"The Holy of Holies" from the 1890 Holman Bible
"The Holy of Holies" from the 1890 Holman Bible

What we can learn from the Temple’s ‘eternal incense’

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Exodus 27:20-30:10

Tetzaveh begins in light and ends in smoke. Aaron and his sons are first commanded to ensure that a “ner tamid,” a “continually burning lamp” is kindled in the Tabernacle. As the portion concludes, they are told to construct a glorious golden altar for the “ketoret tamid,” the “continually burning incense.” The idea of a ner tamid is well known. One burns symbolically, usually electronically, in every Jewish house of worship in the world. Some of us even belong to and work at synagogues with that name! The light of the Jewish People has, miraculously, never gone out. But the ketoret tamid? What about the everlasting incense?

For thousands of years, religions and cultures around the world have used incense to lift the spirits and appease their deities. The magical aroma, and the atmosphere it engendered, would implant itself in the adherent’s nose, clothes and soul, taking advantage of “the most primal and mysterious of our six senses,” as Christopher Bergland once put it in Psychology Today.

Incense has been used to cast away illness and evil energies, to drive out pests and plagues (Numbers 16), and create a sort of “smokescreen” for the presence of God in the holiest recesses of the Temple. On a practical note, it may have masked the unpleasant odors of the Temple sacrifices and the earthiness of the people who congregated there. The recipe, elaborated upon from Exodus and through the Talmud, was complex and exact. Only a master perfumer could mix it, and deviations from it (or inclusions of forbidden ingredients) could result in the death penalty. It was an item of enormous religious import.

But the ketoret is gone, like so many of the colorful features of the First Temple such as the Urim and Tumim (the High Priest’s glowing, oracular breastplate mentioned this week [Exodus 28:30]) and the Ark of the Covenant. Without them, our worship experience has become far less sensory and far more cerebra. Yet there is still much to learn from that intricate blending of spices that was to be a “holy admixture for God,” (Exodus 30:37).

Of the 11 essential spices enumerated by the Talmud for the ketoret, ten are sweet smelling, but one, the galbanum, has quite a foul aroma. This may seem odd, but in the Talmud (Keritot 6b), we learn that the galbanum is included to teach that non-observant people, or even people truly beset by sin, must be welcomed into a Jewish community to encourage unity and reconciliation. The number 10 is also the number of a minyan, or prayer quorum, and Rashi suggests that a prayer service cannot be truly holy if it contains only 10 virtuous people. To be effective, a service must do “one better,” by including an 11th person who is in need of healing and teshuvah (repentance).

In an extraordinary essay called “The Spiritual Significance of the Ketoret/Incense in Ancient Jewish Tradition,” Rabbi Avraham Sutton teaches that the letters that spell ketoret can be read as an acrostic for four beautiful concepts that the incense conveyed in antiquity, and can still suggest today: kedushah (holiness), taharah (purity), rachamim (mercy), tikvah (hope). When the holy incense was prepared and offered purely, God’s mercy flowed to the people and their hope was restored.

We have only a vestige of the incense in Jewish life today, suggesting very subtly what inhaling that extraordinary blend must have entailed. As Shabbat departs, the Havdalah ceremony offers the gift of breathing in the fragrance of the besamim, the spices. In that moment of suspension between two worlds, the blessed aroma of cinnamon and cloves symbolizes what the Kabbalists called the neshamah yeterah (additional soul) that each of us possesses on Shabbat, our day of fullness and completion. We take it in, hold it for a moment, and let it go for another week.

The incense in the ancient Temple was also a neshamah yeterah, lending depth and added soulfulness to the sacred rituals and the holy space where our ancestors worshiped and gathered. Its scent is but a memory, but may its eternal messages of inclusion, holiness, purity, mercy and hope continue to burn tamid, for all time.

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon
Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon is rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid in the Sunset District of San Francisco, her hometown. She is a graduate of the Academy for Jewish Religion California and a member of Rabbis Without Borders. She can be reached at [email protected].