On Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, would offer ketores, the incense offering, in the Holy of Holies. This was one of the primary services on this most sacred day.1 One of the components of the ketores was an herb called maaleh ashan, “smoke-raising,” whose purpose was — as its name implies — to ensure that the smoke of the incense would rise.

The Rambam explains that the Yom Kippur ketores differed from the ketores of the rest of the year with regard to the importance of adding this one ingredient; failing to add the maaleh ashan herb to the Yom Kippur ketores subjected one to the death penalty.2 This was not the case if one forgot to add maaleh ashan during the rest of the year. Why the difference?

The Rambam3 explains that the ketores served to enhance the aroma in the Beis HaMikdash. Understandably, the Rambam does not mean to imply that the removal of unpleasant physical odors was the sole purpose of this most sacred of services.4 Rather, as explained in the Zohar,5 the ketores served to remove the filth and grime of the evil inclination.

The ketores was composed of inedible ingredients. In their spiritual context, ingredients that are unfit for food (unlike other Temple offerings that had to be from the “best possible edible ingredients,”6 ) allude to entities of a lowly spiritual nature — so low that they are not even fit for refinement through human consumption.

Additionally, one of the ketores’ ingredients was chelbenah that on its own emitted a foul odor,7 denoting an even lower level still: not only was it inedible, it also possessed a rank odor.

These ingredients were then combined and made into ketores and brought as a “pleasing offering to G‑d.” By so doing, this had a positive, spiritual benefit, even to those matters that were on a truly base level: even they were transformed and elevated to holiness.8

But this leads to the following powerful question: If, as mentioned, the entire purpose of ketores was to banish the impurity of unholiness (the evil inclination), what need and what benefit was there then in offering ketores on Yom Kippur, a day when Satan has absolutely no dominion,9 a day on which evil dares not rear its ugly head?

We must perforce say that the service of ketores on Yom Kippur was entirely different than that of ketores during the rest of the year. In what lay the difference?

The service of repentance, teshuvah, on Yom Kippur differs from teshuvah during the rest of the year.10 Teshuvah the whole year through is “teshuvah out of fear and awe [of G‑d],” teshuvah m’yirah, while the teshuvah of Yom Kippur is “teshuvah out of love,” teshuvah m’ahavah. The former transforms “witting transgressions into unwitting transgressions,11 ” while the latter transforms “iniquities into merits.”12

Moreover, the teshuvah of Yom Kippur emanates from the depth of one’s heart, above and beyond the realm of comprehension. It derives from the revelation of the essence of one’s soul, revealed as the teshuvah resulting from loving G‑d “with all one’s might.”13

This also explains the different effects teshuvah has upon one’s sins, depending on the level of his degree of nullification before G‑d: teshuvah m’yirah is such that the person is not wholly abnegated to G‑d, rather it is similar to a forced form of abnegation, out of fear of one’s master. The results of this service are expressed in a non-transformative manner as well — the sins cease to be sins, but they do not become a new entity, an entity of merits.

This is not at all the case with teshuvah m’ahavah, where the individual’s spiritual service and self-abnegation are positive in nature, giving oneself entirely over to the object of his love — i.e., wholly and lovingly giving oneself over to G‑d. As such, the person becomes an entirely new being, with the result that his former sins are transformed into merits.

The difference between ketores of Yom Kippur and that of the whole year round will be understood accordingly. As mentioned above, the general aspect of the ketores service is that of transforming and elevating lowly matters to holiness. But the levels affected differ markedly when offered during Yom Kippur or during the rest of the year, similar to the two previously explained manners of teshuvah.

Year-round ketores is similar to year-round teshuvah — the negating aspect of teshuvah m’yirah; ridding oneself of the grime of sins. Ketores of Yom Kippur, on the other hand, is similar to the teshuvah of Yom Kippur, teshuvah m’ahavah.

While this service, too, is one of involvement with lower matters (obliterating the grime), nevertheless, it is a positive form of service — to bring about a new entity within the world. This is accomplished by transforming the lowly and base worldly things (iniquities) into holiness (merits).

This also explains why maaleh ashan is so crucial to the service of ketores on Yom Kippur. The theme of Yom Kippur is that of elevating oneself to a level of infinitude, completely above the realm of the limited, mundane world and bringing about something entirely novel. In order to do this there must be the smoke-raising maaleh ashan, something that symbolizes the elevation of ketores unto the most high.

Based on Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XIV, pp. 127-131.