This week’s parasha includes the commandment for the קטרת, the incense:
Note that there are only 4 ingredients specified, with סמים mentioned twice.
We’re all familiar with the gemara’s summary of the ingredients in the קטרת::
Now, four of these are the ones listed in the Torah (two are translated into Mishnaic Hebrew):
Where do the other seven spices come from?
The Rambam and Rashi explain that all the ingredients are מצוות דאוריתא, though they may disagree on whether the details are derived from the text or are simply part of the מסורת—הלכה למשה מסיניי:
This is our standard model of how הלכה works: There are מצוות דאוריתא, that Moshe got at Sinai, and מצוות דרבנן, that חז״ל instituted over the ensuing generations. Here is how the Rambam puts it in the introduction to the Mishna:
However, the Ramban takes a very different approach:
This actually seems radical: ה׳ gave a מצוה but explicitly left a lacuna in the law to be filled by human beings: ועשית אתה קטרת. This isn’t a תקנה applied later by חז״ל; this is an inherent part of the law as the expressed will of G-d. ה׳ is saying, “I’m not going to decide this—you do it”. It’s not left optional, as a דבר רשות, but the Torah says to create a מצוה דרבנן to cover it.
This idea is actually explicit in the Gemara in another case, from another pasuk in our parasha:
What does את חג המצות תשמר? This is not (שמות יב:יז) ושמרתם את המצות; this is the commandment about the חג. The word שמירה has a specific meaning:
The gemara concludes that מלאכה is forbidden all seven days of יום טוב:
But the ספרא concludes from other פסוקים that this can’t be right:
What does מלאכת עבודה mean?
The Torah goes out of its way to avoid defining מלאכת עבודה. It is explicitly given to human beings to define. We need to expand our model to include a מצוה דאוריתא that obligates us to create a מצוה דרבנן.
The Maharal explains:
ה׳ leaves these lacunae in the Torah for us to fill, just like He creates laws of nature that seem to take Him out of the picture. It’s part of what gives us as human beings room to exist in our own right.
But why the קטרת specifically? I don’t know. But I can hypothesize:
The מצוה of קטרת is one of the few that are introduced with ויאמר ה׳ אל משה instead of וידבר ה׳ אל משה. That implies it’s a less harsh, less strict kind of מצוה:
The Ramban explains that the purpose of the קטרת is to protect us in our relationship with ה׳. It’s the ritual re-enactment of the ענן that covered הר סיני (see Rabbi Leibtag’s shiur on Tzaveh).
The קטרת protects us from the ineffable experience of the divine, (שמות לג:כ) לא יראני האדם וחי. It’s only appropriate that we (as finite human beings) be a part of that.
And more than that: everyone has to be a part of the קטרת:
We do not have the קטרת today, but our תפילות serve that purpose and give us a role in determining the nature of our relationship with הקב״ה.
A nice coda from Dan Margulies (a student at YCT):