Photo Credit: Clara Amit / Israel Antiquities Authority
The incense shovel after having been cleaned in the Israel Antiquities Authority metallurgical laboratories.

When Moshe went up to Heaven to receive the Torah, the Gemara (Shabbat 88b) says that the angels objected: “What is a mortal doing here amongst us?”

Moshe responded, “I am here to receive the Torah!” The angels said to Hashem, “You want to give this dear treasure that predates the creation of the world by 974 generations to mortal man?”


Hashem said to Moshe, “Give them an answer!” Moshe was afraid: “They might burn me with the words of their mouths!” Hashem said to Moshe “Grab hold of the Kisei HaKavod, the Throne of Glory, and you will be safe.” Moshe then proceeded to bring a series of logical proofs that the Torah was intended for man and not the angels.

Moshe asked the angels, “The Torah says, ‘I am the L-rd your G-d who took you out of Egypt’ – were you in Egypt?”

Moshe continued, “The Torah says, ‘You shall have no other gods beside Me’ – do you serve idols?” and other, similar proofs. The angels were so impressed, they gave Moshe gifts. Even the Angel of Death gave Moshe a gift, the secret that the Ketoret (incense offering) is an antidote to a plague.

A few weeks ago, in Bamidbar (4:17), we read how dangerous the work of the Levite family of Kehat, who carried the Ark of the Covenant, was. If not done meticulously, they would perish. Similarly, the Ketoret is a very powerful offering, and if not offered correctly – by the right people, in the right place, at the right time, in the right manner – it could be fatal, as was the case of Nadav and Avihu, and in this week’s parsha, Korach.

The Ketoret has to be offered by a Kohen in the Heichal, once in the morning and once in the evening, and on Yom Kippur by the Kohen Gadol in the Holy of Holies. It was such a dangerous undertaking that in the time of the second Beit HaMikdash many unworthy high priests perished. In fact, if the Kohen Gadol emerged safely from offering the Ketoret, it was cause for great celebration. When the Kohen offers the daily Ketoret, he enters the Heichal alone and is attached to a rope because in case something goes wrong and he dies, he has to be extricated.

Am Yisrael accused Moshe of murdering Korach and his followers by instructing them to offer a Ketoret offering outside the Mishkan, knowing full well what the consequences of such an action would be. A mob angrily gathered to attack Moshe and Aharon. In response, Hashem brought a plague down upon those who had complained. Moshe, recalling the gift he received from the Angel of Death, instructed Aharon to offer a Ketoret offering within the camp (outside the Heichal) and thus stop the plague. Aharon could have objected over this apparent deviation from protocol, on the premise that he too may die, but instead, he unhesitatingly rushed to fulfill Moshe’s command, and the plague ceased.

After describing the vessels of the Mishkan, the Aron, the Shulchan and the Menorah in parshat Teruma, the Torah seems to skip over the Mizbeach HaKetoret, the incense altar, first detailing he Mishkan structure of beams, coverings, etc. Only at the very end, after describing all the remaining components, does the Torah, in parshat Tetzaveh, detail the incense altar. The commentators infer from this that of all the components of the Mishkan, the one that Hashem holds most dear is the Ketoret. It is like the “icing on the cake,” without which the Mishkan cannot be inaugurated.

The three vessels in the Heichal, the Menorah, Shulchan and Mizbeach HaKetoret, correspond to the three senses – sight (light of the Menorah), taste (bread of the Shulchan Lechem Hapanim) and smell (the Ketoret). Of the three, the most powerful was the Ketoret. Its aroma permeated the entire city of Jerusalem and all the way down to Jericho. It was so pervasive that women did not need to wear perfume. The fragrance of the Ketoret eliminated all evil influences.

Similarly, the three vessels correspond to the three Patriarchs. The Shulchan to Avraham, the Menorah to Yitzchak, and the Mizbeach HaKetoret to Yaakov. The Ketoret, comprising eleven ingredients, is atonement for the brothers selling Yosef into slavery. It began with Yosef being led down to Egypt by Ishmaelite traders carrying sweet-smelling spices, and it ended when Yaakov sent the brothers to Egypt during the famine to procure food, taking with them a gift including sweet-smelling spices. The Ketoret symbolizes the restoration of the unity of the Twelve Tribes.

In the discussion of Bamidbar, we learned of the secret society of Levites, Beit Garmu, who baked the Lechem Hapanim but refused to divulge its secret method of preparation to the Sages. Contrast this with another secret society, Beit Avtinas, who were in charge of preparing the Ketoret. Although initially they refused to reveal the method of preparation to the Sages, they eventually capitulated (Pitum HaKetoret), because they recognized the power the Ketoret has in stopping a plague, which might serve Am Yisrael during their 2,000 years in exile. Reciting Pitum HaKetoret prevented numerous plagues over the centuries in the Diaspora.

Since the Ketoret is Hashem’s “favorite” korban, it holds great power, but this power must be wielded only by the purest of heart and under very strict guidelines and circumstances. Even today, reciting Pitum HaKetoret has great powers of protection, but must be done carefully and with the correct intention, kavanah, being careful to say each word clearly and understand what one is saying.

Parshat HaShavua Trivia Question: What happened to all the copper pans used by Korach’s followers to offer their ill-fated Ketoret?

Answer to Last Week’s Trivia Question: Who was the “Mekoshesh,” the chopper of trees on Shabbat? According to Rabbi Akiva in the Midrash Sifri, it was Tzlofchad, whose daughters Machla, Noah, Chogla, Milka and Tirtza later approached Moshe with a tribal inheritance claim.

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Eliezer Meir Saidel ([email protected]) is Managing Director of research institute Machon Lechem Hapanim and owner of the Jewish Baking Center which researches and bakes traditional Jewish historical and contemporary bread. His sefer “Meir Panim” is the first book dedicated entirely to the subject of the Lechem Hapanim.