Incense is mixture of aromatic herbs burnt twice daily on the golden altar in the Temple, Hebrew ketoret, from a root meaning “to smoke.” The burning of the incense also formed an important part of the ritual performed by the High Priest when he entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16:12-13). The biblical instructions for the preparation of incense are found in Exodus 30:34, where four ingredients are mentioned–stacte, onycha, galbanum, and pure frankincence. But the Talmud (Keritot 6a) records an ancient tradition according to which there were eleven ingredients in the incense. This passage is known, after its opening words, as pittum ha-ketoret (“compound of incense”):
“The compound of incense consisted of balm, onycha, galbanum and frankincence, each in the quantity of seventy manehs; of myrrh, cassia, spikenard and saffron, each sixteen manehs by weight; of costus twelve, of aromatic rind three, and of cinnamon nine manehs; of lye obtained from leek nine kabs; though, if Cyprus wine is not available, old white wine may be used instead; of salt the Sodom the fourth of a kab, and of the smoke raiser [a herb that makes the smoke of the incense rise] a minute quantity. Rabbi Nathan says: Also of Jordan resin a minute quantity. If, however, honey is added, the incense is rendered unfit; while if one omits one of the ingredients he is liable to the
death penalty [not by human court but by the “Court of Heaven“]. Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel said: Balm is nothing but a resin which exudes from the wood of the balsam-tree, the lye obtained form leek was rubbed over the onycha in order to render it beautiful, and in the Cyprus wine the onycha was steeped that its odor might be intensified. In fact urine might well serve this purpose, but urine may not be brought within the precincts of the Temple.”
A Rabbinic comment on this is that galbanum has an unpleasant smell and yet is included in the ingredients of the incense, to teach that when the community assembles for prayer on public fast days the sinners, too, must be included. According to the Mishnah (Yoma 3:11) the incense in the Second Temple period was manufactured by the House of Abtinas who zealously kept their method secret. The Mishnah states that the sages objected to the House of Abtinas having a monopoly on the preparation of the incense but the Talmud comments that the reason for keeping it a secret was that it should not be manufactured by unscrupulous persons for profane purposes. The womenfolk of the House of Abtinas never used any perfume in case people would imagine that they were using the incense compound.
Did you like this article? MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.