Significance of the Qetoret [Incense]
© Rabbi Avraham Sutton
Table of Contents
In March 1988, Vendyl Jones and his team of Bnei Noah volunteers found a clay juglet about five inches in height in a cave in Qumran, just west of the northern end of the Yam HaMelach (Dead Sea). The juglet contained a reddish oil. It is believed to be the only surviving sample of the balsam oil that was prescribed in the Torah for anointing the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and its vessels, as well as the Cohanim-Priests and Kings of Israel. The oil, when found, had a honey-like consistency. The juglet in which it was found was wrapped in palm leaves and carefully concealed in a 3-foot deep pit which preserved it from looting and the extreme climatological extremes of the area.
In April 1992, Vendyl and his team discovered 600 kilos of "reddish-brown organic substance" in a carefully sealed rock silo in another part of the Qumran cave complex. Subsequent palynological analysis determined that this reddish-brown substance contains traces of at least eight of the eleven spices that were used in the manufacture of the Pitum HaQetoret (Incense Mixture) and burned in the Temple.
In 1994, the incense spices were presented to Rabbi Yehudah Getz of blessed memory, late Chief Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Places in Israel. A sample was also given to Rabbi Ovadiah Yoseph. Rabbi Ovadiah had his own chemist analyze the mixture to confirm its organic nature. Then both rabbis requested that Vendyl Jones "burn" some of the incense for scientific purposes (not with fire but with hydrochloric acid). At their suggestion, he had the spices combined together with the Sodom Salt and Karshina Lye which were also found stored separately in the cave in Qumran.
The results were astonishing. 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. More amazing, the area in which the spices were burned changed. It had been infested with a variety of flies, ants, moths and other insects. After the Qetoret was burned, no sign of these pests was seen for quite a while. This is reminiscent of the Mishnah in Avot (5:5) which states that there were no flies in the area of the Temple, nor was a snake or scorpion ever able to harm anyone anywhere in Jerusalem as long as the Temple stood.
In 1995, I met Vendyl Jones and began working with him. In 1996, I met Avraham Sand of Tiferet International Aromatherapy. Avraham isn't an archeologist, but he is a master perfumer. For the last decade he has been trying to unravel the secret of exactly which ingredients and processes were used to formulate the finely ground Qetoret [Incense]. He has done this working in close association with and under the rabbinical guidance of Rabbi Menachem Burstein, the foremost Jewish authority on the botany and chemistry of Temple artifacts. In order to sidestep the strict prohibition against experimentation with the various plant materials in their original form (see below), Rabbi Burstein has advised him that there is no prohibition whatsoever against enjoying the essential oil extracts of these same botanicals. At last report, Avraham has been able to authenticate and obtain nine of the original eleven incense spices, and produce them in the form of essential oils. In essence, he has paralleled Vendyl's discoveries of both the Anointing Oil and the Qetoret in Qumran.
The Talmud (Arachin 16a) tells us that the Beth HaMikdash (Holy Temple), the Mishkan (Tabernacle), as well as all their sacred vessels - the Aron HaKodesh (Holy Ark), Menorah (Candalabra), Mizbeach HaQetoret (Incense Altar), the garments of the Cohen Gadol (High Priest), etc. - were not just physical artifacts. They represented spiritual levels of closeness to G-d. The same is true of the Anointing Oil and the Qetoret .
What, then, are the implications of these and other finds? Might they be a signal to us, portents of good things to come, parts of a larger drama that is unfolding here in the Land of Israel -- not only all around us, but deep down at the root of our very souls? Remember when the juglet of SHeMeN (Oil) was found in the Temple by the ChaSHMoNaim? Remember what it signified: the power of SHeMoNa (Eight) that calls us to see miracles in the subtle order of nature, in the confusing events of our individual and collective lives, in the hidden pathways of Divine Providence that guides Israel and all Mankind from behind the scenes of history. Eight is the power that can arouse us out of our collective slumber. By reminding us of those times when G-d did indeed overtly "interfere" with and "alter" the "natural" course of history, it can arouse us in anticipation of the powerful revelation of G-d's salvation that we await in our own time.
Similarly, by getting back in touch with the mystery of the Qetoret , by unearthing its ancient secrets, we can awaken something else in ourselves that is sorely needed at this time. Come let us explore the deeper meaning of the Qetoret in our time. Back to top
II. The Anointing Oil and The Qetoret
In the Torah, we find the commandment concerning the Qetoret immediately following that of the Anointing Oil.
G-d spoke to Moses, saying: Take the finest spices, 500 [shekels] of distilled myrrh, [two] half portions, each consisting of 250 [shekels] of fragrant cinnamon and 250 [shekels] of fragrant cane, and 500 shekels of cassia, all measured by the sanctuary standard, along with a hin of olive oil. Make it into Shemen Mish'chat Kodesh [Sacred Anointing Oil]. Blend it into a compound, as made by a master perfumer, [made especially for] the sacred anointing oil. With it, anoint the Communion Tent, the Ark of the Testimony, the Table and all its utensils, the Menorah and its utensils, the Incense Altar, the Elevation Altar and all its utensils, the Washstand and its base. Sanctify them thus, giving them the highest degree of holiness [Kodesh Kadashim], so that anything touching them becomes sanctified. Anoint Aaron and his sons as well, sanctifying them to serve Me. Speak to the Children of Israel and tell them: This shall be the sacred anointing oil, [sanctified] to Me for all your generations. Do not pour it on the skin of any [unauthorized] person, and do not duplicate it with a similar formula. It is holy, and it must remain sacred to you. If a person blends a similar formula, or places it on an unauthorized person, he shall be cut off [spiritually] from his people (Exodus 30:22-33)
Immediately, the Torah continues:
G-d said to Moses: Take for yourself spices - balsam, onycha, galbanum, [as well as other specified] spices, and pure frankincense - equal amounts of each. [Grind each spice separately and then] blend [them together as] a Qetoret [incense] compound, the work of a master perfumer, well-blended, free of all impurity, and holy. Pulverize a small portion of [the Qetoret daily] and place it [on the Golden Altar] before the [Ark of] Testimony in the Communion Tent where I commune with you. It shall have the highest degree of holiness for you [Kodesh Kadashim]. With regard to the Qetoret you are to make,do not duplicate its formula for your personal use. It must remain seand set aside for G-d. If a person makes it to enjoy its fragrance, he shall be cut off [spiritually] from his people (Exodus 30:34-38).
King Solomon wrote, "Oil and Qetoret [incense] make the heart rejoice" (Proverbs 27:9).
A number of things stand out: First, the juxtaposition. The Anointing Oil and the Qetoret [incense] are incredibly connected with each other. The Torah lists four main ingredients for both: The Oil was made of equal proportions of 1) Mor-myrrh, 2) Kineman-cinnamon, 3) Keneh Besem-fragrant cane (sweet calamus or cinnamon bark), and 4) ketzia-cassia. The Qetoret contained equal proportions of 1) Nataf-balsam, 2) Shechelet-onycha, 3) Chelbenah-galbanum, and 4) Levonah Zakah-pure frankincense. Although there is considerable differences of opinion concerning the actual identities of these spices, there is no question that the Oil and the Qetoret are intimately connected with each other. As we shall see, the Qetoret contains another seven ingredients, but these are only implied in the Torah, and only explicitly designated in the Oral tradition. Among these seven, we find Mor-myrrh, Ketzia-cassia, as well as three spices which are taken from different parts of the Kineman-cinnamon plant.
The second thing we see from the above passages is that the Oil and the Qetoret are both extremely holy. Holy in Hebrew is Kodesh. When something is Kodesh, it is to be set aside and kept separate. It then has the power to sanctify and elevate everything around it. This is the idea behind Shabbat Kodesh, the Holy Sabbath. It is the ultimate Sanctuary in Time, set aside from the rest of the days of the week, yet constantly elevating them into itself and then overflowing back into them.
The same is true of Torah HaKedoshah (the Holy Torah), Lashon HaKodesh (the Holy Tongue), Eretz HaKodesh (the Holy Land), Yerushalayim Ir HaKodesh (Jerusalem the Holy City), Beth HaMikdash (the Holy Temple), Kidushin (Marriage Sanctity). All of these have the power to elevate everything around them. This is the nature of true Kedushah. It elevates and then infuses everything around it with holiness. But for this very reason, it is potentially lethal if misused. Thus, we come to the third similarity. Regarding profane duplication of the formula of either the Anointing Oil or the Qetoret , the Torah is very explicit: the punishment is Karet, spiritual excision. In other words, their extremely exalted status requires that they be extra-carefully guarded and protected against misuse. Thus, while everything in the Mishkan and Mikdash is Kodesh, not everything is Kodesh Kadashim, Holy of Holies. Both the Anointing Oil and the Qetoret are Kodesh Kadashim.
The author of the Me'am Lo'ez asks a pertinent question about the above passages and makes a clear distinction between them:
According to the Talmud (Keritot 6b), G-d commanded Moses orally concerning the weight and amount of each ingredient in the Qetoret , just as He commanded him concerning the weight and amount of each ingredient in the Anointing Oil. Why, then, doesn't the Torah record these amounts as it does in the case of the Anointing Oil, where the precise recipe is given?
Rather, the Torah is teaching us here one law that applies to the Anointing Oil, but not to the Qetoret . If one wanted to make the Anointing Oil, he would need the full weight and amount of all the ingredients. It could not be even one gram less. It is forbidden to make half the recipe.
In the case of the Qetoret , however, it was not necessary that the full recipe be made. As long as the precise nature and proportion of the ingredients was maintained, the recipe could be made in half [third, quarter, tenth, or smaller] amounts.
The Torah shows this to us when it does not tell us the precise amount of each ingredient. As long as the proper proportions are kept, it thus does not matter if the Qetoret is made with the particular amount or with half or less. This is not the case with the Anointing Oil (see Kaplan, Torah Anthology, Volume 9, p. 320). Back to top
III. The Qetoret and the Shattering of the Vessels
We shall return to speak more about the above quoted Qetoret [incense] passage. For the moment, in order to do justice to the awesome power of the subject of Qetoret , we feel it necessary to add another dimension to the discussion, the Kabbalistic dimension. In Innerspace, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan of blessed memory speaks about the deeper significance of the Qetoret based on the teachings of the holy Ari (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572):
The incense consisted of ten spices or perfumes with good fragrances, and an eleventh spice, Chelbenah-galbanum, with a vile odor. These spices were each ground separately and then blended together to be used in the Temple. Since these eleven spices parallel the eleven Sefirot of the Universe of Tohu [Chaos], they are therefore said to represent the complete rectification of evil. This is indicated by the addition of the eleventh spice, Chelbenah-galbanum, which alludes to the elevation of evil back into the realm of the holy (Innerspace, Moznaim Publishers, 1991, p. 86).
This passage appears in the tenth chapter of Innerspace entitled "The Shattering of the Vessels." The "vessels" referred to here are the Sefirot of the Universe of Tohu [Chaos]. Each of these Sefirot or Vessels purposely "shattered" when G-d, in the process of creating the universes, allowed a tiny bit of His Infinite Light to shine into them. In the Midrash, this series of shatterings is described thus: "In the beginning, the Holy One created worlds and destroyed them, created worlds and destroyed them" (Bereshit Rabbah 3:7).
Actually, only seven of these Sefirot shattered, while four did not. These four might parallel the four incense spices mentioned in the Torah. As mentioned and as we shall discuss below, the names of the seven remaining spices are not mentioned in the Written Torah. They come to us only via the Oral Tradition from Sinai. At any rate, only the seven lower Sefirot shattered. As G-d's light began to enter into each Sefirah-vessel, it "shattered" and "fell," creating the basis for other, "lower," more "physical" universes - eventually our material universe. According to the Kabbalah there were a total of seven shatterings. If we are correct, these seven shatterings parallel the spices which are not mentioned in the Torah. The four spices that are mentioned parallel the Sefirot-vessels that did not shatter.
As Rabbi Kaplan points out, the Shattering of the Vessels is also alluded to in the Torah in the account of the Eight Kings of Edom, at the end of Genesis 36. These eight kings were descendants of Jacob's twin-brother, Esav. The main point that the Torah makes about these kings is that they ruled and died in succession, one after the other. This applies to all except the eighth. Only seven died, the same seven as mentioned above. The only difference is that the primitive vessels and universes are said to have shattered and been destroyed, while the kings are said to have died. Dying and shattering [and being destroyed] are thus different metaphors for the same events. Back to top
IV. The Tzimtzum [Constriction]
It is important to point out that G-d doesn't make mistakes. He is the ultimate Master Craftsman. Were He creating a world only for His own purposes, He would have immediately created a perfect world, as He is certainly capable of doing. But His intention was for mere corporeal man to live in a physical environment, to face temptation and overcome it by the power of his own free will, and thereby merit awesome rewards for his efforts.
Free will is the key here. Free will must be maintained in perfect balance. Were light (good) outweighed by the breakdown of light (darkness and evil), or vice versa, even just a little, man could not be held responsible for his actions. He could not be rewarded for doing good or held accountable for choosing evil. Free will is absolutely necessary for man to receive his ultimate reward.
In order to create an environment in which man could have free will, G-d withdrew His Light, thereby creating a Challal [Hollow,Void, Vacated Space]. This original withdrawal of lighis called Tzimtzum [Self-constriction], for G-d's Light contracted within Itself, leaving this so-called Void. He then shone His Light back into the newly created Vacated Space, but not in the same manner as before its removal. He therefore reintroduced His Light back into the Vacated Space in a highly measured form, to prevent it from becoming filled too quickly with too much Light, which would cause it to "collapse" back into His Infinite Being.
Of course, the image of G-d withdrawing His Light and then reintroducing it should not be taken literally. G-d exists equally everywhere, at all times. "Withdrawiing His Light" from the "Vacated Space" to "make room" for Creation in no way implies that He was or is no longer there. G-d was equally here, there and everywhere both before and after He created the Vacated Space. The difference between "before" and "after" exists only from our vantage point. As the Ari explains and as we saw above, the reason G-d constricted His Light and created the Vacated Space was so that man could have independent existence and free will. G-d certainly exists within all Creation, for without G-dliness nothing can exist. Yet if G-d's Existence were clear and obvious in this world, man would not have free will. For this reason, G-d withdrew His Light, as it were, concealing Himself from man, making it seem to man's limited vision as if there is a vacuum, a place devoid of G-dliness.
In this sense, G-d "had" to filter His light, diminishing it many times over to enable man to interact with Him. This is why He "created worlds and destroyed them..." The intention is not that He made a mistake and "scrapped" His first world. On the contrary, that world and all the worlds that followed it were extremely exalted and sublime -- too exalted and too sublime. They still revealed too much Light. Many contractions were therefore necessary to filter and measure the Light even more. Only after such a step-down devolution could the process that began with the original Tzimtzum be brought to its intended conclusion, i.e. a physical world in which G-d's Light would be almost completely undetectable. It is this step-down devolution that the Midrash describes as the Holy One creating and destroying universes. Back to top
This Kabbalistic teaching concerning the primordial shattering is not speaking about physical vessels. The Sefirot of the Universe of Tohu preceded and were the basis for the physical world. This implies an interesting parallel between this series of shatterings and the powerful galactic and supernova explosions that occurred when G-d began to "materialize" the physical universe into existence.
According to the latest scientific thinking, the matter of the universe originated in a huge explosion of energy called "The Big Bang." [The name "the Big Bang" is actually very misleading. It gives the mistaken impression that there was some kind of explosion of matter.] All the energy in our universe, all the stars, planets, galaxies, earth itself, its oceans and mountains, plant life, all that supports human life, and human life itself, in short, everything in our universe, came from the energy that was released in the Big Bang. This original explosion of pure energy was followed by countless Little Bangs (supernova explosions of energy that eventually, after many stages of expansion and contraction and expansion, coalesced into matter and then into stars and planets).
We can now understand how the modern theory of the Big Bang is the "physical" counterpart to the Kabbalistic teaching of the Shattering of the Vessels. [What all this has to do with the Qetoret we will see momentarily.]
At first, the universe was only hydrogen and helium. Why was there only hydrogen and helium? Because the temperatures were so high that no physical matter could exist during those early stages of the "physical" universe. The fact that these first "explosions" could not have involved physical matter can be seen by the fact that their temperatures were millions of times that of our present sun. These temperatures actually preclude the existence of physical matter. There simply is no such thing as physical matter when you are speaking of such heat.
Scientists are thus forced to admit that we are not talking here about physical matter (which came much later), but rather "mathematical abstractions." In the language of Kabbalah, these "abstractions" parallel the Sefirot of the Universe of Tohu that served as the basis for what later came to be our present universe. More correctly, what scientists call the "Big Bang" might have been the last of the Sefirot of Tohu [Chaos] shattering, i.e. the interface between the Universes of Yetzirah and Asiyah, between spiritual energy and so-called physical energy.
Let it be clear, I am not making a scientifically verifiable claim here, merely suggesting a very interesting parallel based on these and other highly significant teachings which were revealed by the Ari in the 16th century.
At any rate, what happened after the Big Bang? Hydrogen and helium, the "hottest" and therefore "lightest" elements in existence which were supposedly produced in those first few moments of the early universe, eventually cooled off and congealed into stars. In other words, the light-hot energy of the big bang "congealed" into the relatively darker-cooler matter of the stars. [Stars are still very very hot!] Subsequently, all the other heavier elements were manufactured inside the "blast-furnaces" of the stars. The four most abundant elements in the universe are, in order, 1) hydrogen, 2) helium, 3) oxygen and 4) carbon. Oxygen, and especially carbon, which are necessary to support organic life, came much later, after many successive shatterings. Back to top
VI. The Sefirot and the Qetoret Spices
One more point of clarification before we get to the Qetoret . Why, according to the Ari, did the primitive Sefirot of the Universe of Tohu shatter? Kabbalistically speaking, they were purposely created in a way that they would shatter when the light entered them. Although it sounds strange, these Sefirot were imbued with consciousness. In this sense, they "knew" and "understood" that they had a mission. Their mission was to create lower and lower universes which would allow for the existence of a world in which human beings could have free will. In order to do this, it was necessary to diminish the awesome power of the G-dly light. In order to do this, they had to sacrifice themselves and die, i.e. shatter.
This is very deep. They "knew" they had to die. Although they were extremely exalted and holy, they "understood" that they contained something, some negative charge, which made them potentially dangerous. In other words, they were good and holy, but they were also imperfect and flawed as long as they didn't fulfill the mission for which they were created. And what was this mission? We said that it involved diminishing G-d's light in order to allow for the creation of lower universe and hence the possibility of free will. We left out one point: Their mission was to become the basis for the existence of evil.
This is the spiritual counterpart of bringing about heavier and heavier elements, eventually carbon, which could support life. This is the spiritual counterpart of grinding the incense spices in order to make the Qetoret . The ingredients of the Qetoret correspond to the Sefirot of the Universe of Tohu and to the elements that were created in the Big Bang and subsequently broken down into the heavier elements with each successive little bang.
Returning to how the Kabbalah views this, Rabbi Kaplan thus explains, "The vessels were created flawed so that the actual source of evil should be something good which has fallen. Had evil been created as an independent entity, man would not have had the ability to rectify it in the form of teshuvah-repentance. Since evil originated in the highest vessels, it could now be reelevated to this level" (Innerspace, p. 85).
Referring to the above passage, he says in Part II of Innerspace:
We discussed the root of evil in connection the Shattering of the Vessels. We saw that, ultim, evil comes from good; it is the fallen aspect of good. The Ari points out that G-d could have created evil as an independent entity, but He chose to make it through the process of the Shattering of the Vessels: evil had to be created as the fallen aspect of good so that one could raise it back it to its source. Had it originated as evil, a human being would never have been able to reelevate it. In that case, only G-d could.
In the account of Creation, we first have "In the beginning, G-d created heaven and earth." This alludes to the realm of good. We then have "The earth was without Tohu [without form] and Bohu [empty], with darkness on the face of the depths"...which is evil coming out of good. Finally, that very evil is reelevated and transformed into good when G-d says, "Let there be light"... Even without using any Kabbalistic terminology, we see this process [of good to evil to higher good] in the beginning of Genesis.
Our sages teach us that one of the main reasons why we were placed in the physical world was to overcome evil. It is in this way that w actually emulate G-d. The Zohar (1:4a) expresses this by stating that we too are to "turn darkness into light." Ultimately, there is one Source of everything that exists, even evil. It is not that G-d actually created evil, but it is through His will that the possibility of evil exists. [The main thing to know is that] everything comes from G-d and must return to Him (Innerspace, p. 159). Back to top
VII. The Angel of Death
Rabbi Kaplan continues:
The Talmud (Shabbat 89a) teaches that Moses was taught the mystery of the incense by the Angel of Death. [The Angel of Death had revealed to Moses that the Qetoret 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 Israelites in the wilderness Moses ordered Aaron to walk through the camp with the incense. ["Aaron took the incense pan as Moses had commanded him... He offered the incense to atone for the people... and the plague was checked" (Numbers 17:12-13).] From here we see that the eleven perfumes have the power to overcome death and evil (Innerspace, p. 86).
Why does Qetoret overcome death and evil? Where does it get this power? It gets it from the fact that the grinding of the spices for the Qetoret parallels the shattering and death of the original Sefirot. The original Sefirot were "light" with a slight admixture of "darkness." That darkness could not manifest as full-fledged "evil" until the light itself was broken down into tiny photon-packets or micro-chips. That breakdown of the light is called its death and darkness, the ultimate concealment of G-d's light. But the Qetoret , in the very way it is made, and especially in the number and nature of its ingredients, has the power to overcome death and darkness, and completely transform all evil - in ourselves and in the world - into good. Back to top
Above we quoted Rabbi Kaplan saying:
The incense consisted of ten spices or perfumes with good fragrances, and an eleventh spice, Chelbenah-galbanum, with a vile odor... which alludes to the elevation of evil back into the realm of the holy.
Rabbi Kaplan continues:
Following the idea of the ten fragrant spices and the single unpleasant one, the Talmud (Keritot 6a) states: "Every fast that does not include sinners of Israel is not a fast." This is derived from the fact that the incense included galbanum. Just as the Chelbenah-galbanum was necessary to give the other spices exactly the right fragrance, a congregation is not complete without someone who has also fallen and who must reelevate himself through repentance. In particular, when a difficult punishment has been decreed against Israel because of some evil deed, this very evil must be taken and elevated. Thus, the idea of transforming evil by elevating it back to its source in holiness is intimated in the incense. It is for this reason also that a fast must include "the sinners of Israel."
Rabbi Kaplan goes on to speak about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. He draws a parallel between their sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and the original Shattering of the Vessels. But we will stop here for the moment and attempt to develop on some of the basic ideas already mentioned. In the remainder of this essay we will bring the entire text of the Qetoret from the traditional Siddur (Prayer Book) and then deepen our appreciation of it by bringing other biblical, rabbinical, and kabbalistic texts to bear. Back to top
IX. The Text of the Siddur
Above, we read the commandment of the Qetoret in the Torah. Most, not all, of this commandment is brought in the Siddur:
G-d said to Moses: Take for yourself spices - balsam, onycha, galbanum, [as well as other specified] spices, and pure frankincense - equal amounts of each. [Grind each spice separately and then] blend [them together as] a Qetoret compound, the work of a master perfumer, well-blended, free of all impurity, and holy. Pulverize a small portion of [the Qetoret daily] and place it [on the Golden Altar] before the [Ark of] Testimony in the Communion Tent where I commune with you. It shall have the highest degree of holiness for you (Exodus 30:34-36).
It was also said: Aaron must burn the Qetoret spices on [the Golden Altar] early each morning when he cleans the [Menorah] lamps. He must also burn the Qetoret when he lights the lamps towards evening. It is a daily Qetoret offering before G-d throughout all your generations (ibid. 30:7-8).
We are already familiar with the first passage (Exodus 30:34-36). The second passage (30:7-8) is significant because it shows how intertwined the Qetoret is with the Lighting of the Menorah in the morning and evening. Here again we see the intimate connection between Shemen and Qetoret . This is not the Anointing Oil, but it is Oil.
Only two additional points need concern us here concerning the first passage. First, it is worth paying attention to the omission of its two concluding verses describing the death penalty for anyone who misappropriates the Qetoret . This is conspicuously missing.
Second, we noted above that the Written Torah mentions the four main spices in the Qetoret . It is only through oral transmission that we know of the other seven, making a total of eleven. The sages nevertheless take the trouble to tell us how the extra seven are alluded to in the terse language of the Written Torah. Again, on the same page of the Talmud (Keritot 6b), they explain thus: The verse says: "Take for yourself spices - balsam, onycha, galbanum, spices, and pure frankincense." If the Torah only meant that the four main substances should be taken and nothing else, it should simply have said, "Take for yourself balsam, onycha, galbanum and pure frankincense." The Torah uses the word spices (samim), repeated twice. This indicates that there were other spices.
Since the Torah does not designate what they are, it seems obvious that the first mention of the word "spices" (after "take for yourself") would denote two different spices, since the minimum number that the plural form "samim" can be is two. Then we have the balsam, onycha and galbanum, bringing us to a total of five. The Torah then mentions "samim" again to tell us that in addition to these five there were another additional five. This doubles the amount, making a total of ten. If the second "samim" only denoted two, the Torah would have said, "Take for yourself spices - balsam, onycha..." Since the Torah divides them, it means that they were not the same. Therefore, the first time the word "samim" is mentioned denotes two spices; the second time it denotes five. Therefore, from the two times that the word "samim" occurs, we learn that there were seven spices besides the four mentioned in the Torah, making a total of eleven (see Kaplan, Torah Anthology, Volume 9, pp. 311-312).
The Siddur now continues, paraphrasing various sources in the Talmud (Keritot 6a), in effect creating a totally unique text defining the properties of the Qetoret :
The Rabbis taught: How was the Qcompounded? It contained 368 man [measures]. 365 of these corresponded to the number of days in the solar year, one measure a day, half in the morning and half towards evening. The other three measures were those that the Cohen Gadol [High Priest] would bring [into the Holy of Holies] as a double handful on Yom Kippur. He would replace them in the mortar on the eve of Yom Kippur and regrind them thoroughly to make [the Qetoret compound] extra fine.
The Qetoret contained eleven spices. There were seventy measures each of (1) balsam, (2) onycha, (3) galbanum, and (4) frankincense. There were sixteen measures each of (5) myrrh, (6) cassia, (7) spikenard, and (8) saffron. There were twelve measures of (9) costus, three measures of (10) aromatic bark, and nine measures of (11) cinnamon.
[Also used to prepare some of the spices for the Qetoret were:] nine kabin of Karshina lye, three se'in and three kabin of Cyprus wine. If Cyprus wine was not available, aged white wine could be used instead. There was a fourth of a kab of Sodom salt, and a small quantity of smoke-producing herb. Rabbi Nathan of Babylon says: A minute quantity of Jordan amber was also added. If [any kind of bee or fruit] honey was added, the Qetoret was rendered unfit. If one omitted from [or added to] the [original eleven] spices, he was liable the death penalty.
Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: The balsam was simply the resin that drips from balsam trees. Why was Karshina lye used? To rub the onycha to make it more pleasant. Why was Cyprus wine used? To soak the onycha to make it more pungent. Isn't water from [the springs of] Raglayim good for this? But it would have been disrespectful to bring water from [the springs of] Raglayim into the Holy Temple.
For someone who really wants to understand what is going on here in the text of the Siddur, a lot of concentration is needed. First, always try to pay attention to who says what. What are the names of the Rabbis? The first passage from the Talmud opened with "The Rabbis taught." In Aramaic this is Tanu Rabbanan. This indicates an Oral Transmission which, in this case at least, is unanimously accepted. This is important in a system of transmission in which minute distinctions are the substance of major differences of opinion. The second and third passages ("The Qetoret contained" and "Also used to prepare") are part of the same transmission. In the middle of the third passage, however, we find the name of Rabbi Nathan of Babylon. Apparently, he received an additional tradition that was not included in the general transmission. Nobody seems to disagree with him, except concerning the identity of Jordan amber. According to one opinion, this was a pleasant smelling herb that grew near the Jordan River, in which case it was used to strengthen the fragrance of the tziporen-onycha. According to another opinion, Jordan amber is foam from the Jordan River. It was smeared on the mortar in which the incense spices were ground so that they would not stick to it and cause the amount to be decreased (Torah Anthology, Volume 9, p. 322).
The fourth passage mentions Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel who, as we shall see shortly, is also known by his initials RaShbaG.
Finally, the fourth passage mentions the possibility of soaking the tziporen-onycha in Mey Raglayim, but concludes that it would have been disrespectful to bring such water into the Temple. Here too there are two opinions regarding the identity of this Mey Raglayim. According to one, these were waters from a spring where raw wool was washed and combed. Since the washing process involved beating and stamping on the wool with one's feet (raglayim), the stream was called Ein Rogel ("the spring of the feet"; Rashi, Radak on II Samuel 17:17).
A second opinion maintains that urine is called Mey Raglayim because it is water (mey or mayim) that is discharged from between the two legs (raglayim). Because of its high acidity, urine would also have been good to soak the tziporen. Nevertheless, whether as water from Ein Rogel or urine, it is clear why Mey Raglayim was forbidden to use in the preparation of the Qetoret . Both are associated with impurities that are washed away. Therefore, out of respect for the sanctity of the Temple, neither type of Mey Raglayim was used (see Etz Yoseph, Otzar HaTefillot, p. 78).
Now, as we read the fifth, sixth and seventh passages, continue paying special attention to the names. Again, we have Rabbi Nathan (supposedly the same as above), and Rabbi Yehudah, who will be identified shortly as Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi (the Prince), the man who redacted the Mishnah. Note that it isn't clear in the Siddur if Rabbi Yehudah is coming to disagree with Rabbi Nathan or not. Finally, we have Bar Kappara, whose injunction against mixing honey in the Qetoret we shall discuss below.
It was taught: Rabbi Nathan says: While grinding the Qetoret , [the Cohen] would chant: Pulverize it finely, finely pulverize it, for [the rhythm of] the voice is good for [the grinding of] the spices. If half the recipe [for the annual amount of Qetoret ] was compounded, it was still kosher [permitted]. We have not received a tradition with regard to a third or a quarter. Rabbi Yehudah said: This was the rule: If the right proportion [of all the spices] was maintained, it was kosher, even if half [the daily amount] was compounded. But if even one of its spices was left out, [the one compounding it was] liable the death penalty.
It was taught: Bar Kappara says: Once in sixty or seventy years, half [the required annual amount of Qetoret ] came from the accumulated surpluses [left over from the three measures set aside each year for Yom Kippur]. Bar Kappara also taught: Had even a minuscule amount of [bee or fruit] honey been added to the Qetoret , no one could have resisted [the pleasantness of] its fragrance. Why, then, was no honey blended into it? Because the Torah stated: You may not burn any leaven or honey as a fire offering to G-d.
The G-d of [all heavenly and terrestrial] hosts is with us - the G-d of Jacob is our assurance [and inspiration] forever, selah! O G-d of hosts, happy is the man who trusts [only] in You! O G-d, save [us]! O King, answer us on the day we call! You are a hiding place for me - protect me from affliction! Encompass me with songs of [Your] deliverance forever, selah! May the offering of Yehudah and Jerusalem be pleasing to G-d as in olden days and ancient years. Back to top
The following table, taken from Vendyl Jones' Report on the Excavations at Qumran, is based on the work of Dr. Marvin Antelmen, Chemical Advisor at Weizzman Institute, Rechovot. Dr. Antelman writes: "The following table gives the Hebrew terminology of the ingredient followed by a translation culled from various sources by the author of this report, together with the units found in the Talmud and a percentage composition based on approximations. The problem arising in the approximations are that the MANEH measurement of the Talmud is a weight measure and the SEAH and KAB are liquid and dry volumetric measures. Approximations of the materials themselves which are not really known are educated guesses. Accordingly, Cypress wine and Karshina lye have been 'guesstimated.'"
The Eleven Qetoret Spices as listed in the Talmud and Siddur:
Ingredient Amount in Maneh %.
1) ha'tzori-balsam 70 maneh 13.0%
2) ha'tziporen-onycha 70 maneh 13.0%
3) ha'chelbenah-galbanum 70 maneh 13.0%
4) ha'levonah-frankincense 70 maneh 13.0%
5) mor-myrrh 16 maneh 3.0%
6) ketzia-cassia 16 maneh 3.0%
7) shibolet nerd-spikenard 16 maneh 3.0%
8) kharkom-saffron 16 maneh 3.0%
9) ha'kosht-costus 12 maneh 2.2%
10) k'lufah-aromatic bark 3 maneh 0.6%
11) kinnamon-cinnamon 9 maneh 1.7%
A) Borit Karshina-lye 9 kab 14.3%
B) Yein Kafrisin-Cypress wine 3 se'in/3 kabin 16.8%
C) Melach Sedomit-Sodom salt + kab 0.3%
D) Maaleh Ashan-Smoke producer kol shehu [a small amount] 0.1%
Technical Note: 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 TAntholog, Volume 11, p. 43), according to which a maneh equals 100 biblical shekels, or 5 pounds.
Thus, according to the first opinion, 368 maneh, one year's supply of Qetoret , amounted to 368+ lbs. According to the second opinion, 368 maneh amounted to 2840 lbs.
Other ingredients used to prepare the eleven primary spices were: 9 kabin (9 quarts according to Kaplan) of Karshina-vetch lye, 3 se'in and 3 kabin (21 quarts) of Cyprus-caper wine or aged white wine, 1/4 kab (1 cup) of Sodom salt-nitrate, as well as small amounts of maaleh ashan ("smoke-producing herb" - probably leptadenia pyrotechnica which contains nitric acid), and Jordan amber (probably cyclomen). Back to top
We mentioned that two verses were conspicuously left out of the Siddur. After the command to "Take for yourself spices balsam, onycha, galbanum and pure frankincense - an equal amount of each ground separately, and make them into a Qetoret mixture, the work of a master perfumer..." the Torah itself adds, "With regard to the Qetoret you are to make, do not duplicate its formula for your personal use. It must remain separate and set aside for G-d. If a person makes it to enjoy its fragrance, he shall be cut off [spiritually] from his people" (Exodus 30:37-38).
As if to make up for these two missing verses, the Siddur mentions death twice in connection with the Qetoret : "If one omitted from [or added to] the [original eleven] spices, he was liable the death penalty," "If even one of its spices was left out, [the one compounding it was] liable the death penalty." What is the source for this stringency? Still, the omission is glaring.
Be that as it may, the main thing to focus on here is the fact that the Torah states explicitly that duplicating its formula for the Qetoret mixture can incur the death penalty (karet, "spiritual excision"). As is often the case, the oral tradition is concerned with clarifying what is left unsaid, but nevertheless implied, in the terse language of the Written Torah. In Keritot 6b we thus find:
RaShbaG (Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel) taught: "We have a tradition that every sixty or seventy years the Qetoret was compounded in half quantities. For this reason, an individual who compounds in half quantities [for his own use] is liable the death penalty."
Rashbag's oral tradition teaches us a number of things. First, the Sages were concerned with setting up a fence to protect us from transgressing Torah law. If someone can incur the death penalty by duplicating the Torah's formula for the incense mixture, it is important to clarify exactly what that does and does not involve.
Above, we learned that the formula for 368 maneh was: 4 spices at 70 maneh, 4 at 16, 1 at 12, 1 at 9, and 1 at 3; a total of 368. Since we have a tradition that half-amounts were indeed mixed, this means that the formula involves fixed ratios or proportions as opposed to fixed amounts. Thus, for Rashbag, 4 spices at 70 maneh translates into 4 spices at a ratio of 70 to 368 (13.0%); 4 spices at a ratio of 16 maneh translates into 16 to 368 (3.0%), etc. As long as the proper proportions are maintained with respect to the total amount being made, this is considered within the Torah's definition of the incense formula. Nevertheless, Rashbag limits this only to half-amounts. A person is liable for making a personal incense mixture only if he has made it with half-amounts, as he continues, "I have not received a tradition concerning third or quarter amounts." This is exactly the position of Rabbi Nathan in the Siddur.
The Sages of the Talmud, however, take a position more like that of Rabbi Yehudah:
The Sages say: "Each day [the Cohen] would prepare and offer the Qetoret needed for that day... as the verse states, 'With regard to the Qetoret you are to make,' i.e. any amount you make [as long as the proper proportions are maintained]." (See Shitah Mekubetzet, note 4, quoting Rosh.)
In Yerushalmi, Yoma 4:5, we find the same symmetry. The first opinion parallels Rabbi Nathan's opinion in the Siddur, and Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi speaks for himself:
If the Qetoret was mixed in half amounts, it was permitted. We have not received a tradition concerning third or quarter amounts.
Rabbi [Yehudah HaNasi] said: "If the ratios were maintained, it was permissible [in any amount]. And as for the tradition which seems to imply that only half-amounts are permitted, this is also referring to the maintenance of the proper ratios [i.e. when mixing half-amounts, all the spices must be mixed in half-amounts; when mixing in third, quarter or smaller amounts, all spices must be mixed in proportional amounts]" (see Korban HaEdah, ad. loc.).
Whereas in the Siddur, it is not obvious whether Rabbi Yehudah is coming to dispute the above opinion, here in the Talmud is. In the end, it is Rabbi Yehudah's position which is adhered to. As Maimonides (Laws Concerning Temple Vessels 2:8-9) writes:
If one mixed the Qetoret in small quantities but maintained the proper ratios, it is permissible [to be used in the Mikdash]. This applies even if he mixed half a measure for the morning offering and half for the evening. If, on the other hand, one mixed these eleven spices according to the prescribed amounts in order to enjoy its fragrance, he is liable the death penalty... even if he only made a half or a third (or less) (see Mishneh LeMelech ad. loc.). Back to top
XII. Teshuvah -Repentance
Details are never meant to obscure essence, but rather to give us vessels within which to receive essence. After seeing how much is involved in the Qetoret (all of which is a necessary preparation to get to the essence), we might tend to lose sight of the fact that a single thread runs throughout this entire discussion from beginning to end. One way of grasping this thread is to contemplate the discussion we just saw between the rabbis in more general terms. We saw above that it is universally agreed upon that a maneh of incense mixture was to be offered each day of the year. The "dispute" seemed to center around how much incense had to be made at once, on the one hand, or how little could be made at once, on the other hand.
The truth is that these are just two ways of looking at our lives. Should we see lives on a "large" annual scale, or should we see them on a relatively "tiny" daily scale. Obviously, both have advantages and both are important. The essence is to live each day to the fullest, paying attention to all the ingredients that go into making them up. This includes seeing the ingredients that don't smell so good as an important part of life. And then, when we get to Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur, we can look back on a year full of full days. On Yom Kippur, our Qetoret will already have been ground. We will just have to grind it finer yet, thus making sure that there is admixture of evil that hasn't been processed and elevated back to its source.
For this is the essence, isn't it? Teshuvah is the ability to restructure a new life and a new personality out of the raw material we were given to work with. With Teshuvah , we can transform the greatest darkness into light, the most bitter experience into something sweet. "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" (Dr. Terry Hutter, Palynological Asessment of the Qumran Spices, May 5, 1994, in Vendyl Jones' Report on the Excavat Qumran).
The incredible aroma of the Qetoret was especially conducive to doing Teshuvah . It is taught that whoever smelled the fragrance of the Qetoret when it was being burned on the Golden Altar would have thoughts of Teshuvah . His heart would be purified of all evil thoughts and from the defilement of the Evil Urge (Torah Anthology, Volume 9, p. 307).
The Qetoret was so powerful because the nature and amount of its ingredients were commanded to Moses by G-d. Thus, we saw above in the text of the Siddur that any admixture of fruit or bee honey into the Qetoret was forbidden. The first reason given is that nobody would have been able to stand the sweetness of its smell. If the aroma of the Qetoret was powerful without honey, how much more would it have been with it! But this reason is then followed by a scriptural verse in which it is explicitly stated that honey may not be offered as incense. The question is: why say that it is too powerful, why not just bring the verse? In other words, even if it wasn't so powerful, the verse would prohibit it, so again, why bring a verse?
I asked this question to one of my first teachers, Rabbi Ephraim Rottenberg of blessed memory. He told me to pay attention to the words used in the text. First Bar Kappara says, "Had even a minuscule amount of honey been added (natan, from the verb 'to place') to the Qetoret , no one could have resisted its fragrance." The question is then asked, "Why was no honey blended (me'arvim, from the verb 'to mix') into it?" The questioner understood that it is prohibited to "add" honey to the Qetoret in a way that it would be visible. He was merely asking why we can't "blend" it in in such a way that it wouldn't not be noticeable. For this we need the verse, "You may not burn any leaven or honey as a fire-offering to G-d" (Leviticus 2:11). Leaven and honey both allude to pride. If honey is placed upon fire, it bubbles and rises more than any other liquid. More than any other quality, pride prevents one from recognizing one's faults and returning in true and sincere Teshuvah .
Rabbi Moses Sofer (Chatam Sofer, Derashot 18; quoted in Siddur Chatam Sofer ad. loc.) explains the symbolic meaning of the names of the four main incense spices, as well as the Karshina lye and the Cyprus wine:
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-balm and healing for the entire body. Levonah zakah alludes to G-d's love for His people through which He me'laven-whitens and bleaches their sins. Between these two are placed the tziporen and chelbenah. As known, chelbenah alludes to complete sinners. The 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 Cyprus wine to make it azah [pungent or strong] alludes to the wine [secret teachings] of the Torah which imbues Israel with the ability to remain firm and unyielding in their faith when they walk among the nations. Back to top
XIII. Redeeming the Sparks
In Hebrew, the word Qetoret describes something that "rises up in circles, and whose aroma wafts and spreads" (Keritot 6b). In Aramaic, the language of the Zohar, Qetoret (similar to the Hebrew root qesher) means "connection," connection to the Divine. It has the power to elevate us and bind us to our spiritual root (Zohar 3:11a). This might be the source for the following directive found in the Siddur HaRashash:
And now, with the recitation of the Pitum HaQetoret , intend to elevate the [sparks of] Kedushah-holiness from being lodged in the Klipot [husks of evil], bringing them back to the realm of Kedushah... Intend that the numerical value of the letters of the word Qetoret (÷èåøú, Qof, Tet, Vav, Resh, Tav) is 715. This is exactly 11 x 65, thus alluding to the elevation of the Name A-donai (65).
The Holy Name A-donai means Lord. Complementing the Holy Name YHWH, the aspect of G-d's Overriding Providence that transcends creation, A-donai refers to G-d's Indwelling Presence, the Shechinah that accompanies Israel in its exile existence, protecting and sustaining them at all times and in all places. But the Shechinah is not only like a Mother who protects her children. In going into exile to bring her children back, she herself becomes trapped with them, dependent upon them, so to speak, to redeem her.
It is for this reason that the Qetoret is so essential and so precious. For when we recite the Qetoret with kavannah, we not only elevate ourselves from the darkness of exile, but that aspect of G-d's Providence that accompanies us in exile as well. This is the intention of the verse, "Ve'shav G-d Elokecha et shevut'cha -- And G-d your G-d will return with your captivity" (Deuteronomy 30:3). It is not written Ve'heshiv G-d (G-d will bring back), but Ve'shav G-d et (G-d will return with). This indicates that the Shechinah is with us in our exile, and will return with us when we are redeemed (Megillah 29a; Zohar 3:115a).
In our prayers every morning, we reenact all of history in miniature. The Qetoret , especially, placed as it is both at the beginning and the end of the Morning Service, is one of the most important parts of the prayers for effecting redemption. Together with the other parts of the prayers, it is the most powerful way to unite the Holy One and His Shechinah, G-d (26) and A-donai (65). 26 + 65 = 91 = Amen.
In addition to the general Name A-donai , each of the incense spices has a parallel Name or Names that is like its spiritual root. Some of these Holy Names are familiar to most people, some would be completely incomprehensible. Tzori-balsam, for instance, has a numerical value of 300, so the Name that corresponds to it is E-lokim (with each letter spelled out thus: àìó ìîã äé éåã îí). Tzori corresponds to the Sefirah of Keter. When we mention Tzori, we intend to elevate and refine the sparks of holiness that are associated with the Sefirah of Keter. The same goes for all the other spices.
In this way, when the Temple is standing, and we offer and recite the Qetoret , in addition to performing a physical act, we are elevating pure G-dliness back to its source, transmuting matter into energy. In this way, we not only restore things as they were before the original shatterings. Because we are bringing light out of darkness, we are adding holiness upon holiness. This is the "net gain" for which all creation, and even the existence of evil, was worthwhile in order to attain. This is the power of our service. This is the hope that G-d gives us: even in the midst of the darkest night, He is with us, helping us behind the scenes, whispering to us, allowing us to participate in His deep Plan, making all of creation dependent upon us. How much do we have to pray to have Him help us!
According to the Midrash (Tanchuma, Tetzaveh 14), the letters of the word Qetoret (÷èøú) can be read as an acronym: ÷ stands for qedusha-holiness, è stands for taharah-purity, ø stands for rachamim-mercy, and ú stands for tikvah-hope. Back to top
XIV. Life or Death
The Qetoret offering is considered the most powerful form of offering prescribed by the Torah. It contains the secret of overcoming death, and completely transforming all evil - in ourselves and in the world - into good. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov says: "The main refinement and elevation of the sparks of holiness from the klipot-evil husks of impurity was effected by offering the eleven spices of the Qetoret " (Likutey Halachot, Gerim 3:16).
Yet, as the above quote warns us, if made with the wrong intentions or for the wrong purposes, the Qetoret can kill. Is the Qetoret life or death? In order to grasp some of the power and depth of the Qetoret offering, we turn to the Torah.
The Torah records two tragic episodes in which the Qetoret plays a central . First, Aaron's sons, Nadav and A, are struck dead trying to bring an unauthorized Qetoret offering in the newly inaugurated Ohel Moed (Communion Tent); see Leviticus 10:1-2 and 16:1.
Second, Korach and his party challenge Moses's and Aaron's authority. In order to prove for all time that his authority is indeed G-d-given, Moses sets up a test involving, again, the Qetoret :
This is what you must do: Let Korach and his entire party take fire pans. Tomorrow, place fire [from the altar] on them and offer Qetoret on them before G-d. The man whom G-d chooses is already the holy one. You sons of Levi have gone too far! (Numbers 16:6-7).
The next morning, Korach stood at the entrance of the Communion Tent with 250 of his men, each one with an incense pan in his hand ready to offer the Qetoret . At that moment, G-d's Glory appeared, the ground opened up, and literally began sucking people down into the earth. A fire also descended from heaven and it consumed the 250 men who were offering the Qetoret (Numbers 16:18-34).
Again, as in the case of Nadav and Avihu, death struck as a result of offering the Qetoret . The Midrash (Tanchuma, Korach 5, quoted by Rashi, Numbers 16:6) asks:
Why did Moses tell them to offer the Qetoret ? [Didn't he know that they would die?] Rather, Moses was trying to warn them: "It is the way of the nations to have many different kinds of idolatrous practices and many priests to perform them. Still, you will never find all of them congregating in one temple to perform the same service. We, on the other hand, have only one G-d, one Ark, one Torah, one Altar, and one Cohen Gadol (High Priest), yet all 250 of you want the high priesthood! I also wish that it could be so. Take therefore the most beloved form of Divine Service, the Qetoret . It is more precious than all the other offerings. But be careful, it contains the spice of death [or: it is a potion of death], for Nadav and Avihu were burned through it!" Moses then warned them: "The man whom G-d chooses is the holy one (i.e. G-d has already made him holy and set him aside for the task). I am warning you not to play with fire. Whomever G-d chooses will live. The others will die."
As the Torah records, Korach and his company were killed. Immediately after this, the congregation began to complain bitterly: "You have killed G-d's people!" (Numbers 17:6). Again, G-d's Glory appeared in a cloud and He told Moses that He would now destroy the people with a plague. Moses and Aaron threw themselves down on their faces to plead mercy. Then:
Moses said to Aaron: "Take the fire pan and place some fire on it from the altar. Offer the Qetoret and go quickly to the community to make atonement for them. Divine wrath is coming forth from G-d. The plague has already begun." Aaron took the pan as Moses had told him and he ran into the midst of the assembly where the plague had already begun to kill people. He offered the Qetoret to atone for the people. He stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was checked (Numbers 17:11-13).
The Qetoret has now been used both to kill and to save lives. The question is still: Is it a sam mavet ("potion of death") or a sam chaim ("elixir of life")?
The Zohar (2:218b) states:
The Qetoret . By inhaling the fragrance of that fine column of smoke when it rose straight up with the help of the smoke-producing herb, one's heart would become purified with joy and illumination in the service of his Master. The impurity of the yetzer hara [evil urge] would be removed from him and he would remain singleheartedly devoted to his Father in heaven. Why? Because the Qetoret has the power to break the evil urge... Nothing in the world breaks the power of the Other Side [Evil] [and prevents it from speaking slander against Israel] like the Qetoret .
Come and see. It is written: "Take the fire pan and place some fire on it from the altar. Offer the Qetoret and go quickly to the community to make atonement for them." Why? Because, "Divine wrath is coming forth from G-d. The plague has already begun." Nothing breaks the power of evil like the Qetoret . For there is nothing as precious before the Holy One as the Qetoret ... It has therefore been decreed before the Holy One that anyone who daily contemplates and reads the portions [of the Torah] regarding the Qetoret will be delivered... from all evil occurrences and impure thoughts, evil decrees and plague. He will suffer no harm that entire day and evil will have no power over him, if only he will meditate upon it in the proper way.
Rabbi Shimon said: If only people knew how great it is when they say the section of pitum ha'Qetoret [the compounding of the incense] before G-d, they would take each and every word of the section and place it on their heads like a golden crown! Whoever says pitum ha'Qetoret 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 have a portion in the World to Come. In the time of plague there is no better remedy than the Qetoret ...
When the shaft of smoke rose up from the Qetoret , the Cohen would see the letters of the Holy Name (YHWH) float upwards. Following this, holy chariots would surround him on all sides until he himself was able to ascend with light and joy. The rejoicer would rejoice, and he would bind bindings above and below in order to unify all... For this reason, we must precede the prayers each day with a recital of the Qetoret , in order to remove impurity from the world...
In other places, the Zohar (3:58b, 3:149a) states, "Why is it that no other sacrifice entails as strict a punishment as the Qetoret [when done wrong]? Because no other sacrifice has the power to bind Israel to the supernal Unity as the Qetoret ." What is the source of this mysterious power? Why can't the forces of evil, nay, the Angel of Death himself, stand the Qetoret? Back to top
XV. The Mystery of the Qetoret
Above, Rabbi Kaplan quoted the Talmud (Shabbat 89a) which records a tradition that Moses was taught the mystery of the Qetoret by none other than the Angel of Death:
When Moses ascended into the spiritual dimension to receive the Torah, even the Angel of Death transmitted something to him. It is written, "He [Aaron] offered the Qetoret to atone for the people. He stood between the dead and the living and the plague was checked." If the Angel of Death himself had not taught Moses [that only the Qetoret has the power to overcome death], how else could he have known?!
Moses learned the mystery of the Qetoret from the Angel of Death. According to the Kabbalah, this means that the very existence of evil - including that of the Angel of Death - is maintained only by virtue of the sparks of holiness which it holds bound in its power. As we shall see, it is through the misuse of the power of speech, lashon hara (literally, "evil tongue"), that evil is given its power. As the Zohar above has taught, however, it is the Qetoret that can counteract this. The mystery of the Qetoret is its power to release these sparks and allow them to become elevated back to their source in holiness.
Note: Evil - the power that G-d uses to camouflage His own G-dliness from mankind, and creation in general - is nourished by the sparks of holiness and goodness that are presently lodged in it. When every last spark of holiness is released and elevated back to its source in holiness, evil, as such, will cease to exist. Death will no longer "swallow" life (i.e. cause order to break down into seeming chaos). On the contrary, death itself will be swallowed, as per the verse, "Death will be swallowed forever, and the Eternal G-d will wipe the tears off every face" (Isaiah 25:8). Although this process will only reach its final culmination in the Messianic Age, it is through Israel's avodah (divine service) that all creation is brought constantly closer to its final perfection. It is for this reason that the prophet continues, saying, "He will [then] remove His pe's disgrace from the entire earth" (ibid.).
We have sehow the Qetoretconsisted of eleven spices or perfumes. The other ingredients mentioned (Karshina lye, Cyprus wine, Sodom salt, smoke-producing herb, and Jordan amber) were used to treat the eleven spices; they were not part of the Qetoret per se. After treating and grinding each separately, they were blended together into a special mixture to be used in the Temple. As Rabbi Kaplan noted above, the Talmud goes on to explain that ten of these spices had good fragrances, while an eleventh spice, chelbenah-galbanum, had an unpleasant odor. The question is, naturally, why include the latter? Back to top
XVI. Qetoret and Prayer
The answer lies in the intimate connection that exists between prayer and the Qetoret . First, King David equates the two: "May my prayer rise up as Qetoret before You, and when I lift my hands to You [may it be considered as if I had brought] a minchah offering of my whole being" (Psalms 141:2). Second, community prayer requires a minyan (quorum of ten adult men). This is also similar to the Qetoret that contains ten good smelling spices and one evil spice. Thus, by including the chelbenah along with the other ten spices, the Torah alludes to the fact that the prayers of a minyan cannot rise up "like Qetoret " until an eleventh man, a sinner, joins them. This is the meaning of the above quoted statement from the Talmud: "[If the communal prayers on] any fast do not include sinners of Israel, the fast is not considered a proper fast" (Keritot 6b).
G-d commanded that chelbenah be placed in the Qetoret even though it had a very strong pungent odor. This teaches that when the community comes together to make a fast or for any other reason, they must include sinners with them. They should not say, "Let us separate from the sinners so that they not cause us more harm than good. Let the stench of their evil deeds not ruin the perfume of what we are trying to do."
They should realize that every fast that does not include the sinners of Israel is not acceptable by G-d. G-d does not want the wicked to be destroyed - rather, He wants them to repent. He therefore gives them a chance and allows them time to change their ways. When the wicked repent, G-d's name becomes greater and more holy in the world. Therefore their fast is very precious in G-d's eyes...
Another reason why a fast only of good people is not acceptable is that every fast is made because of troubles that come from the world. Troubles only come from the world because of the evil done by the wicked. Therefore, if only the righteous people fast and they leave the wicked to do their evil, it is to no avail. However, if the wicked are included in the fast, G-d has mercy on the world because He sees that the wicked are also repenting (Torah Anthology, Volume 9, pp. 328-329).
The chelbenah is actually necessary to give the other spices exactly the right pungency. In the same way, a congregation is not complete without someone who has also fallen and must reelevate himself through teshuvah [return, repentance]. The Qetoret spices thus teach us that even the most "evil smelling" person - or the evil smelling part of each of us - can and must be rectified through teshuvah. In admitting our mistakes and dissociating ourselves from our wrongdoings, we not only rectify the damage we have done in our own lives, we also make it possible for the community's prayers to rise up, like Qetoret , before G-d. The more profound our teshuvah - the more we become of G-d's Presence in our lives - the greater the rectification that is effected.
Perhaps this also explains the fact that the Talmud specifically mentions the prayers that are said on a "fast" day: the first stage of teshuvah must involve a dissociation from the very thing that led us away in the first place. Since most sins are rationalized by giving in to some physical need or desire for pleasure, it is fitting that our first act of teshuvah involve overcoming (by temporarily abstaining from) these very needs and desires.
It is important to point out here that this entire section of the morning prayer service in which the Qetoret is found (from the first blessings to the binding of Isaac, to the first declaration of the Unity, to the various offerings in the Temple) revolves around the ideas of retrieving, refining, extracting, and elevating the sparks of holiness and goodness, in ourselves and in the creation at large, from the unrefined state in which we originally received them.
This is especially clear in the case of the chelbenah, the spice which represents either those sparks of divine energy which we have used wrongly (sin) or the actual raw potential and vital energy which was given to us to refine and use for the service of G-d which we have not used at all. In either case, these sparks play a crucial role throughout the entire service. They must be found and clarified (and in the following sections, elevated) so that they can provide the powerful emotional fuel that will propel and elevate all of our prayers heavenwards. If not, our words remain mere words; our prayers are prevented from rising up to their destination. They are detoured by the very forces of constriction that prevent us from grasping the fundamental connection between what we say, what we do, and what we are. Without this connection, prayer cannot truly fulfill its purpose of bringing us close to our Source. In sum, whether we have done wrong or whether we have not yet done right, all is not lost. On the contrary, we have been given a job. We must refine ourselves and thereby transform the world into a place where G-d's Presence can be felt and known. This is within the grasp of even the most "evil smelling" person among us. Back to top
Much of what we have said so far is made clear in the following incredibly profound and far-reaching exposition by Rabbi Tzadok HaCohen of Lublin (Pri Tzadik, Volume 4, Parshat Korach, p. 144 (72b)):
The Zohar (3:177b) says: "The Cohanim work quietly and in secret. This is why they are able to assist Israel in atoning for their sins [which are usually done in secret]. With what [do they effect atonement]? With the Qetoret , which is offered in silence..." This is consistent with the tradition recorded in the Talmud (Arachin 16a) that the Qetoret atones for lashon hara (slander and evil speech), as it is written, "The entire congregation of the children of Israel began to complain to Moses, saying, 'You have killed G-d's people!'... He [Aaron] offered the Qetoret to atone for the people" (Numbers 17:6, 17:12). The Talmud thus says: Let [the Qetoret ] that is offered in secret come and atone for [their lashon hara] that was spoken in secret.
But Rabbi Tzadok is bothered by the proof verse brought by the Talmud. After posing the difficulty, he goes on to explain and tie together everything we have discussed to this point:
"The entire congregation of the children of Israel began complaining to Moses, saying, 'You have killed G-d's people!'" (Numbers 17:6). This verse seems to indicate that they spoke lashon hara publicly and out loud. Why is their lashon hara still called, "a secret thing"?
In truth, however, Qetoret and lashon hara are both called "a secret thing." First, the Qetoret contains chelbenah, which, although giving off an unpleasant odor on its own, alludes to the sinners of Israel who can give off a pleasant odor when they join together [to pray] with the rest of the community... This follows the explanation [of the Sages] that the word chelbenah contains the same letters as [levonah-frankincense, and] levanah-white, plus the letter chet.
As they appear in the Siddur, the words ha'levonah (äìáðä) and ha'chelbenah (äçìáðä) are actually identical except for one extra letter, the letter chet (ç) in chelbenah. The word for "sin" also begins with the letter chet, and is pronounced chet (çèà)! This chet represents the sin in what otherwise would be a pure thought; in the same way, it represents the sinner in an otherwise good community. The Sages paid close attention to the difference between this letter and its aidentical twin, the letter heh. As Rabbi Kaplan writes in the name of Zohar, the left leg of the chet is attached to its roof by a very thin thread. If you break this connection and remove the left leg just a hairsbreadth away from its place, you no longer have a chet (ç) but a heh (ä). This is precisely the difference between matzah (îöä), the unleavened bread we eat on Passover, and chametz (çîö=çîõ), leavened or fermented bread. Matzah and chametz have exactly the same letters except for the chet and heh, and the only difference between these two letters is that as soon as the left leg is removed from the chet by a fraction of an inch it will become a heh (Innerspace, p. 172).
A similar difference can be seen in other pairs of words which look and/or sound almost identical but whose meanings are opposite. One such example is challel (çìì) and hallel (äìì). Challel means to profane, while hallel means to praise. As we saw above, a challal is a hollow void, seemingly empty of the G-dly spirit. Hallel reveals that that seeming emptiness is filled with G-d's light. A challal is also a dead body, whereas "Nishmat kol chai tehallel Yah - the soul-breath of all that is alive praises Gd!"
This same chet is also the first letter of the word choshech-darkness, alluding to the deeds of the wicked that darken the world and obscure the G-dly light. In truth, this darkness is part of G-d's plan, as the verse indicates, "He placed darkness as a concealment [of His light]" (Psalms 18:12). For man's ability to become wicked is predicated upon G-d's concealing His light. When He will reveal this primal light, however, it will become clear that... the very purpose of creation was that man be instrumental in revealing the G-dly light. [Thus, in order to reveal an even greater light, G-d created darkness and evil], as the Zohar states, "The greatest revelation of G-dliness is the light that emerges from darkness" (3:47b). It is concerning this illumination that it is written, "If your sins are like scarlet, they will become white as snow; if they are red as crimson, they will become like wool" (Isaiah 1:18). This is a mystery [the mystery of teshuvah-repentance]. And this is why the Qetoret [which is the mechanism for redeeming the holy sparks of light from darkness] is called "a secret thing."
Do not go on without reading this passage again. Here, Rabbi Tzadok has said it all. Drink in his words. Understand them well. Know that all depends on free will. That is why G-d created the world the way He did. That is why there is such darkness. It is so that we could bring ourselves and the entire world back in Teshuvah - Teshuv Heh - so that we could bring the Shechinah back to G-d. So that we could rejoice on that great day when all the sparks will be redeemed. And who are the sparks? It is us together with every molecule in creation, from the first Tzimtzum to our incredible physical world. Back to top
XVIII. The Key to the Mystery
Rabbi Tzadok goes on:
This why the Qetoret is called "a secret thing." But lashon hara is also designated as "a secret thing." Why is this? And why does the Talmud (Arachin 15b) state: "The magnitude of the sin of one who speaks lashon hara is equal to that of one who commits all three cardinal sins, idolatry, promiscuity and murder, [for which one must die rather than transgress]." [How can lashon hara be more damaging than the three cardinal sins?]
But this is [the key to] the mystery itself, namely, that lashon hara is the very root of evil from which the [three cardinal] klipot-evil husks receive their lifeforce. This is illustrated in the episode of the nachash-serpent whose first act was to slyly whisper lashon hara against his Creator to Eve.
Rabbi Tzadok makes a profound connection here between the three cardinal sins and the three cardinal husks of evil. What are these evil husks? In Ezekiel's prophecy they are called "storm wind from the north, great cloud, and flashing fire" (Ezekiel 1:4). In Hebrew they are ruach searah min a tzafon, anan gadol, v'esh mit'lakachat. The connection between these three and the nachash-serpent of the Garden of Eden is alluded to in the final letters of the three principal words: ruach-wind (øåç), anan-cloud (òðï), and esh-fire (àù). The final letters are chet (ç), nun (ð), and shin (ù). When rearranged, they read nun (ð), chet (ç), shin (ù), i.e. nachash (ðçù)! The nachash is the force that tries to force a person to deny G-d by committing one of the three cardinal sins! Now, what could the connection possibly be between the nachash and lashon hara (slander and evil tongue)?
This is illustrated in the episode of the sly nachash-serpent whose first act was to secretly whisper lashon hara against his Creator to Eve. We learn from this that lashon hara is the secret weapon of the nachash [from which it derives its power to wreak havoc]. This is brought out in the verse, "Who is the person who desires life, who loves the days [of this world as a preparation for] beholding the ultimate good [of G-d's primordial light]? Let him guard his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit" (Psalms 34:13-14). Only by refraining from speaking lashon hara [about others and within one's own mind about oneself] can a person save himself from being ruined by the nachash who is actually nourished by our speaking lashon hara. For this is the secret of his mysterious power. This is why the Talmud referred to lashon hara as "the secret thing."
With this we can now understand what the Talmud (Shabbat 89a) means when it declares that even the Angel of Death transmitted something to Moses... We learn from this that all the angels in heaven transmitted their particular secrets, meaning their secret powers, to Moses. Among them was the Angel of Death. He revealed to Moses that his power to kill derives from the lashon hara that we speak. This is the meaning of the Talmud's statement above that lashon hara is "a secret thing," i.e. the secret weapon that nourishes the [three] evil husks. Knowing this, Moses also understood that the only way to counteract the effect of our slander was precisely by offering the Qetoret . For the Qetoret is also done in secret. It therefore has to power to rectify the damage caused by our lashon hara, by transmuting the evil smelling chelbenah, which is none other than the sinners of Israel, into a good fragrance... In this way, the Qetoret atones for lashon hara. Back to top
The significance of the unearthing of the Qetoret in our day represents the possibility of reattaining a connection that once existed. In his Maamar HaGeulah (Essay on Redemption), Rabbi Moses Chaim Luzzatto (1707-1746) wrote:
Redemption requires many preparations, and extremely far-reaching and powerful actions [both on G-d's part and ours]. These are known to the enlightened who have attempted to walk in wisdom's ways and understood its truth. [At the time of the Redemption] when wisdom will permeate the world, all will then see and understand retroactively how great were the miracles [both hidden and revealed] that G-d performed for us [throughout history]. For when Israel imagined that He had hidden His face from them and forsaken them [in their exile], He was actually preparing goodness and blessing for them - great storehouses [of spiritual illumination] whose expansiveness has no end and whose vastness has no limit. It was into these storehouses that He constantly placed all that is precious and pleasant, the treasures of kings, at all times and at every moment, until [the great day when] they would be filled [with such goodness] that the mouth cannot express, the ear cannot hear, nor even the heart contemplate. And when the time comes for the destined Rest [of the Great Sabbath] to become manifest in the world, all of these storehouses will be opened. All that is precious will emerge from them and be given to Israel in payment for the difficult service they performed in their exile.
Israel's service was difficult because the very essence of Israel, its very existence, is predicated on closeness to the Divine and the pinspiration that accompanies it. In exile, these are withheld in what Rabbi Luzzatto cal"spiritual storehouses." What else is in these storehouses? For one thing, the Light that G-d "withheld" when He first created the universe:
The [spiritual or mental] Light that Holy One brought into existence on the first day of creation was so great that with it Adam could see from one end of the world to the other. When the Holy One foresaw the wicked deeds of the generations of the Flood and the Tower of Babel, however, He decided to store this Light away for the righteous [who would be resurrected] in the Future. It is thus written, "God saw the light, that it was good, and God separated the light from the darkness" (Genesis 1:4). That is, He set it aside for the righteous (Chagigah 12b; see Bereshit Rabbah 3:6, 11:2; Zohar 1:31b-32a, 3:88a; Yalkut Shimoni 2:499; Rashi on Genesis 1:4).
The Gaon of Vilna (Gra, 1720-1797) echoed this:
The light that was created on the first day was the light with which Adam saw from one end of the creation to the other. This original light is the light of consciousness (Or HaSechel), the light which illumines the mind. It is through this that Adam perceived and grasped the entirety of the universe. This is the light that was hidden away for the future when (Isaiah 11:9), "The earth will be filled with the Knowledge of G-d" (Aderet Eliyahu, p. 37).
We have seen why G-d constricted and concealed His Light. First, if He had not done so, there would have been no possibility of creating a world. Simply, nothing else could have existed except G-d Himself. Second, the world He would have created would have been so perfect - G-d's existence would have been so obvious - that there would have been no place for free will and hence no possibility of ever earning our closeness to G-d.
But in our excitement we have jumped ahead. Surely the great day will come when our present world-cycle will have come full circle and we will be taken up into ever higher and ever greater cycles, back and up through the seven levels of the shatterings; back and up through the four primal levels that existed prior to and beyond the shatterings; back and up to the levels that preceded those and to levels that never existed, ad infinitum (see Ramchal in Klach and other places). But it is a process. Before that, many things that once existed in our own world at previous higher levels and which were subsequently hidden, will be revealed again. This includes the level of Nevuah-Prophecy that existed when the First Temple stood, as well as the level of Chokhmah-Wisdom that existed during the period of the Second Temple. This includes the First Tablets that were broken, and the Second Tablets that were whole. This includes the Tree of Life, and the incredible level of revelation that existed in the Garden of Eden. In short, this includes all that ever existed in the perfected state but was never completely revealed due to its great power and brilliance, except for a split second, and then concealed. The Midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 12:6) alludes to this:
Although everything was created full [perfect], when Adam sinned they became deficient. They will only be restored to their pristine state when the son of Peretz comes... Six things will be restored: Adam's splendor, his life, his height [to the heavens], the fruit of the earth, the fruit of the trees, and the luminaries [i.e. sun and moon which were diminished].
Rabbi Shlomo Elyashiv teaches that many things will be restored to perfection which are presently fallen or in a state of exile:
In the Future, G-d will purify the entire earth and nullify evil along with all of its manifestations. At that time all corporeality and physicality will be distilled and transformed into supernal luminescence. The entirety of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil will literally be reconstructed into the Tree of Life... (Leshem Sh'vo Ve'achlamah, Sefer De'ah 2:4:10:3, p. 100 (50b)).
The Zohar (2:188a) sums it up this way:
The time will come when the Holy One will bring about every single good for Israel that was ever spoken by the true prophets [as we said, this includes restoring many good things that were once revealed for an instant and then stored away; the word "good" itself is a codeword in the Zohar for the "light that G-d called good" which was stored away for the righteous]. Deprived of all this good in their exile, Israel suffered untold agony [when the nations scorned them, saying, "Where is all the good your G-d promised you?"]. Without the certainty that all this good mentioned in [both the written and oral] Torah would be restored, Israel would not have been able to survive in exile. But we go to the study halls, open our sacred texts, and behold all the good that is in store for us. We behold it written in the Torah that the Holy One has promised to restore these things, and we are consoled in our exile. In the meantime, the other nations ridicule and shame us, saying, "Where is your G-d? Where is all the good that you say awaits you..." Back to top
We have seen that, according to ancient tradition, the Beth HaMikdash (Holy Temple), the Mishkan (Tabernacle), as well as all their sacred vessels - the Aron HaKodesh (Holy Ark), Menorah (Candalabra), Mizbeach HaQetoret (Incense Altar), the garments of the Cohen Gadol (High Priest), etc. - were not just physical artifacts. They represented spiritual levels of closeness to G-d, i.e., the return to the level of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the return to the level of Unity that existed before the Shattering of the Vessels. The discovery of a juglet of Anointing Oil and 600 kilograms of Qetoret in our time in the Cave of the Column complex in Qumran is a tiny hint of things to come. When the actual artifacts of the ancient Temple will be unearthed, this will be a sign that their accompanying spiritual levels are about to be revealed as well. May we merit to see the great qedushah-holiness, taharah-purity and rachamim-mercy of the Blessed Holy One revealed in our days. This is our great tikvah-hope! Back to top
© Rabbi Avraham Sutton