Photo Credit:
Tobias Stimmer. “The Altar of Incense and the Golden Lampstand ( Exod. 25, 30, 37 ).” 1576. Woodcut.

Am Yisrael were desperately waiting for the Shechina to return after the sin of the Golden Calf. At the conclusion of the eight days of inauguration of the Mishkan, it finally happened. Moshe and Aharon entered and exited the Ohel Moed and blessed the people, and the Glory of G-d was visible to the entire nation (Vayikra 9:23). Then: “A fire descended from Heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the fat on the mizbeach and the entire nation saw and rejoiced and bowed down” (ibid. 24).

What did this fire look like?

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According to R’ Bachye (ibid.), this same fire perpetuated from the time of the Mishkan through to the time of the first Beit HaMikdash, built by King Solomon, a period of 889 years.

The Gemara (Yoma 21b) says that this fire resembled a “crouching lion,” and a second opinion says a “crouching dog.” The Gemara continues that both are correct; during the first Beit HaMikdash the fire resembled a lion, and in the second Beit HaMikdash it resembled a dog.

There are many opinions as to why there was a difference in the type of fire.

The Maharsha on that Gemara says that it resembled a lion in the first Mikdash because it was built by King Solomon, from the tribe of Yehuda, whose symbol is a lion. The second Mikdash was built by the Persians and then Herod, and therefore resembled a dog.

The Rema (Torat HaOlah, part 3) says that in the first Mikdash the spiritual level of Am Yisrael was more elevated and this is reflected in the form of the fire, which resembles the king of the beasts who never lacks food. However, during the second Mikdash, the spiritual level diminished and therefore the fire resembled a dog, which searches for scraps.

The Gemara (Pesachim 118a) says that in the second Mikdash, slander proliferated, and the sin for someone who speaks lashon hara is to throw them to the dogs. The Midrash Talpiyot (letter gimel, gilgulim) says that someone who speaks or listens to lashon hara is sent back as a gilgul (reincarnation) in the form of a dog.

The Zohar HaKadosh (parshat Tzav) says that this was not necessarily a distinction between the two Batei Mikdash but rather a reflection of who brought the sacrifice. If the sacrifice was offered by a worthy person, the fire would resemble a lion. If offered by an unworthy individual, it would resemble a dog.

Last week we read about a similar phenomenon in Megillat Esther. Esther instructed Mordechai and all of Am Yisrael to fast for three days so that when she approached Achashveirosh, she would find favor in his eyes. The Gemara (Megillah 15b) says that after the three days, Esther approached the entrance to the king’s chamber and suddenly the Shechina departed from her. In a panic, Esther began to recite the passage (Tehillim 22), “La’menatzeach al Ayelet HaShachar,” which is now customarily read on Ta’anit Esther and Purim. Esther said, “Perhaps the Shechina has departed because I called Achashveirosh a dog? I promise from now to call him a lion and not a dog!”

In all honesty, calling Achashveirosh a dog is an insult to dogs, so what exactly is going on here?

Sefer Baruch Yomeiru says that when someone encounters a scary dog on the street, such as a rottweiler or a pit bull, and it is about to attack them, the first thing they think about is where to run and hide, or how they can use their umbrella to fend off the attacker. While images of severe bodily injury might be flitting in front of their eyes, they do not seriously think that may die as a result.

However, if you encounter a lion that has just escaped from the zoo, a hungry lion that has not eaten for three days, what do you do? You immediately begin reciting Shema Yisrael and saying Vidui, because your chances of surviving the encounter are almost zero.

This is what Esther was saying. “I called Achashveirosh a dog because I thought I could handle him and fend him off with my wits. From now on, I will call him a lion, because I now realize that my wits are insufficient and all I can do is rely on Hashem to save me!”

Perhaps it is the same with the fire on the mizbeach. When we realize that we cannot rely on our own “Kochi ve’Otzem Yadi – the flotsam strength and power of my arm” in this world, and that everything is given to us by Hashem, then the fire descends like a lion on the mizbeach. However, when we think that it is all up to us and we can “sidestep” G-d, the fire descends like a dog.

Perhaps that is also the true derivation of the expression “Raining cats and dogs” (rather than the Greek derivation as noted in Wikipedia). If we believe that rain and all the sustenance in the world is directly from G-d, then it is cats (lions), but if we feel that our sustenance is dependent on us, the “strength of our arm,” it more resembles dogs.

Parshat HaShavua Trivia Question: When Nadav and Avihu offered incense that they were not commanded to, fire descended from Heaven and consumed them. What kind of fire was that?

Answer to Last Week’s Trivia Question: All the spent ashes from the sacrifices were scooped into a mound in the center of the mizbeach. What was this mound called? It was called the tapuach, apple. Another meaning of tapuach is if it is read as tafuach (without a dot in the peh), which means “inflated.”

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Eliezer Meir Saidel ([email protected]) is Managing Director of research institute Machon Lechem Hapanim www.machonlechemhapanim.org and owner of the Jewish Baking Center www.jewishbakingcenter.com which researches and bakes traditional Jewish historical and contemporary bread. His sefer “Meir Panim” is the first book dedicated entirely to the subject of the Lechem Hapanim.