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Mention of the golden altar is separated from most of the other constructed vessels of the Tabernacle by a description of the clothing of the priests and the process of their ordination.

Nahmanides notices this peculiarity and explains it as follows (attempting a sound translation):

Behold the altar of the incense was from the inner vessels, it is fitting that it should mention it with the table and the candelabra, for the mizbe'ach was with them, and so did it mention them during the construction in the portion Vayakhel. But the reason to mention it here after the Tabernacle and all its vessels and the sacrifices, is on account of its saying at the culmination of it all, 'and be sanctified through My glory... And I shall dwell amongst the children of Israel', it says that the obligation is still upon them that they should make and altar for the burning of incense, to burn for the glory of Gd...

(There is more in Nahmanides' writing starting here, which I am sure is where the truth lies that I am failing to pick up on.)

At a cursory glance, the reason its mentioned here is: because Gd mentions His dwelling amongst us, He informs us that there is one more thing for us to make for Him... But how does this answer the question? It doesn't seem to address at all why the golden altar should be mentioned separately. What am I missing?

Thank you for your thoughts!

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2 Answers 2

The continuation of the Ramban is needed to understand his explanation. He is saying that since once the Mishkan is completed the Glory of Hashem will dwell there, there will be in the Mishkan a preponderance of the Attribute of Strict Justice (this is what is meant by the Glory of Hashem according the Ramban), but the burning of the incense will quell the Divine anger as we see from the incident when the incense stopped the plague.

This is why the instruction concerning the golden altar is placed after everything else, because the need for it is a consequence of the Shechinah dwelling there which will happen after everything else is completed.

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+1, thank you so much! –  Baby Seal Feb 10 at 0:27
up vote 0 down vote accepted

I spoke about this with my friend and he said something that I feel cogently brings together all of Nahmanides' citations, which I will list:

  • The incense stops the plague (Shabbos 89a)
  • The incense is with the attribute of judgement,They shall place incense in your nostrils (Deut. 33:10), and And my nostrils shall flare (31:17).
  • By the foreign incense Before the entire nation I shall be honored (Lev. 10:3). That they should know my glory for he shall not bear your sins, and be careful with my glory.
  • Excessive detail in the verse about being opposite the lid of the Ark, the Shechina's resting place.

On the one hand, we see the incense stopping the plague as an agent of mercy, on the other hand we see it as a part of the attribute of judgement. This seems a contradiction in and of itself.

My friend said that the incense is representative of the glorification of Gd through His Judgement, so we must be very careful with it, as it is fastidiously policed and serves as a substitute for more severe, overt judgement. It is for this reason that it stops the plague. By burning the incense, we cause a revelation of Gd's glory in judgement, which consequently removes the need for the plague.

So the golden incense altar is mentioned in connection with Gd's dwelling in Glory in the Tabernacle at the end of its construction to draw this parallel. It shows that the incense is 'opposite the place of His dwelling', and intimately intertwined with what that dwelling means regarding His Glorious Judgement, as He now resides in the Tabernacle amongst us.

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