Monday, March 21, 2011

The sweet stench of burning feathers

Summary: and how it might relate to rei'ach nicho'ach. From parashat Vayikra.

Post: The following beautiful Rashi from last week's parsha, Vayikra. Regarding the korban of the poor man, which is offered from fowl:

17. And he shall split it open with its wing feathers [intact], but he shall not tear it completely apart. The kohen shall then cause it to [go up in] smoke on the altar, on top of the wood which is on the fire. It is a burnt offering, a fire offering [with] a pleasing fragrance to the Lord.יז. וְשִׁסַּע אֹתוֹ בִכְנָפָיו לֹא יַבְדִּיל וְהִקְטִיר אֹתוֹ הַכֹּהֵן הַמִּזְבֵּחָה עַל הָעֵצִים אֲשֶׁר עַל הָאֵשׁ עֹלָה הוּא אִשֵּׁה רֵיחַ נִיחֹחַ לַה:

The word kenafav means its wings, but can also also mean its wing feathers. Rashi writes:

By its wings,with its wings; he does not have to pluck off its wing-feathers.בכנפיו: עם כנפיו, אינו צריך למרוט כנפי נוצתו:
 By its wings, means actual feathers. Is there anyone who smells the odor of burning feathers who does not become disgusted? Why [then] does the verse say "he shall offer [it]"? In order that the altar should be satiated and adorned with the sacrifice of a poor man.בכנפיו: נוצה ממש. והלא אין לך הדיוט שמריח ריח רע של כנפים נשרפים ואין נפשו קצה עליו, ולמה אמר הכתוב והקטיר, כדי שיהא המזבח שבע ומהודר בקרבנו של עני:

Thus, as I would interpret it, it is more important that the altar be satiated and adorned, not because of any ritual concerns, or because it adds to Hashem's glory to have a larger substance on the mizbeyach, but because of how the pauper will feel. He is already bringing quite a small korban, a bird rather than a cow or sheep. Let it look at least somewhat decent.

And, I would note, this is the same verse that ends רֵיחַ נִיחֹחַ לַה, "a pleasing fragrance to the Lord". Granted, there is a reason for leaving the feathers on and causing a stench. But how then can it be a pleasing fragrance?

The answer is that רֵיחַ נִיחֹחַ is not intended in its most literal sense. Does Hashem have nostrils? Since He does not, what does He care for the fragrance? Indeed, this business about leaving off the feathers can help guide us to the conclusion that "pleasing fragrance" is not literal.

Rashi writes on pasuk 9:

pleasing: satisfaction before Me, for I commanded [that this be done], and My will was carried out.ניחוח: נחת רוח לפני, שאמרתי ונעשה רצוני:

Thus, the pleasing fragrance has to do with fulfilling Hashem's word, not with actual physical senses. Compare with Yeshaya's message in Yeshaya 1:11, and with other Ancient Near East conceptions of the relationship between man the the gods, where mankind was created to be able to provide food via sacrifices, so that the gods would not starve, and where after the long Deluge in the epic of Gilgamesh, when sacrifices are finally brought by Ur-napishtim, the gods smell the sweet and pleasant odor and swarm like flies around it.

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