By Rabbi Louis Jacobs
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.
Incense is found in the worship of most ancient societies, no doubt because of the pleasant aroma ascending upward s towards heaven and as a symbol of purification. Maimonides' explanation of the incense (Guide for the Perplexed, 3.43) scandalized the pious who considered it far too banal an explanation for so numinous a rite: 'Inasmuch as many beasts were slaughtered daily in that holy place, the flesh cut into pieces, and the intestines burnt and washed , there is no doubt that if it had been left in that state its smell would have been like that of a slaughterhouse. Therefore it was commanded in regard to it that incense would be burnt there twice daily in the morning and in the afternoon in order to improve its smell and the smell of the clothes of all who served there…This also preserved the fear of the Sanctuary. For if it has not a pleasant smell, and all the more if the contrary were the case, the result would have been the opposite of glorification. For the soul is greatly solaced and attracted by pleasant smells and shrinks from stench and avoids it.'
For the Zohar, the incense has a profound mystical meaning. The smoke of the incense represents the ascent of all creation to the Sefirot and of the Sefirot to their Source in En Sof, the Zohar observes (ii. 218b): 'It is a firmly established ordinance of the Holy One, blessed be He, that whoever reflects on and recites daily the section of the incense will be saved from all evil things and sorceries in the world , from all mishaps and evil imaginings, from evil decrees and from death; and no harm will befall him that day, as the "Other Side" has no power over him . But it must be read with devotion.' Following this, the Talmudic passage of pittum ha-ketoret, referred to above, is recited in man y rites at the beginning of the morning and afternoon services.
Incense itself, however, is never used in the synagogue, probably in order to distinguish the synagogue from the Temple, although synagogues have been known to spray the building with aromatic herbs. not as any kind of ritual but solely for aesthetic reasons. Some of the Hasidic masters used to smoke a pipe of fragrant tobacco when they meditated before their prayers.
My Jewish Learning