One Shabbat in Jerusalem, about 22 years ago, my wife and I were walking down Kovshei Katamon to our minyan. We fell in step with an older Yemenite woman who was holding a fragrant bouquet of basil flowers to enjoy in synagogue. She was already heading home (Temanin pray at 6 AM, even on Shabbat), and spontaneously gave Lynn her flowers to hold in shul. That day the sweet scent of basil infused the sounds of Torah and Tefillah with fragrance and special delight. All these years later I remember that Shabbat fondly and wonder why we don’t use scent more regularly in our worship. Sure, we sniff stale spices at havdalah, but incense is mostly associated with other religious traditions such as the Greek Orthodox, with their “smells and bells.”
It’s not that Jews don’t have a tradition of incense; on the contrary, starting with the Torah and continuing into the Talmud and then our mystical traditions, incense has been integral to the Israelite ideal of worship. Last week, Parshat Titzaveh ended with a description of the golden incense altar, and early in Ki Tissa we learn the recipe for the daily incense: Take the herbs stacte, onycha and galbanum—these herbs together with pure frankincense; let there be an equal part of each. Make them into incense, a compound expertly blended, refined, pure and sacred (30:34, 35). The Torah considers this blend to be a controlled substance, reserved exclusively for cultic use: Whoever makes any like it, to smell of it, shall be cut off from his kin (v.38).
The Rabbis develop the subject of “pitum ha’ketoret” (compounding the incense) with great detail and imagination. The Torah lists only four ingredients, but the Sages infer seven others, bringing the total to eleven. At B. Keritot 6a, they provide a detailed description of the compounding procedure and discuss the best sources for each item. In M. Tamid 3:8 we learn that the fragrance of the Temple incense on Yom Kippur wafted all the way to Jericho (punning on the words, “they smelled” mei’rihim, and “from Jericho” mei’riho). According to T. Yoma 2:6, the Avtinas family was expert at making the incense waft perfectly. They demanded such high compensation for their services that they were fired and replaced by experts from Alexandria. But when the newcomers proved unable to replicate the results, the sages had no choice but to reinstate the family of Avtinas—at twelve times their former wage! After all, they reasoned, the entire world exists for God’s glory, and what could be more glorious than a perfectly formed and fragrant cloud of incense? Continue reading