Author Archives: Rabbi Joshua Heller

Rabbi Joshua Heller

About Rabbi Joshua Heller

Rabbi Joshua Heller is the rabbi at Congregation B'nai Torah in Atlanta, GA. Previous to that, he served as director of the Distance Learning Program at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Surrogate Judaism

Provided by the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative rabbinical seminary and university of Jewish studies.

This week’s parashah, Naso, includes one of Judaism’s most time-honored liturgical texts, the priestly blessing:

"May Adonai bless you and keep you

May Adonai cause His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you

May Adonai turn His face towards you, and grant you peace"
 (Numbers 6:24-26).

These three short, beautiful verses, which God commanded Aaron and his sons to use to bless the Jewish people with the gift of God’s presence, indeed God’s face, are deeply ingrained in Jewish cultural memory. They also pose some important questions about the balance between the value of personal participation and the role intermediaries play in religious life.

An Old Blessing

The verses of the priestly blessing are certainly among the oldest in continuous liturgical use. Archaeological evidence confirms their use even in the biblical period–their words were etched on silver scrolls found in tombs from the seventh century BCE. By the time of the Second Temple, their place in the ritual was confirmed as part of a series of blessings recited after the morning sacrifice (Mishnah Tamid 5:1), and, it is believed by many scholars to be one of the nuclei around which the current liturgical framework of the Amidah [the "standing" prayer] coalesced.

Of course, in the ancient temple, many essential daily and lifecycle rituals required the involvement of an intricate infrastructure of Kohanim (priests) and Levites, but with its destruction, most of these rituals fell into desuetude, leaving ritual far more in the hands of the individual. A huge class of intermediaries was eliminated. Rabbis and cantors took on the role as a substitute system of religious leadership, but in truth, even many of the rituals which are reserved for them by common practice or in deference to civil law are in fact technically valid if performed without benefit of clergy. 

Economic Justice for Insiders and Outsiders

Reprinted with permission of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Chapter 25 of Vayikra, which makes up the bulk of parashat B’har, deals with essential laws of economic justice in an agrarian society. No member of the Jewish people may be relegated to lifelong slavery or landless serfdom. Ancestral plots are not to be sold out of the family forever, but rather returned in the Jubilee year. Even though slavery is permitted, a Jewish slave must go free in the seventh year. One may not cheat another in selling or buying, nor earn a profit at the expense of one in need by charging him interest. And yet, there are troubling limits to the scope of this ethical tradition.

These noble sentiments are both magnified and circumscribed by the language used to convey them. Terms like amitekha, your neighbor, ahikha, your brother, and related forms appear more than 14 times in this chapter. To some extent, they serve to remind the reader for the reason of these commandments–one must see others not through the impersonal lens of dollars or shekels but as members of a community, of a common family. They also serve a more troubling role, as they appear to limit the scope of the commandments to one’s interactions with one’s fellow Jews, to the exclusion of non-Jews.

This distinction reflects an essential tension found throughout the Biblical text and the Jewish ethical tradition that flows from it, between the universal and the particular. The Bible repeatedly demands legal fairness, charity, even love, for the stranger, the foreigner. And yet in many other cases, either the plain sense of the text, or voices of rabbinic interpretation, demarcate the boundaries of the Jewish legal system to exclude the rights or property of non-Jews. This trend within Jewish legal thought is not only troubling in the abstract, but also has at times been a negative factor in the relations between Jews and their neighbors.

To take one example with historical resonance–one Jew may not lend another money at interest (Leviticus 25:35-37) or pursue a loan after the sabbatical year, which cancels all debts. However, these restrictions do not apply to loans to non-Jews. Christians in many parts of medieval Europe applied the Biblical verses in a parallel way to lending in their own communities, creating a reliance on outsiders, like Jews, for loans. By furthermore excluding Jews from trades and land ownership, they created an environment in which money lending and finance became important, if not stereotypical, economic activities for some Jews in those areas.

The literary shadow of [Shakespeare’s character] Shylock haunted Jews for generations, but has lost much of its power in a modern economy built on consumer credit. The Biblical commandment was intended to apply in situations of poverty, "if your kinsman is in dire straits"(Leviticus 25:35), and not to commercial loans or financing of luxury purchases, and modern sensitivities follow the same trend. There is, and should be, opprobrium applied to lenders who prey on the indigent living from paycheck to paycheck, but mortgages, student and car loans make it possible for many to enjoy a more comfortable lifestyle than would otherwise be possible. They are not poor substitutes for charity, but aids to luxury.

A more difficult example arises from the verse "When you sell property to your neighbor, or buy from the hand of your neighbor, a man shall not wrong (al tonu) his brother" (Leviticus 25:14, my translation), words that prohibit one from charging an unfair price in real estate transactions. The Talmud (Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 47b) uses the word "the hand" in the verse to expand its meaning beyond real estate to prohibit price gouging in transactions of movable goods, which pass"from hand to hand." In fact, it goes even further (Bava Metziah58b), taking a parallel verse (Leviticus 25:17) as a reminder that it is forbidden to "cheat with words" even if no money is exchanged, so that one may not ask a merchant the price of something that one does not intend to purchase, or remind a repentant sinner of his previous misdeeds.

At the same time, the same words "brother" and"neighbor" are used to limit the commandment to transactions within the Jewish community. Interpreting those words, the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud Bekhorot13b) assumes that there is no similar penalty for overcharging or otherwise cheating non-Jews. Other texts (like Bava Kama 113a-b) go even further in their reading of this and other passages. They entertain the possibility one is not obligated to return a lost object to a non-Jew, or to pay taxes to the civil authorities. Perhaps it is permitted to steal from gentiles outright?

Sages in many generations and countries, from the Talmudic sages through medieval scholars like Maimonides and the early German pietist Judah Hehasid, and even contemporary writers, have felt the need to address the question with the strongest possible rhetoric. Codified Jewish law prohibits engaging in intentional fraud or theft, irrespective of the victim’s religion,as well as evading taxes that are set by a legitimate government.

Despite the objections and stipulations of many sages and teachers, this justificatory theme survived in Jewish legal texts and folkways,and persists even today among the unscrupulous. Sometimes, the context is relatively innocuous. There are plenty of retail businesses where a landtzman [fellow Jew] might be spared the markups or spurious extras that a typical customer would expect as part of the hard sell. In other cases, it is more insidious. For instance, within certain circles there is no moral stigma attached to defrauding the secular government of this country, or even that of Israel, in support of institutions that would otherwise be circumspect about the smallest point in Jewish law.

One factor which is often blamed for this unfortunate trend is a desire to overcome the real and perceived disadvantages that Jews faced as a minority culture. If, during times of severe persecution, oppressed Jews had to deceive their neighbors in order to observe their faith, would it not be difficult to condemn the same types of practices in other aspects of their lives?

If members of the surrounding culture took "finders keepers, losers weepers" as their social norm, would it not be an undue burden to hold to ourselves to a higher standard? When taxes were levied arbitrarily, even punitively, by local functionaries, was it wrong to conceal hard-earned assets? In a case where a Jew and a non-Jew had a legal dispute,the Jewish courts would have no jurisdiction, and the gentile courts might or might not be predisposed to rule equitably. Why not wink at the opportunity to take matters into one’s own hands?

Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Akiva each address this last question in the Talmudic discussion. Rabbi Ishmael suggests that in such a situation it is appropriate to use akifin (subterfuges) to accomplish what could not be accomplished through the legal system. Rabbi Akiva responds that one may not do so, even if one believes that one is entitled to do so,because it would lead to a desecration of the divine name. If the Jews are God’s people, then even the perception of wrongdoing reflects negatively not only on one’s own reputation, or that of entire community, but on God’s holy name itself.

Therefore, the Talmudic ruling follows Rabbi Akiva. We may use the fullest extent of Jewish or secular law to press our claims, but we may not go beyond it at the expense of others, and in fact must show even greater rectitude than interpretation might allow. Even if the narrowest reading of the Torah would not obligate a Jew to return a lost object to a gentile, or would not penalize someone who engaged in deceptive practices against them, God demands more. Sometimes imbalances of power make it difficult for us to think of others using the term ahikha, "your brother," but in such cases we must still apply the term amitekha, "your neighbor."The sanctification of God’s name demands no less.

The Kosher Turkey Debate

Provided by the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative rabbinical seminary and university of Jewish studies.

This week’s Parashah, Re’eh, contains a wonderful juxtaposition of mitzvot, which, when taken together, provide an insight into how Jews deal with novel situations and the disagreements that arise from them, and also allows me to share a peculiarity of my own family history. One of the commandments which the Jewish people have found most difficult to follow in practice is found in Deuteronomy 14:1: “lo titgodedu.” The plain sense of the verse is “You should not gash yourselves… because of the dead.” One must avoid pagan mourning customs that include self-mutilation. The rabbinic interpretation of the verse, however, is that Jews should not form themselves into multiple subgroups “agudot agudot” (B. Yevamot 13b) each following a different understanding of the law. Therefore, there should not be two Jewish courts in one city, one permitting a particular practice, the other forbidding it.

All of this brings us to the humble turkey. For most families, disagreements over turkey fall into simple categories like who gets the drumstick, the lumpiness of the gravy, or whose parents to go to for Thanksgiving. For my family, (and the Jewish family as a whole, really) the issues are weightier than one might expect.

Kosher Animals

The next verses of Deuteronomy 14 take as their main theme the laws of kosher animals. These laws have already been stated in Leviticus, but take on new relevance in Deuteronomy as the Israelites are about to enter the land of Israel and will now be permitted to eat meat more freely than they could in the desert (Deuteronomy 12:20).

For certain types of animals, the Bible provides specific examples and criteria. For instance, Deuteronomy 14:4-5 lists the kosher land mammals, and goes on to explain that they must chew their cud and have split hooves. Just to be sure, the text also lists those animals like the pig and the camel that one might mistakenly believe to be kosher because they have one of these characteristics and not the other. Kosher fish are not listed by name, but must have fins and scales. Therefore, if one were to encounter a new species of fish or mammal, one could usually tell by simple examination whether the species is kosher or not.

The situation with birds is more complicated. The Bible says (Deuteronomy 14:11) “You may eat any clean bird.” One might then expect a set of characteristics, or a list of species, but in fact the Bible does not provide any way to identify an edible bird. Instead, it goes on to list 20 specific types and families of non-kosher birds, plus the bat for good measure, expanded to 24 non-kosher birds in total in accordance with rabbinic interpretation of the phrase “and their kind.”

This particular presentation of the law leaves many open questions. Does that mean that all other birds are to be considered kosher? Given the vagaries of the biblical language and ancient ornithology, how can we be absolutely sure that a particular bird is not in fact a member of one of the non-kosher families?

The sages of the Mishnah (M. Hullin 3:6), presented with new birds that were unfamiliar to their ancestors, listed four criteria for making these determinations. To confirm kosher status, birds must have certain physiological features: an extra toe, a crop and a gizzard which is easy to peel. There is also a behavioral criterion, namely that kosher birds may not be dores (display certain types of predatory behavior).

Some sages, like Rashi, were concerned that these criteria were insufficient. There had been incidents, even going back to the days of the Talmud (B. Hullin 62b) where people had encountered a new type of bird, and assumed it was kosher based on the first three criteria. It was only after some time had passed that they realized that the bird was a predator and therefore not kosher. Rashi and others who followed him therefore decreed that only birds for which there was a masoret (an unbroken, reliable tradition) could be considered kosher, and any new birds subsequently discovered would be considered off limits.

Turkey in Europe

Fast-forward to the 1500s, as the turkey, which was native to the Americas, was first brought back to Europe by the early explorers of the New World. Would this new bird, never before seen by Europeans, be accepted as kosher? Eventually, the majority of European Jews did accept it, but the process by which this acceptance came about is unclear.

For indeed, while many sages of that era used the four signs enumerated by the sages of the Mishnah, some of the most prominent rabbis of the period, including Rabbi Moses Isserles, (Mapah on Shulhan Arukh YD82:3) were firmly in Rashi’s camp, and rejected the possibility of any new birds being kosher. And yet, neither he nor his contemporaries mentioned this particular new bird by name.

By the time the turkey appeared in Jewish legal literature, in the 1700s, the issue had more-or-less been decided, with only a few vociferous holdouts. In fact, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s 2001 statistics, Israelis now eat more turkey per capita than residents of any other country in the world!

The question is of personal interest for me as well. Rabbi Yom-Tov Lippman Heller (1579-1654), was a prominent sage in the generation after Isserles. He is best-known for his commentary on the Mishnah called the Tosafot Yom-Tov, and is often referred to by the name of his book, rather than his given name. Many of his descendants hold fast to a family tradition that he was among the early sages who declared the turkey to be non-kosher. Indeed, I have distant cousins who to this day satisfy their Thanksgiving obligations with a brisket and a chocolate turkey.

The tradition relates that my ancestor realized that he would be outvoted by majority practice, but felt so strongly that he was in the right that he instructed his family to retain a higher standard. However, my own branch of the family has a counter-tradition rejecting this practice. I have searched my ancestor’s writings on the topic of unkosher birds, and though he follows the rulings of Rashi and Isserles, he too never refers to the bird by name.

If he felt strongly enough about this issue to command his descendants, why did he not include any of the Hebrew names for turkey in his writings? Is it possible that, as my father said, passing down the family lore along with the cranberry sauce, that the family tradition is a hoax and “The Tosafot Yom Tov never even saw a turkey”?

I therefore face an unusual November dilemma every year. Do I follow a more general family tradition, which is at variance with conventional Jewish practice, or follow instead the counter-tradition passed down from my own branch of the Heller clan, which is to disregard that restriction? Perhaps, in addition to meat, milk and Passover dishes, I need to purchase a fifth set just for Thanksgiving? Or do I just give up and go to my in-laws?

This tale of the turkey is more than just an amusing footnote in the annals of Jewish law and a quirk in my family tree. It also raises some important questions about how we, as Jews, grapple with disagreements over law. Historically, the commandment of “Lo titgodedu” (do not divide into rival groups) has been observed primarily in the breach.

In every era, groups of Jews who were equally committed to the vitality and continuity of Jewish life, have disagreed over matters of religious practice. This includes the Babylonians and Jews from the land of Israel, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, Hassidim and their opponents, and now the various movements and even competing groups within them.

In some cases (for instance, eating corn and rice on Passover, or the observance of one day of yom tov in the land of Israel, and two days in the Diaspora), the differences in practice have themselves been codified, so that an individual who normally follows one ruling would know what to do when spending time in a community that followed different practices.

In many other cases, from the completely trivial to the most essential, Jews have not been able to reach consensus on common practices and principles. The process of creating an environment where Jews from different backgrounds can even eat together, let alone pray together, can sometimes be daunting. Some may feel, like the Tosafot Yom Tov, that we cannot accept a particular practice or opinion nor follow it, even though it has become generally accepted practice. Such situations have a way of resolving themselves over time. One variant, whether the permissive one or the restrictive one, becomes the norm, while the other is ultimately discarded, or else the tradition will eventually incorporate both alternatives and mediate between those who accept each.

It is vital, though, in the interim, that Jews retain the ability to “talk turkey” with those who observe differently, so that we remain one people, more than the sum of our parts, rather than disconnected sects, “agudot agudot.”

Balancing the Needs of Home and Community

Provided by the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative rabbinical seminary and university of Jewish studies. Reprinted with permission of the

Ever since I was a child, I’ve struggled with a fundamental question about Abraham’s personality, a question which is posed by this week’s parashah, Vayera. When God comes to Abraham to inform him that the city of Sodom is to be destroyed for its wickedness, Abraham responds aggressively by shaming God into agreeing to spare the city if 50 righteous can be found within it, saying,”Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Genesis 18:25). Then, with a bargaining style that would be the envy of any used-car buyer, teenager, or trial lawyer, he lowers the number to 45, to 30, to 20, to 10.

Abraham Takes Orders

In contrast, when God comes to Abraham and commands him,”Take your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and offer him as a burnt offering” (Genesis 22:2), Abraham does not respond and heads off to do God’s will. How could Abraham care so deeply for strangers, and not fight for the life of his own son?

abraham and isaacI stand further in awe of the zeal and single-mindedness that Abraham brings to his assignment. Rather than prolonging good-byes, he does not delay–arising and setting out first thing in the morning, and attending to many details himself. When God summons Abraham to offer up his son, (Genesis 22:1) God calls his name once, and Abraham responds “hinneni”–here I am. In contrast, when God’s messenger calls upon Abraham to stop, at the last moment, (22:11), it is with a two fold repetition, “Abraham, Abraham”–Abraham must be asked only once to raise the knife, but twice before he will stay it.

I think the sages were trying to soften that perception when they re-imagined each phrase of God’s command to Abraham as one side of a conversation, with Abraham taking the other side (Sanhedrin 89b):

“Take your son”

“But I have two sons!”

“Your only son”–

“This one is the only child of his mother, and this is the only child of his mother.”

“Whom you love”–

“I love both of my sons.”


And Abraham is unable to respond further.

Trusting in God

The tone of this conversation sharpens the question in a different way, because it puts these events into the context of Abraham’s treatment of his older son. When Sarah demands that Ishmael be sent away after Isaac is born, Abraham is deeply distressed. It is only after God reassures him that all will be well with his eldest son that Abraham sends him off to risk death in the dangerous desert.

There are many approaches to the resolution of this paradox.For instance, many Jewish sources (e.g. Pirkei Avot 5:3) understand thatthe banishment of Ishmael and the binding of Isaac were the culmination ofGod’s 10 “tests” of Abraham’s faith. Some would argue that seen in this context, the changing responses show a progression of deepening faith.

Should We Argue Against a Divine Decree?

At first Abraham had challenged God’s wisdom aloud (in the case of Sodom) or required reassurance, even though his doubts were unspoken (in the case of Ishmael). Abraham’s willingness to give up his own son could then be seen as an example of having reached the most profound level of faith, a deep appreciation that indeed everything belongs to God. There are those who find this explanation comforting, but for me it rings false when viewed in light of the actions of Moses and later prophets–men and women of faith. In the words of my teacher, biblical scholar Yochanan Muffs, they “stood in the breach” to ask God to overturn the divine decree and defend the innocent.

Abraham’s behavior makes sense in light of his cultural milieu. Archaeologists may debate the actual prevalence of the custom of child sacrifice in the ancient Near East, but the biblical text portrays it as a norm of religious expression that was a temptation for Israelites even long after Abraham’s day. Abraham’s relatively advanced moral sense might have enabled him to perceive that collective punishment of innocents was wrong. However, if the false, powerless idols received human sacrifice, why should Abraham give any less to the one true God, a God who had already given, and demanded, so much? Some modern thinkers have suggested that the true test was not whether Abraham would indeed offer up his son, but whether he would not.

One could also see Abraham’s behavior as reflecting a certain purity of purpose. Abraham was a man of such humility that he would challenge the creator of the universe on behalf of others, but would recuse himself from the divine court when the matter was one of personal interest. Of course Abraham’s care for the people of Sodom need not be seen as purely disinterested; his estranged nephew Lot lived among them, and he had already acted once (in the battle of the five kings against the four kings) to rescue its people from disaster.

Conflicting Priorities

Recently, I’ve come to appreciate the paradox in light of what it means to balance responsibilities as a parent with responsibilities to the larger community. I have a renewed respect for my own parents, who somehow managed to make family their first priority despite their devoted involvement in the life of our local community and the larger Jewish world.

Even though many struggle with the question of how to balance family time with work and professional life, the challenges are particularly vexing when one is involved in the work of communal leadership, or in one of the “caring” professions, responsible for the physical and/or spiritual well being of others. I am certain that my own experience, andthat of colleagues in the rabbinate, resonates with that of educators, layleaders, political leaders, physicians, and others. The urgent demands of the larger communal family threaten to overtake those of ones’ own, and many fail to find a point of balance. Abraham was perhaps the first, but by no means the only, Jewish leader to nearly sacrifice his children in the process of promoting the Jewish tradition.

Given the terseness of the Biblical text, it is difficult to make an argument from silence, but I am struck by the fact that the Biblical text records Abraham’s many conversations with God and with foreign leaders, but only one with Isaac. That single conversation comes while they are on their way up the mountain, knife and wood in hand. Perhaps Isaac was willing to walk toward oblivion, with the ram mysteriously absent, so long as it provided an opportunity for father and son to “walk together.”

Recognizing His True Son

One could read the text as proof that Abraham did not love his son. Before the Akedah [Binding of Isaac], God refers to Isaac as “your son, your only son, whom you love,” (Genesis 22:2). Afterward,God twice refers to Isaac as “your son, your only son” (Genesis 22:12,16), omitting the phrase “whom you love.” I believe that the opposite is true–I have always perceived great tenderness and love in the way Abraham carried the dangerous objects himself, and the way he responded to his son with the same “hinneni” (“Here I am”)–the same”presence”–that he offered to God.

Rather, it took the threat of the knife for Abraham to appreciate the relative importance of the single, unique soul that he and Sarah had made together, as opposed to the many souls/followers that they had “made”in Haran and brought with them to Canaan (Genesis 12:5). It took an unfathomable divine decree, for Abraham to be truly present with his son. All of us face the test of Abraham. Will it take a moment of crisis before we walk together with those we love?

The Routine vs. The Novel

Provided by the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative rabbinical seminary and university of Jewish studies.

The latter part of the book of Exodus describes the construction of the mishkan, the portable tabernacle that served as the focus of God’s presence during the Israelites’ wanderings in the desert and beyond. These sections are characterized by a love of regularity and order. The same carefully selected few carry out the same intricately prescribed rituals the same way each day, using sacred objects, which have been standardized down to the last detail.

Each aspect is described twice, first as God commands Moses, and then in its actual implementation, which matches the plans almost to the letter. In contrast, extemporaneous religious expressions, like the Golden Calf, are hazardous at best. There is no room for the novel amid the routine.

This week’s and last week’s parashiyot [Torah portions], when taken together, shed further light on the essential tension between tradition and innovation, routine and novelty, within the Jewish religious experience. Last week’s parashah, Terumah, describes the collection of donations and provides the plans for the tabernacle itself as well as the most important implements, including the ark, the altar, the table and the menorah.

This week’s parashah, Tetzaveh, then focuses on standardizing the human factor–first, the garments that the priests will wear, and then the ritual that will initiate Aaron and his descendants into that noble task. At the very end of Tetzaveh, separated from the accounts of all the other primary implements, comes the commandment to create an altar to be used for incense (Exodus 30:1-10).

Listed Separately

Many commentators address the question: Why should this small acacia-wood altar, covered with beaten gold, be listed separately from the others? The Meshekh Hokhmah [a biblical commentator] suggests that of all the implements, it alone is not strictly necessary for the functioning of the tabernacle. The lights may not be lit without a menorah, the sacrifices may not be offered without the main altar, but incense may be offered even if the golden altar is absent; therefore, as an optional accessory, it is listed after the standard equipment.

Also commenting on Exodus 30:1, Ramban [Nahmanides] offers the opinion that there is a functional difference between the altar and the other types of implements. The other implements serve the role of bringing God close to the Jewish people. The incense fulfills the special role of "stopping the plague," assuaging God’s anger at ritual infractions taking place in the divine presence. This role only becomes necessary after the rest of the implements have been put into place, after God has been brought near.

This view is particularly striking given that the actual construction and dedication of the mishkan are bookended by two catastrophic divine responses to inappropriate ritual experimentation. In each case, it is gold or incense that is central to the original infraction. The simplest understanding of the biblical chronology would have the incident of the golden calf brewing even as God showed Moses the plans for the golden altar. Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons, were killed (according to Ramban, at that very altar) as they offered up incense in a way not commanded by God, thus ruining the culmination of their appointment as Kohanim [priests].

Avoiding Disaster

Ramban’s interpretation is not extraordinary in its sensibility that in human encounters with the divine, strict adherence to ritual is the only way to avoid utter disaster. Indeed, the very incense itself would seem to deter innovation. Omitting or changing even one ingredient (T.B Kreitot 6a) makes one liable for the death penalty. Yet, Ramban’s interpretation of the golden altar, as a concession to the possible need for human failure, and the need to expiate for such variances, in and of itself reflects a degree of flexibility within the ritual tradition, a responsiveness to human needs and weaknesses.

Even within the routine, daily offering of the incense, an allowance was made to ensure continued novelty and freshness of the time-honored ritual. According to the Mishnah (Yoma 2:1-4), in the ancient temple there were systems of rotations and lotteries to determine which priests would be assigned the various tasks associated with the daily Tamid offering and other aspects of the rite that were carried out day in and day out without fail. The third lottery, for offering the incense, was unique because it was only open to those who had never done it before.

The Talmud (T.B Yoma 26a) proposes one reason for this practice–anyone who offered the incense was assured of wealth, and there was a desire to make sure that that blessing would be spread as widely as possible. This practice had the equally important auxiliary effect of ensuring that each day, there would be someone coming to the morning’s routine with the excitement of doing something for the first time. The incense was not only a column of smoke, but also a breath of fresh air.

To be sure, there are positives and negatives to having a particular role always filled by a novice. No one wants to be a surgical resident’s first patient, but in ritual matters the question is more nuanced. In synagogues where there is a Bar/Bat Mitzvah every week, the haftarah [prophetic reading] can be a weekly trade-off between the electricity of a new, life-changing moment and the comfort of a talented "old hand" at work. What is not in doubt is that each new person who comes to a ritual brings his or her own unique signature and point of view, and has the capacity to enrich the communal understanding.

The altar and the incense offered upon it are signs that it is possible, and moreover necessary, to seek out freshness within the bounds of tradition. While some novel modes of religious expression, like the Golden Calf or the incense of Nadav and Avihu, are "outside the bounds" of Jewish practice, there is a place for the golden incense altar, legitimately created to address new needs and situations. The Meshekh Hokhmah‘s understanding of the role of the altar encourages us to consider the value of the optional, of the additional, alongside the mandated minimums. The lottery of the incense reminds us of the necessity of inclusion, of finding ways to see even the most mundane daily practice through new eyes and of making every time feel like the first time.