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CENSER:

An implement shaped like a bowl or a pan, intended for the burning of incense. In the English Bible the term is employed indiscriminately to render two Hebrew words which seem to have denoted different objects. One of these words, "miḳteret," occurs only three times (once in the variant "meḳaṭṭerot," II Chron. xxx. 14). This, according to its etymology, indicated a censer which was among the appointments of the Temple required for the performance of holy offices. The other word, "maḥtah," is mentioned in the Bible twenty-one times. In the English version it is rendered thirteen times as "censer," four times as "fire-pan," three times as "snuff-dishes," and once as "snuffer." Derived from the root "ḥatah" (to gather together coal or ashes), it was probably the name of various contrivances intended to remove the ashes or to carry live coals. Dillmann and Knobel contend that it was the saucer in which the snuffers were deposited. In Ex. xxv. 38 it stands for ladles used to remove the burnt portion of the wick (see Rashi on the passage). These may have been of small size. The larger ones in connection with the altar for burnt offerings (Ex. xxvii. 3; Num. xvii. 3 et seq.) may more properly be rendered by "fire-pans." From Mishnah Kelim ii. 3, 7 it is evident that various forms of these were known; some being open without rims, while others, designated as "complete," were provided with raised rims.

The maḥtah was, as a rule, not used to burn incense. From the documents, as now incorporated in the Pentateuch, it appears that only on the golden altar, or, as it is also called, "the inner altar," could incense be offered (Ex. xxx. 1-7; xl. 26, 27). The critical school has indeed contended that the inner or golden altar was not recognized in earlier times. But this does not weaken the evidence of the documents to the effect that in post-exilic periods censers were not proper utensils for the burning of incense. The story of Korah's adherents (Num. xvi. 17, 18), as well as Ezek. viii. 11, proves that in the opinion of the later days the use of the maḥtah for this purpose was regarded in the light of an illegal profanation.

But the maḥtah was used in conveying incense to the altar. An exception to this was in the ritual for the Day of Atonement. The high priest filled the censer with coals from the altar and, placing upon them a handful of incense, caused the smoke to cover the mercy-seat of the Ark in the Holy of Holies (Lev. xvi. 12, 13). These "pans" were of bronze, silver, and gold. Mishnah Tamid v. 5 indicates that those in the Temple were complicated in construction and of costly material (see also Yoma 43b).

Bibliography:
  • Keil, Handbuch der Biblischen Archäologie, translated by Christie and Cusin, Edinburgh, 1888;
  • Winer, B. R. Leipsic, 1833;
  • Cook, Exodus, note on Ex. xxvii. 3, in the Bible Commentary, Scribner's, New York, 1898;
  • Nowack, Biblische Archäologie;
  • commentaries of Knobel and Dillmann to Exodus.
B. D. E. G. H.
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