ketoret is the transliteration of the Hebrew word קטרת, which is translated, in English, as incense. The word ketoret means bonding or connecting. This bonding, as we shall see, is necessary to build the unity of the body of Mashiach. ketoret is a substance which is associated with joy, prayer, and protection. Clearly, ketoret is a most unusual substance!
In this study I would like to take an in-depth look at a substance which is so powerfull that it can halt a plague. Because it can halt a plague, those who compound it incorrectly will incur the death penalty. Lets start this study by examining what the Torah teaches us about ketoret, by examing the first use of ketoret:
(Exodus) 25:1 And HaShem
spake unto Moses, saying, 2 Speak unto the children
The ketoret , offered up twice a day, symbolized Israel’s desire to serve HaShem in a pleasing way. This offering was brought twice daily, once as part of the Shacharit (morning) service and once as part of the Mincha / Musaf (afternoon) service. This happened seven days a week, every day of the year, including Shabbat and Yom HaKippurim. Five pounds of ketoret was burnt daily, half in the morning and half in the afternoon.
Shemot (Exodus) 30:7 And Aaron shall burn thereon sweet incense every morning: when he dresseth the lamps, he shall burn incense upon it. 8 And when Aaron lighteth the lamps at even, he shall burn incense upon it, a perpetual incense before HaShem throughout your generations.
It is You, HaShem,
our God, before Whom our forefathers burned the ketoret (incense spices) in the time when the
Exodus 30:34-36, 7-8 HaShem said to Moses: Take yourself spices — balsam, onycha, and galbanum — spices and pure frankincense; they are all to be of equal weight. You are to make it into ketoret (incense), a spice-compound, the handiwork of an expert spice-compounder, thoroughly mixed, pure and holy. You are to grind some of it finely and place some of it before the Testimony in the Tent of Appointment, where I shall designate a time to meet you; it shall be a holy of holies for you.
It is also written: Aaron shall burn upon it the incense-spices every morning; when he cleans the lamps he is to burn it. And when Aaron ignites the lamps in the afternoon, he is to burn it, as continual incense before HaShem throughout your generations.
The Hakhamim taught: How is the incense mixture formulated? Three hundred sixty-eight maneh were in it: three hundred sixty-five corresponding to the days of the solar year — a maneh for each day, half in the morning and half in the afternoon; and three extra maneh, from which the Kohen Gadol would bring both his handfuls [into the Holy of Holies] on Yom HaKippurim. He would return them to the mortar on the day before Yom Kippur, and grind them very thoroughly so that it would be exceptionally fine. Eleven kinds of spices were in it, as follows:
(3) galbanum [chelbena],
(8) saffron — each weighing sixteen maneh;
(9) costus — twelve maneh;
(10) aromatic bark — three; and
(11) cinnamon — nine.
[Additionally] Carshina lye, nine kav; Cyprus wine, three se’ah and three kav, if he has no Cyprus wine, he brings old white wine; Sodom salt, a quarter[-kav]; and a minute amount of a smoke-raising herb. Rabbi Nassan the Babylonian says: Also a minute amount of Jordan amber. If he placed fruit-honey into it, he invalidated it. But if he left out any of its spices, he is liable to the death penalty.
Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: The balsam is
simply the sap that drips from balsam trees. Why is Carshina lye used? To
bleach the onycha, to make it pleasing. Why is
‘Grind thoroughly, thoroughly grind,’
because the sound is beneficial for the spices. If one mixed it in half-quantities, it was fit for use, but as to a third or a quarter — we have not heard the law. Rabbi Yehudah said: This is the general rule — In its proper proportion, it is fit for use in half the full amount; but if he left out any one of its spices, he is liable to the death penalty.
It is taught, Bar Kappara says: Once every sixty or seventy years, the accumulated leftovers reached half the yearly quantity. Bar Kappara taught further: Had one put a kortov of fruit-honey into it, no person could have resisted its scent. Why did they not mix fruit-honey into it? — because the Torah says: ‘For any leaven or any fruit-honey, you are not to burn from them a fire-offering to HaShem.”
(3) galbanum, and
There were sixteen maneh each of
(7) spikenard, and
There were twelve maneh of
three measures of
(10) aromatic bark,
and nine measures of
Midrash Rabbah - The Song of Songs I:62. R. Johanan applied the verse to the incense of the House of Abtinus. THE BAG OF MYRRH: this is one of the eleven spices which composed it. R. Huna explained [why there were eleven]. It says And the Lord said unto Moses: Take unto thee sweet spices (Ex.XXX, 34)-this is two: balsam, and onycha and galbanam--this makes five; sweet spices--if you say this means only two more, we have already had this; [therefore take it in conjunction with the next words], of each shall there be a like weight; add five to the previous five, making ten. With pure frankincense --this makes eleven. On the basis of this verse the Sages investigated and found that nothing is better for the incense than just these eleven spices.
The Acharit Shalom observes that whereas the eleven above-mentioned ingredients are listed in Hebrew, the remaining ingredients are listed in Aramaic. He presumes that Chazal did this deliberately in order to differentiate between the actual spices and the remaining ingredients that are merely (to enhance the quality of the main ingredients).
The incense was compounded from eleven ingredients: balsam, onycha, galbanum, frankincense (in quantities of seventy manehs each in weight), myrrh, cassia, spikenard, saffron (sixteen manehs each), costus (twelve manehs), aromatic bark (three manehs), and cinnamon (nine manehs), altogether 368 manehs, one for each day of the year, half offered in the morning, and half in the evening, and three extra manehs for the Day of Atonement. But in an ordinary lunar year there were 11 manehs over (the lunar year being 354 days); and though these 11 manehs were necessary for supplementing the incense in intercalary years (see calendar study), they had to be bought from the new donations given on the first of Nisan. Some method had to be devised, therefore, of making the remainder of the old incense valid for the new year.
The lye obtained from a species of leek and the Cyprus wine which are mentioned in connection with the incense, were nor actual ingredients, but were used simply for whitening the onycha, and also for making its odour more pungent, as we shall see.
The four spices that are written explicitly in the Torah are tzori-balsam, tziporen-onycha, chelbenah-galbanum, and levonah zakah-pure frankincense.
Tzori alludes to the Torah which is a tzori-balsam and healing for the entire body.
As known, chelbenah alludes to complete sinners.
tziporen, on the other hand, alludes to the majority of the Jewish people. Like a tziporen-fingernail, they are smooth and unblemished on the
inside, and only darkened on the outside... It is for this reason that we are required to
rub the tziporen with Karshina
lye, to beautify it and remove its external blackness. This alludes to teshuvah-repentance and good deeds...
Soaking the tziporen in
What is the significance of the various amounts of each fragrance?
Each of the major four fragrances explicitly mentioned in the Torah contributed seventy maneh. The number seven represents the natural universe, created in seven days. Seven corresponds to the framework of the physical universe, especially the boundaries of time with its seven-day week.
Seventy is the number seven in tens. The number ten represents both plurality and unity, so seventy conveys the idea of unifying the multitude of forces in the natural world. This is the underlying message of the ketoret. These holy fragrances illuminate and uplift the plurality of natural forces.
After the first level of four fragrances sanctified the dimension of time, the second tier of four fragrances sanctified the dimension of space. The number six corresponds to space, as any location is made up of six vectors (the four directions, up and down). It can also be visualized as a cube, representing all physical objects, which has six faces.
Time is a less physical aspect, and more receptive to spiritual elevation. Thus, for the first four fragrances representing the dimension of time, the number seven was multiplied by ten. Space, on the other hand, is only influenced by its closeness to holiness. Therefore, the unifying quality of ten is only added to the six, so that sixteen maneh were used of each of these fragrances.
The final amounts of twelve, nine, and three represent the limitations of the divided physical realm. Three is the first number to demonstrate multitude, and nine is the last number, before the multitude is once again combined into a unit of ten.
Rashi, in Shemot 30:34, explains that the ketoret was comprised of eleven ingredients. Often, we find that the number ten is used to represent a spiritual full set. Eleven refers to the conveyance of the Divine light which transcends the limits of the world within the limits of the world.
Eleven, thus, refers to a level above the limits of the set of ten. Nevertheless, since it is also a number which follows in sequence to ten, we can understand that it refers to the fusion between the transcendent Divine light and the framework of limited worldly existence.
There were ten fragrant spices in the ketoret, the incense, and one foul smelling spice (Chelbena -galbanum). There were ten tzaddiks in the synagogue yet no prayers on a fast day were heard without a sinner’s prayer.
6b Every communal fast that does not include sinners of
There is an interesting story regarding who can count to a minyan attributed by some to the Noda Biyehudah and others to Rav Chaim Brisk. Once he was on a journey and it was getting late in the afternoon so he asked his talmidim to make a minyan. With difficulty, they assembled ten men but the rav noticed that one of them was not particularly frum and asked them to find another. The talmidim explained the difficulty and suggested that, in the extenuating circumstances, they should allow him to count that one time. The rav insisted so one of them said that the Gemara rules that the prayers on a taanit tzibbur must include such a sinner to be effective just as the ketoret (incense) had to contain chelbenah, an evil smelling spice. The rav responded to point out that the ketoret had to have eleven spices!
The number eleven, which is how many spices there were in the ketoret , at first seems rather odd. However, Kabbalistically it is a number of tremendous importance for it alludes to one of the most prized possessions in all of history: Daat Elohim, G-dly knowledge.
Bereshit (Genesis) 33:11 Take, I pray thee, my blessing that is brought to thee; because God hath dealt graciously with me, and because I have all (kol). And he urged him, and he took it.
Rashi points out a very basic difference between Yaaqov and Esav’s outlook on life. When Yaaqov described his material status, he exclaimed, “I have all that I need”! Esav, on the other hand, arrogantly stated, “I have much, much more than I need”! In contrast to Esav’s “much”, Yaaqov had kol, everything. Kol always refers to the spiritual world because in this world, even if you have the whole world it is simply “much”. It is only when we connect to the source that we can have everything!
The number ten represents a completeness; a full integer count. The number ten represents Yaaqov ‘s purposeful existence. The ideology of Esav, of seeing no limits or goals and amassing “much, much more” than one needs, is represented by the number eleven. It is indeed appropriate that his nation originated with ‘eleven’ chieftains. Yet for all his amassment of wealth, one who follows such an ideology will actually end up with less, not more. As our Sages put it,
Sanhedrin 29a one who adds, takes away.
Similarly, in the area of kashrut we are told that:
Chulin 58b an animal with an extra limb is likened to an animal missing that limb.
Megilah 29a One who is arrogant is considered to be blemished.
This above Gemara follows the same principle. The arrogant person considers himself bigger, or more fit, than others, while in truth, his extra fitness is no more than a lack of fitness. He is blemished, or flawed.
In Sanhedrin 29a, the Gemara derives the rule that “one who adds, takes away” from a verse in Shemot 26:7. The verse states that the goat’s hair covering on the Mishkan consisted of eleven curtains of goat’s hair, sewn together into one very long curtain which was draped over the Mishkan. The word the Torah uses for eleven is Ashtei Esreh. Had the Torah left out the letter Ayin from Ashtei, the Gemara explains, it would have meant twelve. Now that the Ayin is added to the word, it takes away from its meaning, such that it only means eleven.
Note that this rule is learned from the number eleven. Esav’s attitude of “much, much more than I need” is summed up by the number eleven. All of his additional wealth just takes him farther from attaining the true goals in life.
The following narrative is from Meam Loez:
Also included in the incense was an herb known as maaleh ashan. This herb caused the smoke to go straight up like a pole and not to spread to the right or left. No one knew the identity of this herb except members of the family of the House of Avtinus mentioned earlier. These are the ones who were able to make the incense based on the tradition of their ancestors and they would not reveal it to any other person.
This herb had to be placed in the incense even though it did not have any fragrance. This is because it is written, “Speak to Aaron your brother and let him not come at all times to the sanctuary inside the veil which is before the ark”. Moses was told to go to Aaron the High Priest and tell him not to go into the Holy of Holies at any time other than Yom HaKippurim. Even on Yom HaKippurim he could not go into the Holy of Holies empty-handed. The Torah therefore continues:
Vayikra (Leviticus) 16:2 For in cloud I shall be seen on the ark cover.
The only time the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies was when he brought incense and the cloud of smoke covered the ark cover. The cloud mentioned here is the smoke of the incense. As the Torah says later:
Vayikra (Leviticus) 16:13 The cloud of incense shall cover the ark cover.
Since the Torah says, “In a cloud I shall be seen on the ark cover” and it does not say, “With incense I shall be seen on the ark cover,” our sages taught that this herb known as maaleh ashan must be placed in the incense. If maaleh ashan was not placed there the incense would burn but there would not be this heavy smoke. Since the Torah speaks of a “cloud” of smoke we learn that there must be smoke. The only substance that makes this heavy smoke is the maaleh ashan, which made this smoke go up straight like a pole.
If a different type of herb were used, the smoke would not go directly up; rather, it would spread out to all sides of the Holy of Holies. It would then not be right over the ark cover and the Torah says explicitly, “The cloud of incense shall cover the ark cover.” This cloud of smoke must cover the ark cover so the High Priest does not see the Divine Presence.
If the High Priest burned the incense and it did not contain this maaleh ashan he would be worthy of death.
Furthermore if he left out any of the ingredients he would be worthy of death. The Torah says:
The Torah could have simply said, “He should place it on the fire before HaShem”. Why did it say he should place incense on the fire? The word “incense” appears to be redundant because it was already mentioned earlier, “a double handful of incense, finely ground perfumes”. Then the Torah should say, “He should place it on a fire before HaShem”, and we would know that the Torah is speaking about incense.
However, the expression, “the incense” (ha-ketoret ) teaches us that the incense must be complete without anything missing. Even a single dram of weight of any of the ingredients cannot be left out.
The Torah also teaches us that the smoke of the incense must cover the ark cover. This is why the maaleh ashan is placed in it. The Torah says:
Vayikra (Leviticus) 16:13 And he shall not die.
From this we learn the opposite. If any of the ingredients are left out or if the maaleh ashan was not placed in the incense, the High Priest was worthy of death. It did not matter how small an amount of the maaleh ashan was placed there as long as there was some.
One should read the section of the ketoret out of a Siddur. Saying it verbally is the same as actually burning this incense in the Temple, as is explained earlier. If one says it by heart it is possible that he will leave out one of the ingredients. This is the same as burning incense lacking ingredients for which one is worthy of death. Therefore it should be read from the written page. For the same reason it is good to count the eleven perfumes with one’s fingers, so as not to skip any of them.
End of Meam Loez.
ketoret has the power to nullify any evil decree, even that of death. It is for this reason that when a plague broke out among the Bne Israel in the wilderness Moshe ordered Aaron to go through the camp with the ketoret.
Thus we see the healing properties of ketoret, especially to alleviate the plague. If the ketoret had not been formulated correctly it would not have ended the plague, thus condemning the people to death. This is why the death penalty is proper for those who leave out any ingredient while compounding the ketoret.
Kirithoth 6b Said R. Johanan: Eleven kinds of spices were named to Moses at Sinai. Said R. Huna: ‘Where is the text? Take unto thee sweet spices, at least two; balsam, and onycha, and galbanum, that makes together five; ‘sweet spices’ means another five, that makes together ten; ‘with pure frankincense’, which is one, that is together eleven. ‘Why not say, ‘sweet spices’ [at the beginning] is a general statement, balsam, and onycha, and galbanum’ a specification, and ‘sweet spices’ [at the end] is again a general statement! [‘We have thus, a generalization followed by a specification and then by a generalisation, [in which case] only things sharing the qualities of the specification may be derived. Just as the [items of the] specification are things whose smoke ascends upwards and whose fragrance spreads, so include all things whose smoke ascends upwards and whose fragrance spreads. And should you say in this case only one [item of] specification should have been mentioned, [I would answer] No, all are necessary; for if ‘balsam’ alone was written, I might have said: Only things from the tree [are to be taken], but not things growing on the ground. It was thus necessary to state ‘onycha’. And if ‘onycha’ alone was written, I might have said: Only things from the ground, but not from the tree. It was thus necessary to state ‘balsam’. As to ‘galbanum’, its mention is necessary for its own sake, for its odour is unpleasant if so, it could have been derived from: Take unto thee. But perhaps say: ‘The sweet spices’ in the latter part [of the verse] mean two, as ‘the sweet spices’ in the former part? Then it should have written the two expressions ‘sweet spices’ next to one another, and then write ‘balsam, and onycha, and galbanum’. In the School of R. Ishmael it was taught thus: ‘Sweet spices’ is a generalisation, ‘balsam, and onycha, and galbanum’ is a specification, sweet spices’ again is a generalisation, and from a generalisation followed by a specification and then by another generalisation one can derive only things sharing the qualities of the specification. As the [items in the] specification are things whose smoke ascends upwards and whose fragrance spreads, so all things whose smoke ascends upwards and whose fragrance spreads. Perhaps this is not so; but take the generalisation with the first generalisation, the specification with the first specification? — Say: This cannot be; hence you must not expound according to the latter version but according to the former.
The Master said: ‘Perhaps this is not so, but take the generalisation with the first generalisation and the specification with the first specification? — Say: This cannot be, hence you cannot expound . . . ‘ ‘What is the question? — This is his difficulty: Let the sweet spices’ in the latter part [of the verse] mean two like ‘sweet spices’ in the former. ‘Whereupon he replied as was answered before: Then it should have written, ‘Sweet spices, sweet spices, balsam, onycha and galbanum’. What is the meaning of ‘and the specification with the first specification’? — This is his difficulty: Things of the tree are derived from ‘balsam’, and things of the ground from ‘onycha’; why not then derive from ‘pure frankincense’ all things which have one quality in common with it [viz.,] that their fragrance spreads, though their smoke does not ascend upwards? Whereupon he replied: If this was so, ‘pure frankincense’ should have been written among the others, so that you could derive therefrom. But if ‘pure frankincense’ was written among the others, we would have twelve spices. — ‘Pure frankincense’ should have been written among the others and ‘galbanum’ at the end. Resh Lakish says: From the word itself it can be inferred; for ketoret [frankincense] means something whose smoke ascends upwards.
In other words, the incense used in the Bet HaMikdash, the House of the Holy One, consisted of fragrant spices as well as the foul-smelling galbanum, which itself acquired a pleasant aroma when combined with the other spices of the ketoret. The Gemara derives from this composition of the incense a similar phenomenon in the social, religious makeup of the Jewish people: When the wicked and righteous join together, the latter can positively impact upon the former to produce a single, “fragrant” unified community.
Rav Kook explained that the ketoret was a link between the material and spiritual realms. The word ketoret comes from the root kesher, a tie or knot. The incense rose straight up, connecting our divided physical world to the unified divine realm. From the sublime standpoint of overall holiness, it is impossible to distinguish between the separate, distinct fragrances. Each fragrance represents a particular quality, but at that elevated level, they are revealed only within the attribute of absolute unity. Only in our divided world do they acquire separate identities.
Because ketoret symbolizes the unity of the Bne Israel, when there is a lack of unity, ketoret is used to bring about that unity. In the case of Qorach and his followers, in Bamidbar 16, ketoret was used to bring about the death of Qorach and his followers and thus completely eliminate the heresy which had disrupted the unity of the Bne Israel.
Bamidbar (Numbers) 16:5 And he spake unto Korah and unto all his company, saying, Even to morrow HaShem will shew who are his, and who is holy; and will cause him to come near unto him: even him whom he hath chosen will he cause to come near unto him. 6 This do; Take you censers, Korah, and all his company; 7 And put fire therein, and put incense in them before HaShem to morrow: and it shall be that the man whom HaShem doth choose, he shall be holy: ye take too much upon you, ye sons of Levi.
Bamidbar (Numbers) 16:35 And there came out a fire from HaShem, and consumed the two hundred and fifty men that offered incense. 36 And HaShem spake unto Moses, saying, 37 Speak unto Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest, that he take up the censers out of the burning, and scatter thou the fire yonder; for they are hallowed. 38 The censers of these sinners against their own souls, let them make them broad plates for a covering of the altar: for they offered them before HaShem, therefore they are hallowed: and they shall be a sign unto the children of Israel. 39 And Eleazar the priest took the brasen censers, wherewith they that were burnt had offered; and they were made broad plates for a covering of the altar: 40 To be a memorial unto the children of Israel, that no stranger, which is not of the seed of Aaron, come near to offer incense before HaShem; that he be not as Korah, and as his company: as HaShem said to him by the hand of Moses.
Nadab and Abihu, in Vayikra 10, also disrupted the unity of the Bne Israel by offering “strange fire”. Therefore, we also see that the ketoret was instrumental in bring about their death as a judgment for disrupting this unity.
Vayikra (Leviticus) 10:1 And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took either of them his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense thereon, and offered strange fire before HaShem, which he commanded them not. 2 And there went out fire from HaShem, and devoured them, and they died before HaShem.
Rabbi Krohn said that we learn from the ketoret the need for unity among all Jews. If any one of the eleven ingredients was omitted from the mixture, the ketoret offering was invalid. One of the ingredients, chelbana (galbanum), has a foul odor. This undesirable spice symbolizes the sinners in a Jewish congregation. Our Sages state that a public fast day in which at least one sinner does not participate is not considered a fast day: that is, it does not accomplish the purpose for which it was intended, whether relief from a drought or protection from physical threats to the community. The requirement to mix chelbana into the ketoret reminds us that we must include those Jews who do not perform every commandment properly in our prayer services and community activities.
Shemot (Exodus) 30:1 And thou shalt make an altar to burn incense upon: of shittim wood shalt thou make it. 2 A cubit shall be the length thereof, and a cubit the breadth thereof; foursquare shall it be: and two cubits shall be the height thereof: the horns thereof shall be of the same. 3 And thou shalt overlay it with pure gold, the top thereof, and the sides thereof round about, and the horns thereof; and thou shalt make unto it a crown of gold round about. 4 And two golden rings shalt thou make to it under the crown of it, by the two corners thereof, upon the two sides of it shalt thou make it; and they shall be for places for the staves to bear it withal. 5 And thou shalt make the staves of shittim wood, and overlay them with gold. 6 And thou shalt put it before the vail that is by the ark of the testimony, before the mercy seat that is over the testimony, where I will meet with thee. 7 And Aaron shall burn thereon sweet incense every morning: when he dresseth the lamps, he shall burn incense upon it. 8 And when Aaron lighteth the lamps at even, he shall burn incense upon it, a perpetual incense before HaShem throughout your generations. 9 Ye shall offer no strange incense thereon, nor burnt sacrifice, nor meat offering; neither shall ye pour drink offering thereon. 10 And Aaron shall make an atonement upon the horns of it once in a year with the blood of the sin offering of atonements: once in the year shall he make atonement upon it throughout your generations: it is most holy unto HaShem.
Keritut 6b Any fast day which does not include any sinners from among Yisrael is not a [legitimate] fast day; for galbanum [‘chelbena’ in Hebrew] has a putrid odor, but yet the Scripture included it as one of the ingredients of the ketoret.
In other words, the incense used in the Mikdash consisted of fragrant spices as well as the foul-smelling galbanum, which itself acquired a pleasant aroma when combined with the other spices of the ketoret. The Gemara derives from this composition of the incense a similar phenomenon in the social, religious makeup of the Jewish people: when the wicked and righteous join together, the latter can positively impact upon the former to produce a single, “fragrant” community.
However, as Rav Meir Simcha Ha-kohen of Dvinsk notes, this blend can occur only when a genuine sense of unity prevails among Bne Israel. The influence of the righteous upon the iniquitous can take effect only when true brotherhood is felt between the different segments of the population.
Indeed, this theme is a dominant one in the Yamim Noraim, particularly on Yom HaKippurim, the day of revelation. No single Jew can claim sufficient worthiness to stand before the Creator in judgment. We do so only by identifying wholeheartedly with the entirety of the Jewish nation, affording us the merits of one another as well as the national merits of our Patriarchs. Thus we see the three “extra” maneh of ketoret was burned on Yom HaKippurim to symbolize this unity.
Bamidbar (Numbers) 17:11-13 “And Moshe said to Aharon. Take a censer, and put fire in it from off the altar, and put on incense, and take it quickly... and ran... and made atonement for the people. And he stood between the dead and the living; and the plague was stayed” .
We learn from the Yom HaKippurim service that the cloud of ketoret facilitates a vision of the Shekhina: For in the cloud I shall appear above the kaporet.
Like a sort of veil which serves to dull the dazzling revelation. Perhaps, this is indeed the function of the Mizbayach Haketoret (incense altar) throughout the year: it is meant to allow the Shekhina to dwell in the Mishkan by “screening” the revelation therein!
ketoret is brought by men to recognize the fact that HaShem is present amongst us. Furthermore, ketoret has the unique property of protection, which is necessary since as mortals we cannot handle the direct presence of HaShem, so we need the incense and the incense altar to protect us from the glory of HaShem. This is why when in verse 6, when describing where the Mizbayach Haketoret is put, it says:
Shemot (Exodus) 30:1 And thou shalt make an altar to burn incense upon: of shittim wood shalt thou make it. 2 A cubit shall be the length thereof, and a cubit the breadth thereof; foursquare shall it be: and two cubits shall be the height thereof: the horns thereof shall be of the same. 3 And thou shalt overlay it with pure gold, the top thereof, and the sides thereof round about, and the horns thereof; and thou shalt make unto it a crown of gold round about. 4 And two golden rings shalt thou make to it under the crown of it, by the two corners thereof, upon the two sides of it shalt thou make it; and they shall be for places for the staves to bear it withal. 5 And thou shalt make the staves of shittim wood, and overlay them with gold. 6 And thou shalt put it before the vail that is by the ark of the testimony, before the mercy seat that is over the testimony, where I will meet with thee. 7 And Aaron shall burn thereon sweet incense every morning: when he dresseth the lamps, he shall burn incense upon it.
Geographically all it needed to say was to place it before the partition, but the full description connects the Mizbayach Haketoret to HaShem meeting Bne Yisrael, such that the Mizbayach serves as a buffer and interface between us and the glory of HaShem.
Zohar 2:218 This matter is a decree issued by the Almighty, that whoever studies and reads the topic of the constitution of the ketoret every day is saved from all evil things and witchcraft in the world, and from all serious injury, from evil thoughts, from harsh judgment, and from death, and will not be harmed that entire day, for the evil force has no control over him. One must concentrate during this recitation. Rabbi Shimon said, if people would know how exalted the concept of the ketoret is before the Almighty, they would take every single word in it and wear it as a crown on their head like a golden crown. Whoever involves himself in it must delve into the concept of the ketoret. If he concentrates on it every day, he earns a portion both in this world and in the next world, and death will be eliminated from him and from the world, and he will be saved from all prosecution in this world, from impurity, from the judgment of Gehinnom and from subjugation to foreign rule.
The Yalkut Meam Loez cites a story from the Midrash Haneelam. Rav Aha once arrived in a certain town that had been ravaged by a plague for seven days. The townspeople came to him and told him of their troubles. The plague was only intensifying, and they did not know what to do. He said, “Let us go to the Bet Kenesset (House of the Congregation) and pray that it stops”. As they made their way towards the Bet Kenesset, people came and told them that the plague had claimed even more victims; others are about to die. He said, “Since the calamity is so severe and time is running out, we will not go to the Bet Kenesset. Rather, bring me forty G-d-fearing people and they will divide into groups of ten, each of which should go to one direction of the city and recite ‘pitum haketoret’ (the Talmudic discussion of the ingredients of the ketoret) three times. They should then add, ‘Moshe said to Aharon: Take the firepan and place fire upon it from the altar and place ketoret, and quickly bring it to the nation and atone on their behalf… ‘until ‘and the plague ended’. They did as he told, and the plague stopped. All those who had been stricken were cured. A heavenly voice called out to the harmful spirits, “Do no more damage in this town, for the attribute of justice no longer has any control over them!”
Rav Aha was exhausted and fell asleep. He dreamt that it was told to him, “Just as you eliminated the plague from the city, so must you bring them back in teshuva, for one cannot endure without the other, because it was on account of their sins that the plague was decreed.” He told this to the townspeople and they repented. They changed the name of the town to “Mahsiya,” which means “town of compassion.” They kept the town’s name in their minds at all times so as to ensure that they would not return to their sinful ways.
From Meam Loez:
The incense also had another great advantage. It was an enlightened remedy to purify people from sin. Whoever smelled the fragrance of the incense when it was being burned on the altar would have thoughts of repentance. His heart would be purified of all evil thoughts and from the defilement of the Evil Urge. In this respect it was very much like the forehead-plate worn by the High Priest upon which God’s name was written. Whoever looked at it would experience great awe in his heart and would repent completely. The same was true of anyone who smelled the fragrance of the incense when it was being burned. This would break the power of the Other Side so that it could not speak evil against Israel.
This is why the incense altar was referred to as an altar, (mizbeach). [The word mizbeach comes from the Hebrew zevach, which denotes slaughter.] The incense altar was called a mizbeach even though no sacrifice was slaughtered on it because the incense had the power to break and subjugate the power of the Other Side. This place was called a mizbeach because it was a place where the Other Side was slaughtered.
Since the incense is so important, a person should be careful to read this chapter every day in the morning and the evening. He should not consider saying it difficult even though it might take a few moments since it brings great joy to God.
Incense is greater than prayer. As is well known, the prayers were meant to be in place of the sacrifices, but as we have already said, the incense was more important and greater than all the sacrifices. Therefore it is obvious that the incense was greater than all the prayers. Moreover, it was a great remedy to purify a person of all sin.
In the Zohar, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai says: If people knew how great it is when they say the section Pitum Haketoret before God, they would take each and every word of the section and place it on their heads like a golden crown. Whoever says Pitum Haketoret each day in the morning and evening slowly without skipping even a single word, and understands what he is saying, is protected against all evil occurrences and evil thoughts and from an evil death. He can rest assured that all day he will not be harmed in any way. He will also be protected from the punishments of purgatory and will have a portion in the World to Come.
The Midrash says:
Tanhuma, Tesaveh 15 The Almighty said: Of all the sacrifices you offer, there is none dearer to Me than the ketoret [incense], for it comes not for any sin or transgression or guilt, but rather for joy, as it says, ‘Oil and incense gladden the heart’. See how beloved the ketoret is, for through it the plague ended. Aharon found the angel [of death] standing and destroying. He stayed opposite it and did not let it go. He said to Aharon: Let me go and carry out my mission. Aharon stopped it with the power of the ketoret.
The ketoret was also an intrinsic part of the Mishkan, since it is the proper thing to place incense in the King’s Palace, prior to his entry, all the more so, HaShem. Indeed, on a number of occasions in the desert, it was through the ketoret that the Shechinah rested in Israel.
ketoret was offered
to bring joy and happiness to the world. For this
reason, it was the most beloved to HaShem of all the
And, it was the life-preserving qualities of the ketoret that the Angel of Death taught Moshe
Bamidbar (Numbers) 17:11-13 “Moses said to Aaron, ‘Take the censer and put fire from the altar into it. Then take it quickly to the congregation and atone for them, for wrath has gone forth from the Lord, and the plague has begun.’ Aaron took it as Moses had said, and he ran into the midst of the assembly, and behold, the plague had begun among the people. He placed the incense on it and atoned for the people. He stood between the dead and the living, and the plague ceased.”
Our Sages taught that the righteous are compared to pleasant smelling spices. That is why Esther was also named Hadassah which means myrtle, while Mordechai is comprised of ‘mar dachia’, pure myhrr, one of the main ingredients of the incense. We have seen in the teaching of our Sages that sound is good for the incense. For this reason Mordechai, whose righteous deeds were pleasing to HaShem as incense, cried aloud in the midst of the city. Through his intense prayer and beseeching on behalf of the Jews, Mordechai saw that, as incense offered before HaShem, he was able to nullify the harsh decree against the Jewish people. In this way, he ‘stood between the dead and the living’ much as Aaron used the incense to stay the plague of HaShem’s wrath.
Among the other healing properties of the ketoret was that it was the part of the daily service that specifically atoned for lashon hara, derogatory speech about others.
Why all these special properties of the ketoret, more than any other offering? The answer lies in the following:
Brochot 43b How do we know that one should make a blessing over pleasant fragrances? For, it says, “Let all souls praise G-d”. Now, what thing does a soul enjoy that a body does not? Only a good smell.
For, if the body enjoyed it too, such as in the case of food, a blessing would be made for that reason alone. We need something that the body does not enjoy, but, yet, there is pleasure from the thing. That, says the Talmud, is a pleasant fragrance, and that, we can say, is the basis of the importance of the ketoret Offering.
Berachoth 6b R. Helbo further said in the name of R. Huna: A man should always take special care about the afternoon-prayer. For even Elijah was favourably heard only while offering his afternoon-prayer. For it is said: And it came to pass at the time of the offering of the evening offering, that Elijah the prophet came near and said . . . Hear me, O Lord, hear me. ‘Hear me’, that the fire may descend from heaven, and ‘hear me’, that they may not say it is the work of sorcery. R. Johanan says: [Special care should be taken] also about the evening-prayer. For it is said: Let my prayer be set forth as incense before Thee, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice. R. Nahman b. Isaac says: [Special care should be taken] also about the morning.prayer. For it is said: O Lord, in the morning shalt Thou hear my voice; in the morning will I order my prayer unto Thee, and will look forward.
Revelation 8:1 And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour. 2 And I saw the seven angels which stood before God; and to them were given seven trumpets. 3 And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. 4 And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel’s hand. 5 And the angel took the censer, and filled it with fire of the altar, and cast it into the earth: and there were voices, and thunderings, and lightnings, and an earthquake. 6 And the seven angels which had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound.
The House of Abtinus was the family responsible for making
the ketoret, in the latter days of the
Yoma 38a MISHNAH. AND THESE WERE MENTIONED TO THEIR SHAME: THEY OF … THE HOUSE OF ABTINAS WOULD NOT TEACH ANYTHING ABOUT THE PREPARATION OF THE INCENSE; THEY OF THE HOUSE OF ABTINAS WOULD NOT TEACH ANYTHING ABOUT THE PREPARATION OF THE INCENSE.
38a Our Hakhamim taught: The house of Abtinas were expert in preparing
the incense but would not teach [their art]. The
Sages sent for specialists from
The offering of the “ketoret” was carried out in complete seclusion. The Torah tells us:
Although this pasuk is found in the section of the Torah dealing with the Yom HaKippurim service, this halacha is not limited to Yom HaKippurim. It was forbidden for any other Kohen to be present in the Bet Hamikdash while the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, was offering his ketoret, whether it be Yom HaKippurim when it was offered in the Holy of Holies, or any other day that it was brought on the inner altar. This offering that was always done in private serves to atone for lashon hara that is spoken privately.
The Gemara teaches: Because of lashon hara, tzaraat (leprosy) befalls a person. Yet [the Gemara asks] doesn’t Rav Anani bar Sason teach that when the kohen gadol wears the garment known as the me’il, this atones for the nation’s lashon hara?
The Gemara, as explained by Rashi, answers: If the lashon hara caused a fight, tzara’at results. Otherwise, the wearing of the me’il atones.
Yet does not Rav Simon teach that the ketoret atones for lashon hara, for we read in this parasha that Aharon atoned for the people with ketoret? Yes, the ketoret, which is usually burnt privately in the inner sanctum of the Mishkan, atones for lashon hara spoken in private, while the me’il atones for lashon hara spoken in public. [Until here from the Gemara.]
The Chafetz Chaim writes: It follows from this that lashon hara which causes a fight is punished by tzara’at even when spoken privately. ketoret atones for lashon hara spoken privately which causes no harm.
Why then did the ketoret provide atonement, in Bamidbar (Numbers) 16:46, where the lashon hara was very public? Because Aharon took the ketoret out of the privacy of the Mishkan and burnt it in the midst of the camp.
The Gemara records that offering of the ketoret is done privately; that is, when the ketoret is offered, no one is allowed to be in the heikhal, the inner sanctum, other than the kohen offering the ketoret. While the Torah mentions this exclusion specifically regarding the special service of the kohen gadol on Yom HaKippurim, the Gemara understands that it applies to the ketoret generally.
Given its very private nature, the ketoret symbolizes the mysterious, the unknown. However, the Torah explicitly connects both offerings of the ketoret to the lighting of the menora. The menora is symbolic of the light of the Torah, the revealed Torah, while the ketoret is symbolic of the hidden aspects of Torah, of those parts that lie beyond human comprehension. The Torah links these two commands, highlighting the significance of striving to understand the Torah while recognizing that some aspects of Torah will remain difficult.
Maimonides describes the function of the ketoret as the vanquishing of the unpleasant odors that might otherwise have pervaded the Temple. HaShem commanded that the ketoret be burned twice a day, each morning and afternoon, to lend a pleasing fragrance to the Temple and to the garments of those who served in it:
Guide for the Perplexed, part III, ch. 45 “Since
many animals were slaughtered in the sacred place each day, their flesh
butchered and burnt and their intestines cleaned, its smell would doubtless
have been like the smell of a slaughterhouse... Therefore G-d commanded that
the ketoret be burned twice a
day, each morning and afternoon, to lend a pleasing fragrance to [the
But Maimonides’ words carry a significance that extends beyond their superficial sense. In the words of Rabbeinu Bechaya:
Rabbeinu Bechayei on Torah, Exodus 30:1 “G-d forbid that the great principle and mystery of the ketoret should be reduced to this mundane purpose.”
As with all aspects of Torah, this is understood on many different levels. It is explained in the Zohar that the kohanim were not merely interested in converting unpleasant smells to pleasant ones; the inner purpose of the ketoret was to dispel the foulness of the Evil Inclination:
Wisdom of the Zohar, Tishby, III 933 Rabbi Shimon said: If men only knew how exalted the section dealing with] the incense-offering was in the eyes of the Holy One, blessed be He, they would take each single word and make it an ornament for their heads, like a crown of gold. And whoever, wishes to study it should examine it in every detail. And if he concentrates upon it every day, he will have a share both in this world and the world to come. Pestilence will disappear from him and from the world, and he will be delivered from all the [evil] judgments of this world, from evil powers, from the judgment of Gehinnom and from Judgment of the alien kingdom.
Chassidic teaching explains that the animal sacrifices offered in the Temple represent the person’s offering of his own animal soul to HaShem, the subjugation of his natural instincts and desires to the divine will. This is the deeper significance of the foul odor emitted by the sacrifices which the ketoret came to dispel: the animal soul of man, which is the basic drive, common to every living creature, for self-preservation and self-enhancement, possesses many positive traits which can be directed toward gainful and holy ends; but it is also the source of many negative and destructive traits. When a person brings his animal self to the Temple of HaShem and offers what is best and finest in it upon the altar, there is still the foul odor, the selfishness, the brutality, and the materiality of the animal in man, that accompanies the process. Hence the burning of the ketoret, which possessed the unique capability to sublimate the evil odor of the animal soul within its heavenly fragrance.
Like the incense that burned in the Temple, the manifest function of teshuva, repentance, is to deal with negative and undesirable things. On the practical level, teshuva is repentance, a returning to HaShem, a healing for the soul. But teshuva is also the dominant quality of Yom HaKippurim, the holiest day of the year. On the day before Yom HaKippurim we grind the spices a second time to insure that they are the absolute finest. Thus, the ketoret that burned in the Holy of Holies was the manifestation of the function of teshuva; to deal with sin and its ability to disrupt the unity of the body and the soul of the nation..
(Adapted from the Rambam)
Any Kohen was eligible to bring the daily ketoret, not specifically the Kohen Gadol. The Kohen would bring half of that day’s ketoret (a Manah daily) in the morning, between the preparation of the Menora and the conclusion of the Korban Tamid, and half in the afternoon, between the kindling of the five lamps of the Menorah and that of the remaining two. This is how the Rambam describes the Avodat ha’ketoret :
The Kohen who won the right to clear the Mizbei’ach ha’Zahav would enter the Heichal with a holy vessel made of gold (known as a ‘Teni’) that held two and a half Kabin. Placing it on the ground in front of the Mizbei’ach, he would proceed to scoop the ashes and the spent coals that remained on the Mizbei’ach with his hands and empty them on to the Teni. Whatever was left, he would sweep into it.
The Kohen who won the right to bring the ketoret would then take a covered vessel (called a Bazach) already heaped with ketoret. This, he would then place inside another vessel called a Kaf (a giant spoon) which he covered with a cloth. He was now joined by a second Kohen, who had won the right to perform the Avodah of the Machtah (the pan), and who had taken burnt coals from the middle of the second arrangement of firewood from on the Mizbayach HaOlah, with a silver shovel. He now descended and poured the coals into a golden shovel. If no more than a Kav of coal spilt, they would sweep it into the Amah (the stream that ran across the Azarah), whereas on Shabbat, since it could not be handled, they would simply cover it with a vessel. If more than a Kav of ashes spilt, they would shovel it back on to the silver shovel, and from there on to the golden one. The two Kohanim then entered the Kodesh (The Holy place) together.
Meanwhile, the Kohen who had cleared the Mizbayach, had taken the Teni with the spent ashes, prostrated himself, and left the Heichal. The Kohen with the golden pan would then empty its contents on to the golden altar, and flatten them across the top, using the base of the pan. Then he too, would prostrate himself and leave.
The remaining Kohen would then remove the Bazach from the Kaf and hand it to another Kohen, who would then pour the contents of the Bazach (together with whatever spilt onto the Kaf) into the Kohen’s two hands, prostrate himself and leave the Kodesh.
Before the remaining Kohen began emptying the ketoret from his hands on to the Mizbayach, those present would warn him not to begin pouring it at the point closest to him, to avoid getting burned as his hands moved over the burning ketoret towards the far side of the Mizbayach.
The Kohen in charge would announce ‘Hakter’ (‘Proceed to sacrifice the ketoret ’), adding the title ‘Ishi Kohen Gadol’ if it was the Kohen Gadol who was performing the Avodah that day, and the Kohen would pour the ketoret from his hands across the surface of the Mizbayach (gently, like one sifts flour), beginning at the far end, as we explained.
According to the Zohar, the incense offering is the most precious part of the Temple service in the eyes of HaShem. The ketoret was so desirable that the Kohanim (Priests) had to wait to do it. No Kohen (Priest) ever did it twice in order to give all the Kohanim the chance to do it at least once. One of the reasons that the ketoret offering was so desireable was because the ketoret offering was a way to increase one’s wealth, as the Talmud indicates:
Yoma 26a It never happened that a person repeatedly offered incense. Why? Rabbi Chanina said: Because, the Incense-Offering enriches.
The procedure regarding the ketoret is that a Kohen does not perform the mitzva of offering ketoret more than once in his lifetime. HaShem rewards the Kohen who offers the ketoret with wealth. Thus, we want to afford the opportunity to as many Kohanim as possible to become wealthy.
The placement of the Mizbayach Haketoret , the golden altar, in the Mishkan, and the Temple, is very significant. The Mizbayach Haketoret was centered in the Kodesh, the holy place. It was centered left to right and front to back. It was exactly in the center of the Kodesh. We have learned elsewhere that when something is centered, it carries with it the connotation of “connection“. The more centered the object, the greater the connection to life. That is why the heart is in the center of the area covered by a shirt. That is why the midbrain is located in the center of the head, and why the uterus is in the center of the area from the belt to the bottom of the torso. This is why Jerusalem is in the center of Israel. Thus we learn that the Mizbayach Haketoret was the most important feature of the kodesh.
The details of the construction of the Mizbayach Haketoret is detailed in Shemot (Exodus) 30. The details of it’s construction are given after all of the other furniture in the Mishkan. This placement is to teach us that nothing is as important as the ketoret. The ketoret has extremely high status!
The placement of the Mizbayach Haketoret can be seen in the following picture:
The Ramban also had an explanation for why the Mizbayach Haketoret was mentioned last:
“The Golden Altar’s function was entirely different from that of the Mishkan as a whole. The objective of the Mishkan was essentially to provide an appropriate setting for HaShem to rest His Presence upon Israel. However, His proximity creates the danger that those who do not honor His Presence are subject to the Attribute of Justice, which would in no way tolerate their infractions. Such was the case of Nadav and Avihu, who lost their lives when they brought an unbidden, and therefore forbidden, offering. Therefore, by means of this Altar and the incense offering, HaShem provided a means to shelter the nation from such potential danger. When offered in obedience to G-d’s command, incense has the unique property of being able to quench the fire of divinely inflicted plague. Consequently, once the agency of bringing His presence to the nation was provided through the Mishkan, G-d now gave Moshe the means of protecting the people through the Mizbayach Haketoret .”
There is some evidence that the Mizbayach Haketoret does not play as vital a role as the other components. The Gemara in Zevachim 59a concludes that the ketoret could continue to be offered on that venue even if the Mizbayach was uprooted.
In April 1992, Vendyl Jones and his team discovered 600
kilos of “reddish-brown organic substance” in a carefully sealed rock silo in
another part of the
In 1994, the incense spices were presented to the now late
Rav Yehudah Getz, late Chief Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Places in
The results were astonishing according to all accounts. Although the spices had lost some of their potency over the two millennia since their burial, it was still powerful. The residue of its fragrance lingered in the vicinity for several days following the experiment. Several people present reported that their hair and clothing retained the aroma. One account of the incident states:
“The aroma released from the spice compound during its processing was profuse and almost immediate. It initially saturated my hands as well as the clothes that I was wearing. Within a matter of minutes my laboratory and the surrounding area (for an area of several meters) was affected by the scent released from the spices... On the first day of processing, the aroma was so intense that I could almost taste it... Upon my return home that evening, the scent that had attached itself on my body and clothes was really apparent to both my wife and daughter. During the course of the week, the odor lessened slightly but was still noticeable in and around my lab. Within a few weeks the distinct aroma of the spices diminished to a freshness or cleanness of the air in my lab and the surrounding area. This aroma was in evidence, if even so slightly, for approximately two months”.
* * *
The name Ketura shares the same root as does the word for incense, ketoret. She was called ‘Incense’ because her acts were sweet as incense. It is also interesting to note that to this day the Orient, especially India, is famous for its incense. This modern Eastern influence has made incense very popular in the Occident. Ironically, sacrificial use of incense was paramount in Biblical times and the sweet aroma of the East has reawakened Jews to their own ancient tradition of the role and power of incense (e.g., frankincense and myrrh).
* * *
This study was written by Hillel ben David
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 “Siddur קול ששון”, The Orot Sephardic Weekday Siddur, by Rabbi Eliezer Toledano
 Maneh: A unit of weight: According to Rabbi Avraham Chaim Naeh, a Mishnaic maneh equals 480 grams (slightly less than half a kilogram and slightly more than 1 pound). A second opinion is that of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (The Living Torah, Exodus 30:34, p. 445; The Torah Anthology, Volume 11, p. 43), according to which a maneh equals 100 biblical shekels, or 5 pounds.
 Kav: A unit of volume; approximately 1 gallon.
 Sa’ah: Approximately 6 gallons
 Chatam Sofer, Derashot 18; quoted in Siddur Chatam Sofer ad. loc.
 Adapted from Olat Ri’iah 136-8
 Righteous men
 Minor fasts
 The Tabernacle in the wilderness
 Meam Loez on Ki Tissa: The Incense Spices
 Vayikra (Leviticus) 16:2
 A prayerbook
 Mishlei (Proverbs) chapter 27.
 The Tabernacle in the wilderness.
 Midrash Tanchuma, Tetzaveh 15
 Megilla 13a
 Yoma 44a
 Tehillim 150:6
 Evil speech
 Erachin 16
 Vayikra (Leviticus) 16:17
 Yoma 44b
 Hilchot Temidin u’Musafin 3:4-9
 Dr. Terry Hutter, Palynological Asessment of the Qumran Spices, May 5, 1994, in Vendyl Jones’ Report on the Excavations at Qumran.
 Bereshit (Genesis) 25:1.