Sunday, February 9, 2014


While in college, my closest friend, Susan, took me to a midnight Easter service at St. Stephen’s Church in Providence, Rhode Island. She promised me exotic ritual and a full sensory experience. The service began when the priest emerged from the back of the church and processed up the center aisle swinging an incense burner from side to side. Smoke emanated, rising in the air and forming a dense cloud above the heads of the people assembled. “You’ll smell it soon,” Susan whispered to me, “and it will make you feel heady.” She was partially right; within moments the scent wafted past my nose, but the “heady” feeling eluded me because I was overcome with nausea. Clearly, the vocation of priest was not to be my career path.

Incense burner
This week’s parashah describes the origins of that church ritual: It is in imitation of the incense sacrificed on the golden altar in the Bet ha-Mikdash (Temple) in Jerusalem. Proverbs 27:9 tell us that “Ointment and perfume gladden the heart” and we know that incense figured prominently in worship rituals throughout the ancient Near East.  Torah supplies the recipe, or at least the ingredient list:

The Lord said to Moses: Take the herbs nataf, sh’cheilet, and chelb’nah—these herbs together with pure l’vonah; let there be an equal part of each. Make them into incense, a compound expertly blended, refined, pure, sacred. Beat some of it into powder, and put some before the Pact in the Tent of Meeting, where I will meet with you; it shall be most holy to you. (Exodus 30:34-36)

Commentaries tell us that nataf is a resin of balsam or persimmon; sh’cheilet is onyx, and chelb’nah and l’vonah (frankincense) are both gum resins extracted from plants.

Incense altar
The Wilderness Tabernacle, and the Temple in Jerusalem after it, had a gold altar for incense offerings, and each priest had his own machtah (censer) for burning incense, but it is not clear what purpose the incense offerings served. Rambam (Moses Maimonides) believed that the scent of the incense elevated the spirits of the ministering priests (that “heady” feeling?) on the one hand, and masked the odors of the slaughtered animals (each of which was accompanied by the burning of incense), on the other (Moreh Nevuchim, III, Ch. 45). The hovering, lingering cloud of smoke produced by burning the incense was evocative of God’s presence, the pillar of cloud that led the Israelites through the Wilderness for 40 years.

Incense censer
The cult of incense burning suggests two lessons that may appear contradictory at first blush: the value in reserving some things as sacred, and the value in sharing what is sacred widely.

The first lesson concerns reserving. Torah tells us that the recipe for the incense was not for daily or home use, but reserved for use by the priests in the Mishkan (Tabernacle). The verses we read above are followed by this admonition:

But when you make this incense, you must not make any in the same proportions for yourselves; it shall be held by you sacred to the Lord. Whoever makes any like it, to smell of it, shall be cut off from his kin. (Exodus 30:37-38)

Pretty harsh words. But there is a more subtle truth here: when we hold things sacred, and reserve them for special occasions or purposes, we allow them a good kind of magic or power in our lives. When we keep shabbat as a day reserved for the pleasures of family, friends, community, food, and rest, infused with worship and study, shabbat has transformative and healing power in a way that simply “taking a day off” does not. When we perform rituals that those before us, for generations too numerous to count, have performed (albeit in our own way), we plug ourselves into a powerful chain of tradition that provides identity, purpose, and direction because we are part of something larger than ourselves. When we hold off from availing ourselves of certain pleasures and practices—waiting until the time is holy or right—they hold far more meaning; anticipation is part of it, but making them holy (set aside for a special purpose) fuels their value in our lives.

The second lesson concerns sharing. The process for producing the incense was proprietary. The Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) tells us that the House of Abtinas (likely either a family or guild) maintained the proprietary right to manufacture the incense used in the Second Temple. A room in the Temple complex was reserved for its production. But Mishnah Yoma 3:11 has this to say:

These were remembered to their disgrace: The House of Garmu who were not willing to teach [others] about the preparation of the showbread [another ritual practice of the Temple]. Those of the House of Abtinas who were not wiling to teach [others] about the production of incense. Hugras b. Levi knew a chapter of the song but did not want to teach it. Ben Kamtzar did not want to teach anyone his art of writing [God’s name]… Concerning [these four] it is said, But the name of the wicked shall rot (Proverbs 10:7).

The House of Abtinas preserved and protected the secret for making incense that would produce the cloud of smoke that rose and hovered above, but they preserved it out of selfishness—perhaps a sense of superiority or economic self-interest. Like the other three mentioned in the mishnah, they had something of religious value and kept it for themselves.

Holiness is a double-edged sword: For something to be sacred, powerful, transformative, and inspiring, it must be protected from becoming mundane, common, the quotidian of life. But when we withhold that which is holy from others who might share in its value and power, we diminish the divine. The cloud created by the burning of the ketoret (the incense) combines these two seemingly contradictory values: the smoke rose up, and then spread out over the people—all the people.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman


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