Commentary on Parashat Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11 - 34:35
When talking about the traveling temple in the desert, called the Mishkan, or Tabernacle, the Torah describes a sweet-smelling essential oil with which the Mishkan, everything in it, and all who served in it were to be anointed. Partly of cinnamon, partly of myrrh, cane and cassia, with a whole lot of olive oil, it sounds amazing. At least Judaism smelled good back then.
All this artisanal is stuff is very cool, and the oil was made in a manner that’s still used today: The perfumer took the different plants named and ground them by mortar and pestle, after which they were dissolved into water. Olive oil was added, and the whole thing was cooked in a double-boiler — where the water evaporated and the oil, combined now with the spices, would remain. The process hasn’t changed much in three millennia.
However, the verse that describes the making of the oil is a kind of a puzzle. It is oddly redundant and a bit strange. I’ve cut it into three pieces below for effect:
“Make of [these ingredients] an oil for anointing the holy
– a perfume that is perfumed in the manner of a perfumer –
an oil for anointing the holy will it be.”
Take a close look at the verse: It repeats itself in at least two different ways. The idea that the oil is for anointing holy things both begins and ends the sentence in nearly identical language, and bookends the description of the oil-making on both sides.
Look at that phrase in the center of the verse. It’s tough to point out something in Hebrew when writing in English, but the same Hebrew root is repeated over and over, “a perfume that is perfumed in the manner of a perfumer,” or “incense that is incensed, the work of an incenser.”
This root, rekach, is the same one you’d use whether in perfume-making or in a pharmacy: It always refers to is the same skilled manner of preparation, how botanics and other materials are turned into compounds using fire and chemistry. Both are a science, and, especially back then, an art.
Still, it seems like a single word would have sufficed here, two at most. It is a perfume; it should be prepared by a perfumer. So why does the Torah repeat the root three separate ways?
By using the root three ways, the person, the process and the product are all brought to our attention. This partial verse points out that the holy oil is a unique thing, a compound. It was also created through a specific method, a craft. And, finally, the process takes a skilled individual, a craftsperson, one who knows how to make essential oils. When one looks at the language that surrounds these roots, the implication is that, without any one of the elements, the oil would not be holy.
Person, process, product. In contemporary mass production, what we see are the end results, and the consumer is ignorant of person and process. Most of the products we buy and use come to us stripped of the history of how they were made and who made them. Even in biblical times, one can assume that there were goods and commodities whose making and maker seemed irrelevant.
But the Torah teaches here that they are not irrelevant; holiness cannot be factory-made. To be more precise, one can’t sever the connection between the person, the process and what is produced in the end. It isn’t enough just to have oil composed of the right ingredients: It is the individual human being and the craft employed that make it “an oil for anointing the holy.”
Even in spiritual spaces, there can be an assumption that people are interchangeable. There can be a belief that whatever spiritual experience is at hand — prayer, study, yoga, meditation, song — that the experience should be consistent no matter who is present. Though the ingredients of a particular spiritual experience always remain the same,the Torah suggests here that the subtle differences that each individual spirit brings are necessary; without that uniqueness, holiness cannot be.