The Mystery of the Ketoret

The Incense is among the most mysterious of Jewish rituals. In Parshat Tetzaveh, for instance, the Golden Altar, upon which the Incense is offered, is listed not with the Copper Altar but some three chapters later. Why is the Ketoret’s altar seemingly misplaced? The Incense’s wider role is similarly puzzling: in addition to appearing in the daily service and that of Yom Kippur, the Incense was enigmatically utilized by Aharon to halt the advance of an epidemic. As Nachmanides (Exodus 30:1) put it, “a secret was given to Moshe Rabbeinu that the Ketoret interrupts a plague.” Wherein lies the source of the Ketoret’s potency?

The Incense’s precise recipe, moreover, proved elusive even for the greatest of sages. According to the Talmud (Yoma 38a), the Avtinas family held the Ketoret’s composition as a closely-guarded secret. Even Alexandrian consultants, hired by the rabbis when the family members refused to divulge the ingredients, were unable to ensure that the smoke arose vertically instead of wafting to and fro. The Talmud even tells of a descendant of the Avtinas family who held the instructions in a “Scroll of Secrets.” There is, in other words, an air of mystery surrounding the Ketoret.

This secrecy is heightened by the location in which the Incense was offered. As opposed to the sacrifices, which were placed on the Copper Altar housed in the Temple Courtyard, the Incense was generally performed in the Sanctuary and, on Yom Kippur, in the Holy of Holies. For this reason the Talmud (Yoma 44a and parallels) terms the Ketoret a “davar she-bahashai,” a matter of intense privacy, invoking this terminology to explain why no other Jew was permitted to stand in the Sanctuary while the High Priest carried out the service. This characteristic of near-isolation intensifies the Ketoret’s mystery and begs the question: what sense are we to make of the Incense?

The Ketoret can be understood against the backdrop of the concept of the “numinous,” developed in the writings of the outstanding 20th-century theologian Rudolf Otto. As Otto explicated in his seminal The Idea of the Holy: “Suppose you were told there was a tiger in the next room: you would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told ‘There is a ghost in the next room,’ and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind. It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is ‘uncanny’ rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread. With the Uncanny one has reached the fringes of the Numinous… This feeling may be described as awe, and the object which excites it as the Numinous.” Central to religious experience, according to Otto’s phenomenology, is a fateful encounter with the supernatural, one that is utterly unlike our prosaic daily experiences.

The Ketoret arguably corresponds to the numinous in our divine encounter. It represents a mode of worship that is superrational. Its smoke is real yet ephemeral, fully existent but incompletely formed. For this reason it must remain separated from the other Temple vessels – for it is utterly unlike them – and is inexplicably capable of marshaling the divine spirit that interrupts the plague’s transmission. Enigma is fundamental to the Incense’s identity. The air of secrecy enveloping its recipe, placement, and potency testifies to the inscrutability of the Incense’s role in divine worship.

Unfortunately, in our rational world this sensation is all-too-often inaccessible. Our holy places often feel functional rather than sacred. We enter shul and feel immediately comfortable; we walk into the Beit Midrash and blandly begin to learn. Much to our detriment, the sensation of a transcendent encounter with the supernatural is foreign to the modern temperament. We rarely experience “the idea of the holy.”

It is therefore appropriate that while we no longer offer the Incense, we do invoke it in our daily prayers. And for good reason: its symbolism is needed more than ever. Achieving that level of religious experience is elusive, yet our parsha offers a helpful starting point: contemplating the mystery of the Ketoret can inspire us toward better integrating the numinous into our everyday religious lives.