to the Almighty? How can the Torah describe Hashem as merciful or slow to anger? This contradicts the assertion that the Almighty is an absolute unity.

Our Sages provide a solution to this problem. Maimonides, in his Moreh Nevuchim, discusses the solution thoroughly. He explains that it is not the Torah’s intent to ascribe actual attributes or characteristics to the Almighty. Hashem is an absolute unity. He does not posses attributes or characteristics. Instead, the Torah is describing the various patterns of behavior that we observe.[7] A simple example will illustrate this concept. Imagine a flame. A chip of ice is passed before the flame and it melts. A piece of thin paper is passed before the flame and it ignites. A hand hovers over the flame and it senses heat or even pain. These various outcomes are not the consequence of different characteristics of the flame. Instead, the effect of the single flame varies. The material that is passed before the flame determines the effect. In a similar sense, the Almighty is a single absolute unity. However, under various circumstances, different patterns of action emerge from this entity.[8] The Torah is describing these patterns of behavior. In other words, the Torah is describing our perceptions. The Torah is not defining the nature of Hashem.

It is important to note that there is an alternative approach to resolving the contradiction between absolute unity and characteristics. One might be tempted to resolve this problem through asserting that Hashem is an absolute unity but, in some unfathomable manner, He possesses attributes. Nachmanides deals with this issue. He explains that this approach is fundamentally flawed. It is not acceptable. We are required to do more than pronounce Hashem’s unity. We must adopt this conviction. It is impossible for a person to actually accept the concept of absolute unity and simultaneously assert that Hashem has characteristics. Such a paradoxical set of convictions is meaningless. The concept of unity is reduced to a meaningless phrase. Instead, we must understand the concept of unity and dismiss any attribution of characteristics as alien to this concept. Nachmanides succinctly states that one cannot affirm that which is not understood![9]

[1] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Klai Mikdash 1:2.

[2] Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, Lectures on Mesechet Keritut.

[3] Mesechet Sanhedrin 58b.

[4] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on the Talmud, Mesechet Sanhedrin 58b.

[5] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Commentary on the Mishne, Mesechet Sanhedrin, 10:1.

[6] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Yesodai HaTorah 1:7.

[7] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Moreh Nevuchim, volume 1, chapter 54.

[8] Illustration provided by Rav Yisroel Chait.

[9] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Vikuach / Milchamot Hashem, chapters 105-107.