Incense and wealth

Incense and wealth

THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH

Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom

evanhoffman@gmail.com

Parshat Tetzaveh – פרשת תצוה

February 12, 2022 – יא אדר ראשון תשפב

This essay is sponsored by Suzy Levin in memory of her father, Yosef David ben Azriel Z”L.

Incense and wealth

The burning of incense (ketoret) on the inner golden altar was a twice daily feature of the Temple service. “On it Aaron shall burn aromatic incense; he shall burn it every morning when he tends the lamps, and Aaron shall burn it at twilight when he lights the lamps (Exodus 30:7-8).” These verses seem to indicate that the incense was to be brought by the High Priest himself. Later sources, however, make clear that any member of the priestly caste could offer the ketoret (II Chronicles 26:18).   During the Second Temple period, there were many more priests interested in participating in the Temple service than there were tasks to perform. Several lotteries were conducted daily to determine who would be assigned the various jobs, most notably those associated with the morning and afternoon Tamid offerings. The third daily lottery determined who would offer the incense. But in summoning priests for this lottery, the Temple administrator issued a caveat: Only those who had never previously offered the ketoret were permitted to enter the lottery. Later, when the fourth and final lottery was held to determine who would bring the Tamid’s sacrificial parts from the altar ramp to the pyre atop the altar, the administrator announced that anyone could apply for those tasks, even those who had performed them on an earlier occasion (Mishnah Yoma 2:4, Tamid 5:2).   Why was it necessary to restrict the task of offering the ketoret to those who had never done so before? The force of the question is augmented by the seemingly common-sense observation that a neophyte would probably be considerably more likely to botch this important part of the Temple service than would a veteran. The Talmud explains that priests were especially eager to offer the ketoret because doing so was believed to bring material wealth to the officiant (Yoma 26a). It would, therefore, be unfair for one priest to be doubly blessed with promises of riches while his colleague still had no such blessings.   Rav Papa suggested, but also at the same time questioned, a possible Scriptural basis for the notion that the ketoret showers its officiant with blessings. Moses blessed the tribe of Levi: “They shall put incense before Thee, and whole burnt-offerings upon Thine altar. Bless, Lord, his substance, and accept the work of his hands (Deuteronomy 33:10-11).” Rav Papa wondered why there developed the popular belief that sacerdotal service enriches the officiant with respect to incense but not also with regard to burnt-offerings. Abaye responded by distinguishing between burnt-offerings, which are common and brought many times daily both by the community and by private individuals, and incense, which is brought infrequently and only as part of the communal service. Rashi explained that if burnt-offerings brought riches then everyone would be rich, something that is obviously not the case.   So intense was the belief in the power of the ketoret to bring blessings that a priest with a withered hand insisted upon offering incense in the hope that he would be healed (Yerushalmi Yoma 40a). This unfortunate pinned his hopes on a literal fulfillment of Deuteronomy 33:11 (Torah Temimah).   The posited Scriptural proof for the popular belief in the enriching powers of the incense is far from compelling. Why, then, did that belief become so widespread -- and to the extent of influencing Temple policy?   In part, the willingness of Jews to believe in the enriching power of the ketoret derived from the commonly-held assumption that most Second Temple era priests were wealthy (Sifre Deuteronomy 352). The verse “I have been young, and now am old; yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging for bread (Psalm 37:25)” was understood to apply specifically to the seed of Aaron, the priestly class. The Midrash retrojects these notions to the First Temple era and describes the priestly class’ becoming wealthy from the fruits that miraculously sprouted from the cedar planks used to construct the Temple (Tanhuma Terumah 11). While the Torah calls for a system of ecclesiastical service by landless functionaries reliant upon emoluments for survival, the reality of the first century CE was quite different.   But it is also reasonable to suggest that the Temple authorities had a particular interest in cultivating among priests a belief in the enriching power of the ketoret.   Priests were eager to enjoy the perquisites of serving in the cultic center. According to a plain reading of the Pentateuch, it was typically the officiating priest who personally took possession of the sacrificial emoluments. This is so for the meat of a sin-offering (Leviticus 6:19) and a guilt-offering (7:7), the hide of a burnt-offering (7:8), and four loaves from the thanksgiving offering (7:14). The sages re-interpreted those passages to mean that all priests who were eligible to serve, and not just the priest who actually and formally officiated, were included in the distribution of meats and hides (Zevahim 99a). Rambam codified this more inclusive policy (Hilkhot Ma’aseh Ha-Korbanot 10:14). However, even after the decision was taken to implement a system for more equitable distribution of hides, some powerful and well-connected priests used physical force to take more than their fair share (Tosefta Zevahim 11:16).   It was assumed that certain Temple tasks would not be especially popular. In an early phase of Temple history, there was no lottery for the job of separating the ash from the altar. Instead, whoever wanted that job simply showed up to do it. If several desired to perform the ceremony, the job was assigned to whoever won a footrace up the altar ramp (Mishnah Yoma 2:1). The Talmud explains that it was initially assumed that few people would be interested in performing the separation of the ash because it occurs at a very early hour when most people would rather be asleep (Yoma 22a).   The Temple authorities might also conceivably have thought, initially, that the incense would be an unpopular service because there are no perquisites associated with it. The expensive spice granules are reduced to smoke. Unlike a burnt-offering, which at least yields a valuable hide, ketoret leaves nothing behind. The promise of future enrichment, however, would be even more enticing than a portion of meat or an unprocessed piece of animal skin. So, it is reasonable to theorize that the notion of performing ketoret as a path to wealth was itself, and in effect no more than, a successful ruse by the Temple administration.   Still, people are not likely to subscribe to an idea unless they see some evidence of its truth. The family responsible for production of the ketoret was the House of Avtinas. Their reputation in rabbinic literature is mixed, though it leans negative. The Mishnah recalls the House of Avtinas as being among those wicked groups whose names should rot, because they withheld knowledge about the precise identity of a certain ingredient in the incense compound (Mishnah Yoma 3:11). The Talmud recounts how the Temple authorities tried unsuccessfully to break the House of Avtinas’ monopoly on the incense trade by using an alternative Egyptian supplier. When those efforts failed, the House of Avtinas was rehired for an even more exorbitant fee (Yoma 38a). Professor Paul Heger, in his book The Development of Incense Cult in Israel, noticed a parallel with the sanctuaries of South Arabia, the place of origin of frankincense. There too incense became a sacred and expensive item, enriching those who held the monopoly on its production and trade.   In later halakhic literature, the idea that a certain ritual honor that brings wealth to the doer ought not to be given twice to the same person was extended to the mitzvah of circumcision. Rema (Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 265:11) cited Maharil, who cited Rabbenu Peretz, ruling that a father should not honor the same person twice with the role of sandak (the person who holds the baby on his knees during the circumcision). Though ketoret and circumcision seemingly have nothing in common, the Midrash does draw a connection: As commanded, Abraham entered his entire male slave population into the Divine covenant. He made a pile of their detached foreskins. The sun shone down on the foreskins, which them became wormy. The smell rose to the heavens and was as pleasing to the Almighty as the incense offering (Yalkut Shimoni Lech Lecha 82).   Vilna Gaon rejected Rema’s guidance about not having the same person serve twice as sandak for one family, noting that if the matter was truly analogous to the ketoret then no person should ever serve twice as sandak, even for babies from different families. Proof that it is acceptable to serve as sandak for two brothers is mustered from Pseudo-Jonathan’s translation of Genesis 50:23, which states that Joseph’s great-grandchildren were circumcised on his knees. Rabbi Ezekiel Landau commented that Rabbenu Peretz’s custom lacks any Talmudic basis, and that in many Jewish communities it is customary for the town rabbi always to be honored with the role of sandak (Shu”t Noda b’Yehuda Kamma Yoreh Deah 86). Arguably, permission for the rabbi to serve multiple times as sandak is consistent with the fact that the High Priest could arrogate for himself any Temple service whenever he so chose, incense not excluded (Mishnah Yoma 1:2).   The Scriptural passage about the incense offering long ago entered Jewish liturgy. Shulhan Arukh encourages the recitation of Exodus 30:7-10 every morning before the statutory prayers (Orach Chaim 1:9). Rabbi Abraham ben Natan (early 13th century) noted the practice of Provencal Jewry to recite the ketoret passage on Saturday nights so that the upcoming week would be blessed. In the same way that prayer replaced animal sacrifice in the post-Temple era, so too did the recitation of Exodus 30:7-10 replace the burning of aromatic spices on the altar. The observance of the incense ritual brings wealth to the Temple officiant; the recitation (with kavvana) of the relevant Biblical passages enriches the reciter (Sefer Ha-Manhig Hilkhot Shabbat p. 200).   Contemporary Judaism suffers from a surfeit of segulot, whether in the form of protective charms, incantations, or ceremonies. Religion is cheapened when people believe that material prosperity is tied to this or that ritual act or pseudo-Jewish behavior. We are better served when we follow the advice of Antigonus of Socho: “Be not like servants who serve their master for the sake of receiving reward; instead, be like servants who serve their master not for the sake of receiving a reward. And let the awe of Heaven be upon you (Avot 1:3).”