The ketoret (incense) offering was perhaps the most prestigious service in the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and in the Holy Temple. The ketoret consisted of a special blend of herbs and balms whose precise ingredients and manner of preparation were commanded by G‑d to Moses.

Throughout the year, the ketoret was burned twice daily on the golden or “inner” altar that stood within the inner section of Temple, distinct from the outdoor copper altar upon which animal sacrifices and libations were brought.1 Additionally, the highlight of the Yom Kippur service was the High Priest entering the Holy of Holies with a pan of smoldering coals in one hand and a ladle filled with ketoret in the other, and then placing the ketoret over the coals and leaving once it was filled with the fragrant smoke.2

The Torah describes an episode in the desert when the Israelites were struck with a plague due to their complaining and blaming Moses and Aaron for the deaths of Korach and his cohorts. Moses tells Aaron to take a firepan with incense and go among the congregation and atone for their sins. Aaron does this and stands "between the living and the dead," and the plague is halted.3

So what was the ketoret and why was it such a significant part of the Temple service?

What Was It?

The incense offering was prepared every year. Just preparing it was a divine commandment, as the verse states: "And you take spices . . ."4 There were 11 spices, four of which are explicitly mentioned in the Torah, and the rest of which were communicated orally to Moses and are part of the Oral Tradition.

But although the Talmud lists the names of the ingredients of the ketoret, there are differing opinions as to what herbs these names refer to. The English translation below is mostly based on Maimonides’ description and list in his Mishneh Torah5 of the ingredients in Arabic. (The list of Hebrew names is from the Talmud. The first four items are named in the Torah itself.)

Hebrew name Identification Based on Maimonides Quantity (1 maneh = approx. 1 pound)
הצרי balsam oil 70 maneh
הצפורן onycha 70 maneh
החלבנה storax 70 maneh
הלבונה frankincense 70 maneh
מור musk 16 maneh
קציעה cassia6 16 maneh
שבולת נרד spikenard 16 maneh
כרכום saffron 16 maneh
הקושט costus 12 maneh
קלופה cinnamon7 3 maneh
קנמון agarwood8 9 maneh

In addition to the 11 spices that would be measured out by exact weight, they would also add salt of Sodom and Jordanian amber. Another two ingredients (vetch lye and “caper wine”) were used in preparation of the tziporen (onycha) spice.

There was also a special herb, referred to simply as maaleh ashan (“makes smoke rise”), that would produce a pillar of smoke that rose straight up rather than spread out. The identity of the herb was a secret that was closely guarded by members of the Avitnus family, who made the incense based on the tradition of their ancestors.

(These final ingredients did not produce aromas of their own and are therefore not counted among the 11 spices.)

The 11-ingredient mixture was finely ground, and then a fourth of a kab (a volume equal to approx 1376 cc9 ) of the salt of Sodom and a small amount of Jordanian amber and the smoke-raising herb were added. A maneh of it was burned every day on the golden altar—a half a maneh in the morning, and another half toward the evening.

The entire mixture was 368 maneh. 365 maneh in each batch corresponded to the 365 days of the solar year. On the day before Yom Kippur, the three remaining maneh were finely ground once again, and the High Priest would take a handful to offer on Yom Kippur in the Holy of Holies (see footnote for why it was done this way and how this amount is reconciled with the fact that the Jewish calendar usually has 10-12 fewer days than the solar calendar).10

Once-in-a-Lifetime Opportunity

The Talmud relates that since offering the incense would bring blessings of wealth to the one who offered it on the altar, it was decided that as many different priests as possible should have an opportunity to do this service. Thus, no priest was assigned this task more than once in his lifetime.11

What is the Reason for the Incense?

Maimonidies writes that since many animals were offered in the Holy Temple, the Temple would have smelled like a slaughterhouse if nothing had been done to counteract it. They were therefore commanded to burn incense there twice every day, in the morning and in the evening, in order to give the place and the garments of those who officiated there a pleasant odor. This, he adds, also “boosted the dignity and respect of the Temple. If there had not been a good smell, let alone if there had been a stench, it would have produced in the minds of the people the reverse of respect; for our heart generally feels elevated in the presence of good odor, and is attracted by it, but it abhors and avoids bad smell.”12

However, as many point out,13 this could hardly be the main reason for the ketoret, especially in light of the fact that the Torah warns of severe punishment for replicating the exact specifications of the ketoret and burning it outside of the Temple. This implies that there was something deeper to this holy incense.

Getting Rid of the Odor of the Animal Soul

The mystics explain that the animal offerings in the Temple represent the person’s offering of his own animal soul to G‑d—the subjugation of one’s natural instincts and desires to the divine will. To be sure, the animal soul of man possesses many positive traits that can be directed toward positive ends, but at the same time it is also the source of many negative traits. When a person brings his “animal self” to the Temple of G‑d and offers the finest parts of it upon the altar, there is still the foul odor—the selfishness, the brutality and the materiality of the animal in man—that accompanies the process. The burning of the ketoret possesses the unique capability to sublimate even this “bad odor” of the animal soul within its heavenly fragrance.14

But there seems to be an even deeper reason. After all, it is one thing to explain that the ketoret was brought in the Temple to take care of the “bad spiritual odor” left over from the offerings of the animal soul to G‑d, but why is the ketoret brought into the Holy of Holies, a place where no animal sacrifices were offered, a place of pure holiness?

One With G‑d

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that while the Hebrew word for “offering” is korban, which means “close,” the word for “incense,” ketoret, reflects the Aramaic word keter, which means “bond.” Although an offering brought one close to G‑d, being close doesn’t necessarily mean you bonded; you can be a separate entity that is merely close to G‑d. With the ketoret, one would bond and be connected to G‑d.

When one brought an offering in the Temple, in essence he was uplifting the mundane and physical to the Divine. Hence, he brought a physical animal or meal offering on the altar. With the incense, the purpose was for the person himself to connect to the Divine through the ketoret.

In other words, the offerings reflected the uplifting and rectifying of the more outer dimensions of the person—thought, speech and action—and directing them to the service of G‑d, while the sublime fragrance of the ketoret represented the inner and essential connection that we all have to G‑d. When this connection is revealed, then automatically all of our other aspects, including thought, speech and action, are directed and become connected to the Divine.

Thus, the ketoret represented nothing less than the essential connection we each have with G‑d.15

For more on this, see Ketoret.

Reciting Ketoret Every Day

In line with the verse “We will render [the prayer of] our lips in place of [the sacrifice of] bulls,”16 the sages write that it is very advisable to recite daily the verses that include the passages pertaining to the various offerings in the Temple, including the verses pertaining to the ketoret. This is typically done before morning and afternoon services, as outlined in the siddur (prayerbook).17

The Zohar associates many merits and blessings with the reading of the ketoret each day and states that “whoever occupies himself with reciting it every day with sincerity and comprehension will have a share in this world and the next, and will be spared from the forces of impurity, negativity and judgment, and will be linked to the source of life.”18