If you make an offering to God in the Hebrew Bible, out of gratitude or obedience or hope for a favor, how does God receive it? If you offer one of your animals, a priest burns it on the altar and smoke rises to the sky; then God smells the “soothing odor”.1 Priests also burn grain offerings (usually topped with frankincense) on the main altar, and incense on the incense altar. All of these offerings send aromatic smoke to the heavens, where God is imagined as dwelling when not visiting the earth.2
But what about an offering of wine? How does God receive a libation?
Although the book of Leviticus/Vayikra gives detailed instructions about animal and grain offerings, libations are mentioned only in this week’s Torah portion, Emor (“Say”), and only as an afterthought. The portion reviews six holy days during the year.3 The instructions for two of them include libations.
On the first day after the week of Passover, you must bring the first sheaf (omer) of your barley harvest to a priest, along with a sacrifice consisting of a yearling lamb and its corresponding grain-offering of fine flour mixed with oil, for a “soothing odor”—
—and its nesekh of wine, a quarter of a hin. (Leviticus Vayikra 23:23)
nesekh (נֶסֶךְ) = poured-offering, libation. Plural: nesakhim, נְסָכִים. (From the root verb nasakh, נָסַךְ = pour out.)
A hin is about 1 ½ gallons, so a quarter of a hin would be about 6 cups or 1.4 liters of wine. The passage does not say where the wine is poured.
At the end of seven weeks of the omer comes Shavuot, the only day of the year when leavened bread is brought to the altar.
And you shall offer with the bread seven unblemished yearling lambs, and one bull from the herd, and two rams; they shall be a rising-offering4 for God. And their grain offerings and their nesakhim, a fire-offering, a soothing odor for God. (Leviticus 23:18)
Does this mean that the nesakhim are part of the fire-offering? If so, perhaps the priests pour the wine directly on the roasting meat and grain. The addition of wine would enhance the aroma of the smoke for a while.
The passage about offerings on holy days in the Torah portion Emor concludes without any further information about libations:
These are the appointed times of God that you shall announce as holy assemblies for offering fire-offerings to God: rising-offering and grain-offering, slaughter-offering and nesakhim, each thing on its day. (Leviticus 23:37)
Jacob makes the first poured-offering mentioned in the bible, after he wakes up from his dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder or stairway between heaven and earth.
And Jacob erected a standing-marker in the place where [God] had spoken to him, a standing-marker of stone, vayaseikh on it a nesekh, vayitzok on it oil. (Genesis/Bereishit 35:13)
vayaseikh (וַיַּסֵּךְ) = and he poured out. A form of the root verb nasakh, which usually means pouring a libation of wine. 5
vayitzok (וַיִּצֺק) = and he poured out. A form of the verb yatzak (יָצַק), which usually means pouring oil, or pouring molten metal into a mold. The bible never uses yatzak for wine.
Pouring oil on religious objects or on people’s heads consecrates them to God; both kings and priests must be anointed before they take up their new roles. In Genesis, Jacob erects a standing-stone, pours a libation of wine as an offering to the God who spoke to him, and consecrates the stone to God by pouring oil on it.
Nobody told him to do this. But pouring out wine to the gods was a common practice in the ancient Near East as early as the 14th century BCE, when it was depicted in art and written texts by Egyptians, Minoans in Crete, Hittites in Anatolia, and Canaanites in Ugarit. In these religious rituals, a libation for a god was poured into a bowl, which was sometimes set out along with a ritual meal in front of a statues of the god.6
The first time the God of Israel requests a libation in the bible is at Mt. Sinai, when God gives a partial job description for the new priests Moses is going to anoint. Every day the priests must offer two yearling lambs on the altar, one in the morning and one in the evening, each accompanied by an offering of finely-ground wheat flour mixed with oil to make a patty—
—and a nesekh, a quarter of a hin of wine for one lamb. And the second lamb you shall do during the evening; you shall do it like the grain-offering and its nesekh of the morning, for a soothing odor of fire for God. (Exodus/Shemot 29:40-41)
This text also implies that the wine is poured over the roasting meat like a seasoning, to make its aroma especially soothing to God. A sentence in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar is more explicit:
And wine you shall offer for the nesekh, half a hin, a fire-offering of soothing odor for God. (Numbers/Bemidbar 15:10)
According to the Hebrew Bible, nesakhim for the God of Israel must be poured by priests directly onto the altar, where meat and grain offerings are roasting. Thus the fragrance of the wine can reach God through the smoke that ascends to the sky.
The only exceptions are Jacob’s impulsive libation in Genesis, and libations for other gods in the book of Jeremiah.
And the houses of Jerusalem and the houses of the kings of Judah will become like the place of Tofet7, the impure place, because of all the houses that sent up smoke from their roofs to all the army of the heavens, vehaseikh nesakhim to other gods. (Jeremiah 19:13)
vehaseikh (וְהַסֵּךְ) = and poured out. (A form of the verb nasakh.)
Jeremiah also rails against the practice of baking cakes for “the queen of the heavens” and pouring libations to her and other gods from their own rooftops.8 The problem is the worship of other gods, not the places where the libations are poured.
I wonder if Jacob, and the worshippers of the queen of heaven, and everyone who poured a libation onto a rooftop or into an empty bowl, had a more sophisticated and less literal concept of God. A god who is pacified by the smell of aromatic smoke is like a thoughtless beast at the mercy of its physical sense. But a god who appreciates symbolic acts of sharing by humans who present gifts instead of consuming all the wine or food themselves is like a mature human who understands thoughts.
The Israelite concept of God had changed by the first century BCE, when King Herod remodeled the second temple in Jerusalem. There was a gap between the new altar and its ramp that was only partly filled in; pipes descended from holes in the surface of the gap, according to the Talmud. The priests poured nesakhim on the stone surface of the altar, rather than on the fire. The wine pooled, then drained out through the holes at the edge where the altar abutted the ramp.
Talmudic claims compiled several centuries later include:
“… Rabbi Elazar bar Tzadok said: There was a small gap between the ramp and the altar west of the ramp, and once in seventy years young priests would descend there and gather from there the congealed wine left over from the libations that set over time, which resembled round cakes of dried and pressed figs.” (Talmud Bavli, Sukkah 49a)9
“… Rabbi Yochanan said: The drainpipes built into the altar and extending beneath it were created from the six days of Creation … they are hollow and descend to the depths.” (Talmud Bavli, Sukkah 49a)
“Resh Lakish said: When they pour wine onto the altar, they plug the top of the drainpipes so that the wine does not descend to the depths … the space between the altar and the ramp would fill with wine.” (Talmud Bavli, Sukkah 49b)
Whether the drainpipes were plugged or unplugged, the wine was not evaporated in the altar fire. Instead, the priests poured out the libations where everyone could see the wine pool over the stone surface of the altar.
Perhaps by then the people of Judah valued the gesture of giving their wine to God, and no longer needed to imagine God smelling it.
Today even our gifts to God are non-material. We still donate money and food for those in need, and for the maintenance of our religious buildings and their staff. But what do we donate to God? Only our thankfulness, and our good deeds.
A God who appreciates those is an advanced God, indeed.
- See my post Pinchas: Aromatherapy.
- See my post Terumah & Psalm 74: Second Home.
- Pesach, the omer, Shavuot, Rosh Shashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot (Leviticus 23.)
- “Rising-offering” is a literal translation of olah (עֹלָה), in which one or more whole animals are completely burned up, leaving no roasted meat for the priests or the donors. See my post Vayikra & Tzav: Fire OfferingsWithout Slaughter, Part 1.
- The verb nasakh (poured out) appears 25 times in the Hebrew Bible; 19 of those occurrences are about pouring out a libation of wine. The verb is also used once for pouring oil (Psalm 2:6), twice for pouring water (2 Samuel 23:16, 1 Chronicles 11:18), twice for pouring molten metal (Isaiah 40:19, 44:10), once when God pours out sleep (Isaiah 29:10), and once when God pours out wisdom (Proverbs 8:23).
- g. www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/libation; Adolf Erman, Life in Ancient Egypt, trans. by H.M. Tirard, Dover Publications, New York, 1971; Wikipedia, “Libations”, 5/11/2019.
- Tofet (תֺּפֶת) = spitting; a valley in Jerusalem where corpses were burned in wartime.
- Jeremiah 7:17-18, 32:29, 44:15-18.
- All translations from the Talmud in this essay are from The William Davidson Talmud, sefaria.org/Sukkah?lang=bi.