Insight on Incense

Feb 27, 2013 in 4. Hebrew Language Gems & Torah Insights, Blog | 0 comments

Insight on Incense

In this week’s parsha, Ki Tissa, Moshe is commanded to: “take sweet spices… and you shall make it into incense, a compound according to the art of the perfumer, well blended, pure and holy; and you shall crush some of it very finely… it shall be to you holy for the Lord” (Shemot 30:34-38). According to Abba Yose ben Yochanan in a beraita quoted in the Gemara (Keritot 6b): “The ketoret (incense) would be returned to the mortar for regrinding twice a year (in order to revitalize its fragrance)… And when he [the artisan blending the ketoret] would grind, a Temple appointee would say to him: hadeik-heitev, heitev-hadeik (‘grind thoroughly, thoroughly grind’).” The Gemara states that this beraita supports a statement of Rabbi Yochanan. “For Rabbi Yochanan said: Just as speech is detrimental to wine (perhaps because breath/oxygen emitted is somehow injurious to the wine?), so is speech beneficial for spices.” Similarly, in the words of the Yerushalmi (Yoma 4:5), which we say in the korbanot prayers every day: “Rabbi Natan said: As one would grind the incense, another would say (omeir): ‘Grind thoroughly, thoroughly grind’ – because the sound is beneficial for the spices” (mipnei she’hakol yafe la’besamim). For some reason, then, speech has a salutary effect in spices that are in the process of being ground! Perhaps because the speech spurs the pounder to grind them properly, to the beat of a regular rhythm?! In an earlier article (, we analyzed why 17th century Renaissance doctor, Rabbi Avraham Portaleone (1542-1612) felt impelled to write an encyclopedic work on the Beit HaMikdash. We outlined his fascinating and detailed description of the architecture, furniture and rites of the Beit HaMikdash, and of how he relates the arts and sciences to the Temple. Symptomatic of the period in which Rabbi Avraham lived was a greater awareness of the field of health and the science of medicine. Thus, he writes that, at the time of pounding the spices for the ketoret, the pounder himself (not a Temple appointee!) would say the words: hadeik-heitev, heitev-hadeik. This sound is good for him, the pounder, against the damage in the spices, he writes, because when they are properly ground the afrurit (earth) of the spices can enter the pounder’s throat dangerously, causing him to sneeze excessively or heat up the pounder’s throat, which can afflict the pounder with diphtheria. By saying these words, the pounder thus expels the ascent of the spices out of the throat! It follows that Rabbi Avraham and other like-minded commentators read the Hebrew words of the above-cited Yerushalmi with just one small change: mipnei she’hakol yafe la’bAsamim (vowellized with a patach), rather than la’bEsamim (vowellized with a sheva); the former means “the sound is beneficial to the pounder,” rather than for the spices themselves. Just a small insight on the incense and of how a tiny grammatical change can make a big difference in meaning…

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