The incense offering (Hebrew: קְטֹרֶת qetoret) in Judaism was related to perfumed offerings on the altar of incense in the time of the Tabernacle and the First and Second Temple period, and was an important component of priestly liturgy in the Temple in Jerusalem.
In the Hebrew Bible
The sacred incense prescribed for use in the wilderness Tabernacle was made of costly materials that the congregation contributed (Exodus 25:1, 2, 6; 35:4, 5, 8, 27-29). The Book of Exodus describes the recipe:
And the LORD said unto Moses, Take unto yourself sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum; these sweet spices with pure frankincense: of each shall there be a like weight: And you shall make it a perfume, a confection after the art of the apothecary, tempered together [salted], pure and holy: And you shall beat some of it very small, and put of it before the testimony in the tabernacle of the congregation, where I will meet with you: it shall be unto you most holy. And as for the perfume which you shall make, you shall not make to yourselves according to the composition thereof: it shall be unto you holy for the LORD. Whosoever shall make like unto it, to enjoy the smell thereof, shall even be cut off from his people.-Exodus 30:34-38; 37:29.
At the end of the Holy compartment of the tabernacle, next to the curtain dividing it off from the Most Holy, was located the incense altar. (Exodus 30:1; 37:25; 40:5, 26, 27) According to the Books of Chronicles, there was also a similar incense altar in Solomon's temple in Jerusalem (1 Chronicles 28:18 and 2 Chronicles 2:4). Every morning and evening the sacred incense was burned. (Ex 30:7, 8; 2Ch 13:11) Once a year on the Day of Atonement coals from the altar were taken in a censer, or fire holder, together with two handfuls of incense, into the Holy of Holies, where the incense was made to smoke before the mercy seat of the ark of the testimony. (Leviticus 16:12, 13.)
The book of Exodus lists four components of the incense while the Talmud lists seven additional components from the oral Torah. The four components from the book of Exodus are
- stacte (נָטָף nataf)
- onycha (שְׁחֵלֶת shekheleth)
- galbanum (חֶלְבְּנָה khelbanah)
- pure frankincense (לְבוֹנָה זָךְ levonah zach)
The components are still being studied and are not determined with absolute certainty. Stacte is variously described as being the extract of the transparent portion of the myrrh resin which exudes spontaneously from the tree, or a balsam from a tree such as opobalsamum or a styrax. Onycha, which in Greek means “nail,” is variously described as being the operculum from a shell found in the Red Sea (which are said to resemble a fingernail), the exudation from the rock rose bush called labdanum (both petals and markings which are said to resemble a fingernail), Styrax benzoin, bdellium, or even cloves. Galbanum is generally considered to be Ferula galbaniflua. Also considered is a milder variety from the Levant or possibly even a close relative of Ferula galbaniflua called narthex (or giant fennel). Pure frankincense is the resin of a tree of the boswellia species.
In Hellenistic Judaism
Josephus' mentions the incense, numbering thirteen ingredients.
In rabbinic literature
Biblical descriptions of the incense offering have been further elaborated and expanded upon in midrashic, Talmudic, Geonic, and subsequent rabbinic literature. Jews continue to study the laws of the incense offering, both for its own sake and for its potential utility in an eschatological restoration of Temple service.
The Rabbis taught: How is the incense mixture formulated? Three hundred and sixty eight mina were in it: three hundred sixty five corresponding to the days of the solar year - a mina for each day, half in the morning and half in the afternoon, and three extra mina, from which the Kohen Gadol would bring both his handfuls [into the Holy of Holies] on Yom Kippur. He would return them to the mortar on the day preceding Yom Kippur, and grind them very thoroughly so that they would be exceptionally fine. Eleven kinds of spices were in it, as follows: (1) stacte, (2) onycha, (3) galbanum, (4) frankincense - each weighing seventy mina [and each comprising 19.02% of the total weight]; (5) myrrh, (6) cassia, (7) spikenard, (8) saffron, each weighing sixteen mina [and each comprising 4.35% of the total weight]; (9) costus - twelve mina [comprising 3.26% of the total weight]; (10) aromatic bark - three [comprising 0.82% of the total weight]; and (11) cinnamon - nine [comprising 2.45% of the total weight]; [Additionally] Carshina lye, nine kab; Cyprus wine, three se'ah and three kab - if he has no Cyprus wine, he brings old white wine; Sodom salt, a quarter-kab; and a minute amount of maaleh ashan. Rabbi Nathan of Babylon says: Also a minute amount of Jordan amber. If he added honey, he invalidated it; if he [deliberately] omitted one of the spices, he was liable to the death penalty.
Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel says: The stacte is nothing more than the sap that drips from the branches of the balsam tree. Why was Carshina lye brought? To refine the onycha, that it be pleasant. Why was Cyprus wine brought? To steep the onycha, that it be pungent; while urine (מי רגליים - mei raglaiim) was more suited for this, nevertheless, one did not bring urine into the Temple, out of respect.
The New Testament makes several typological references to incense, including a Christological reference to the coals from the altar of incense taken behind the veil on the Day of Atonement (Hebrews 9:3-4), and a reference to the prayers of believers as incense (Revelation 8:4). In later Christian typology the smoke of incense in the tabernacle typically signifies offered prayer. This was developed in medieval Christian art.
- Jacob Neusner Yoma 1990 Page 82 "It is the wood offering which makes possible the incense offering. It must follow that the wood-offering should take ... The wood-offering comes before the blood rite, and the blood rite comes before the burning of the incense."
- Paul Heger The development of incense cult in Israel 1997 - Page 94 "This would imply that the incense was composed of only four elements, which would contradict the talmudic record that the incense had eleven ingredients, as well as Josephus' account of thirteen ingredients.
- Paul Heger The Development of Incense Cult in Israel 1997 - Page 94 "Hence it is likely that the composition which was narrated in the Talmud was based, in this case, not on a speculative tradition, but on the actual practice during the last part of the Second Temple period. The talmudic sages attempted to find support from Scripture for the actual custom."
- J. Carl Laney Answers to Tough Questions from Every Book of the Bible: 1997 "While the altar of incense stood in the Holy Place before the veil, its ritual use on the Day of Atonement was connected with the Holy of Holies. The high priest would take coals from the altar of incense to burn incense within the Holy of Holies "
- James E Smith The Pentateuch - 2006 Page 243 "Typology is the study of these foreglimpses of Christ and the Christian age. Persons, places, objects and even events can be typical of New Testament realities. ... The incense altar points to the prayers of the saints of God (Rev 8:3-4)."
- Evangelical Dictionary of Theology Walter A. Elwell - 2001- Page 49 "The smoke of incense arising and filling the tabernacle signified offered prayer".
- Leslie Ross Medieval Art: A Topical Dictionary - 1996 Page 253 "TYPOLOGY The elders carry harps and golden vessels of incense which are described as containing the prayers of *saints."
- Arnold Lustiger and Michael Taubes, The Kashirer Edition Yom Kippur Machzor: With Commentary Adapted From the Teachings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, K'hal publishing, 2006.
- Incense, Jewish Encyclopedia (1906)