Holy Incense

In the Torah we find the commandment concerning the Qetoret immediately following the Anointing Oil:

Yahweh said to Moses: Take for yourself spices, stacte, 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 set aside for Yahweh. If a person makes it to enjoy its fragrance, he shall be cut off [spiritually] from his people (Exodus 30:34-38).

The Jewish Encyclopedia describes incense as an aromatic substance which exhales perfume during combustion; the odor of spices and gums burned as an act of worship.

Incense was burnt ceremonially on an altar before the mercy seat in the Tabernacle. This particular formula for Holy Incense was made only for the worship of the Lord and required certain rituals in preparation.

According to the Temple Institute, The method, or recipe, for preparing the special incense offering from was a closely-guarded secret, passed down from generation to generation within the ranks of one particular family known as Avtinas.

In addition to the identity of the spices and the exact amounts and manner in which they are prepared, the clan protected another important secret of their trade: The identity of an herb known in Hebrew as maaleh ashan, literally that which causes smoke to rise. This herb has a quality which enabled the smoke from the incense to rise up to heaven in a straight column. It was forbidden to make Holy Incense just for pleasure of the senses.

Yahweh gave strict instructions how it was to be used in Exodus 30:1, 6-9:

And thou shalt make an altar to burn incense upon:And thou shalt put it before the vail that is by the ark of the testimony, before the mercy seat that is over the testimony, where I will meet with thee. And Aaron shall burn thereon sweet incense every morning: when he dresseth the lamps, he shall burn incense upon it. And when Aaron lighteth the lamps at even, he shall burn incense upon it, a perpetual incense before the LORD throughout your generations. Ye shall offer no strange incense thereon, nor burnt sacrifice, nor meat offering; neither shall ye pour drink offering thereon.

In Exodus 30:34-38, Yahweh provided a recipe from which the incense was to be prepared:

And the LORD said unto Moses, Take unto thee sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum; these sweet spices with pure frankincense: of each shall there be a like weight: And thou shalt make it a perfume, a confection after the art of the apothecary, tempered together, pure and holy: And thou shalt beat some of it very small, and put of it before the testimony in the tabernacle of the congregation, where I will meet with thee: it shall be unto you most holy. And as for the perfume which thou shalt make, ye shall not make to yourselves according to the composition thereof: it shall be unto thee holy for the LORD. Whosoever shall make like unto that, to smell thereto, shall even be cut off from his people.

In this passage of Scripture, we find specific instructions on what ingredients are to be used in preparing the Holy Incense, how it is to be compounded, and are warned against using it improperly or treating it common. It should be simple in fact, to duplicate. But in reality, it isn’t. After careful study of the names of each substance, the actual knowledge of what these ingredients are has been lost. Many different opinions, often contradictory ones have been set forth as to the identity of the ingredients in the Holy Incense. We will take a closer look and examine each one carefully.

According to the Torah, the Qetoret (Holy Incense) contained equal proportions of Nataph-Balsam/Stacte, Shechelet-Onycha, Chelbenah-Galbanum and Levonah Zakah-pure Frankincense.

While the Torah only mentions four main spices in the Holy Incense, it is recorded in the Sages of another seven, making a total of eleven spices according to the Oral Tradition. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan gives a detailed explanation of how the extra seven are alluded to in the “terse language of the written Torah:

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 Mishnah tells us the Qetoret was made up of eleven spices: There were seventy measures each of balsam, onycha, galbanum, and frankincense. There were sixteen measures each of myrrh, cassia, spikenard, and saffron. There were twelve measures of costus, three measures of aromatic bark, and nine measures of cinnamon. In addition, other spices used to prepare the Qetoret included: nine kabin (quart) of Karshina lye which was used to rub the onycha with to make it more pleasant and three in and three kabin (quart) of Cyprus wine to soak the onycha in to make it more pungent. There was a fourth of a kab (cup) of Sodom salt, and a small quantity of smoke-producing herb. Jordan Amber, foam from the Jordan River was used to prevent the incense from sticking to the mortar and pestle. Rabbi Nathan of Babylon added, If one omitted from or added to the original eleven spices, he was liable the death penalty.

The Torah does include very explicit instructions in the manner in which the Qetoret (Holy Incense) is used; in fact, if misused the punishment is Karet, or spiritual excision.

The following excerpt was taken from “Qetoret: The Fragrance of Prayer” by Rebecca Park Totilo. To purchase a copy of her latest book, please visit her website http://RATW.org or http://HealWithOil.com. A free CD of an audio teaching on this topic is also included when purchased at her website.