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The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia
An aromatic substance which exhales perfume during combustion; the odor of spices and gums burned as an act of worship. In ancient times, on account of the extreme heat of the Orient, incense was used, as it is to-day, to a much greater extent in the East than in the West. "Ointment and perfume rejoice the heart," says Proverbs 27:9. Garments were perfumed to such an extent that an old marriage song (Psalms 45:9 [A. V. 8]) could say of the royal bridegroom, "All thy garments smell of myrrh, and aloes, and cassia." Beds were perfumed with "myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon" (Proverbs 7:17). The bride in Song of Solomon 3:6 was perfumed with all sorts of incense; and noble guests were honored by being sprinkled with perfume or incense (Luke 7:46; comp. Lane, "Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians," 3:8). It was customary among noble Jews to pass incense ("mugmar") around on a brazier after meals (comp. Ber. 6:6).
Sacrifices of Incense.
Under these circumstances the use, with sacrifices, of spices and perfumes that were burned as incense seems a matter of course. It is an open question whether the ancient Hebrews ascribed to this incense any special efficacy in banning demons (comp. Tobit 6:1-7); but in any case the offering of incense was widely practised in the ancient Oriental religions. That it was a common adjunct of Egyptian worship is evident from the fact that in the representations of worship the king is nearly always pictured with a censer in his hand offering incense. Enormous quantities of spices were used for this purpose every year by the temples. According to one list, King Rameses III. presented during the thirty-one years of his reign 368,461 jars and 1,933,766 pieces of incense, honey, and oil (Erman, "Egypten," p. 407). Incense is mentioned just as frequently in the Babylonian-Assyrian cult. According to Herodotus (1:183), at the great yearly feast of Bel 1,000 talents (58,944 kg.) of incense were burned on his great altar.
In Israelitish Cult.
It might be inferred from the foregoing, as a matter of course, that incense was also used in the cult of Israel. The offering of incense is not, however, mentioned till a comparatively late date in the Old Testament. Occupying a prominent position in the sacrificial legislation of the middle Pentateuch, this sacrifice is mentioned seldom, if at all, in the historic and prophetic books. This is all the more remarkable since the Israelites must from early times have been acquainted with the ingredients themselves, the fragrant gums, etc. The caravans that carried the spices of Syria to the Egyptian markets went by way of Palestine (Genesis 37:25); and the spices of southern Arabia were brought by Solomon to Jerusalem (1 Kings 10:10 et seq.). Nevertheless no trace can be found in Hebrew literature of the offering of incense in the time of the early kingdom; nor is it represented as a regular and especially important part of worship, as it became in later times. Although the noun "á¸³eá¹oret" and the verb "á¸³aá¹ar" ("kiá¹á¹er," "hiá¸³á¹ir") occur, they do not designate incense burnt on the altar and its offering, as in the sacrificial legislation. "á¸²eá¹oret" is rather a general term for the burning sacrifice and the sacrificial odor; and in the same way "á¸³aá¹ar" is used as an entirely general term for the burning of any gift on the altar (comp. Amos 4:5; Hosea 4:13, 11:2).
This can not be accidental; for there is likewise no mention of the offering of incense in those passages where it might be expected. The Prophets refer more than once to the vain endeavors of the people to gain Yhwh's favor. They enumerate all the things that the people are doing, and all the gifts they offer, including even their own children; but nowhere is there an allusion to the holy sacrifice of incense (comp. Amos 4:4 et seq., 5:21 et seq.; Isaiah 1:11 et seq.; Micah 6:6 et seq.). Jeremiah is the first to say, in such an enumeration, "To what purpose cometh there to me incense from Sheba and the sweet cane from a far country?" (Jeremiah 6:20; comp. ib. 41:5). It is clearly evident that the offering of incense is here still considered as something rare and precious, because the material of the incense comes from a far country and is valuable. Similarly, Isaiah says (43:23 et seq.), "I have not caused thee to serve with an offering, nor wearied thee with incense." From this time onward, however, the offering of incense is mentioned much more frequently, and especially often in Chronicles. In view of these facts it may be assumed that the incense-offering was not frequent in the time of the Earlier Prophets, becoming more popular only in the time of Jeremiah, and that it did not become important as the most holy of offerings until the post-exilic period.
In the sacrificial legislation of the Pentateuch the incense-offering is mentioned both as a concomitant of other offerings and by itself. As regards the former, every meat-offering ("miná¸¥?ah") required the addition of incense, which was burned, under the name of "azkarah," on the great altar with a certain part of the flour. The sacrifice of the twelve loaves of showbread was also combined with an incense-offering; according to later sources (Josephus, "Ant." 3:10, Â§ 7; Men. 11:5,7,8), two golden bowls were placed upon the table of the showbread. When the stale loaves were taken away on the Sabbath, to be replaced by new ones, the old incense was burned in the fire of the great altar of burnt offering (Leviticus 24:7-9). The incense-offering was omitted only in two casesâwith the sin-offering of the poor (Leviticus 5:11-13) and with the meat-offering of the lepers (Leviticus 14:10,20).
The independent incense-offering ("tamid") was brought twice every day, in the morning and in the evening, corresponding to the daily morning and evening sacrifices on the altar of burnt offering. The ordinance regarding the tamid prescribes that when the priest dresses the lamps in the morning he shall burn incense, and also when he lights the lamps at even ("ben ha-'arbayim"; Exodus 30:7-9). This reference was considered obscure even in early times; the Samaritan and Karaitic interpretation, that it refers to the time from sunset to complete darkness, e., twilight, is most probably the correct one. An independent incense-offering was prescribed also for the Day of Atonement. On this day the high priest himself was required to burn the incense in the censer in the Holy of Holies (see CENSER), not, as usually, on the altar of incense (Leviticus 16:12).
Importance of the Sacrifice.
The importance ascribed to the incense-offering is evident from the special sanctity characterizing the sacrifice. It is the high prerogative of the priesthood to offer it. Uzziah is severely punished for presuming upon this prerogative (2 Chronicles 26:16); and the Levites who attempt to bring this offering without being entitled to do so suffer death (Numbers 16:6 et seq., 17 et seq.). But the two priests entitled to perform the service, Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihn, also perished when they committed an error in offering this most holy sacrifice by putting profane fire into their censers instead of fire from the altar of burnt offering (Leviticus 10:1 et seq.). In the Law itself it is denounced as a sin deserving death if any one takes of the holy incensefor profane purposes, or even makes incense according to the special receipt for holy incense; and similarly if any one uses for the offering incense other than that prescribed by law (Exodus 30:34-38).
Composition of the Holy Incense.
The receipt for making the holy incense, given in Exodus 30:34-38, names four ingredients: (1) "naá¹af" (A. V. "stacte"), probably storax-gum, the Rabbis taking it to be balsam; (2) "sheá¸¥elet" (A. V. "onycha"), the fragrant operculum of a species of shell found in the Red Sea, and still used in the East for incense and medicine; (3) "á¸¥elbenah" (A. V. "galbanum"), a species of gum, according to ancient authorities the product of narthex, and according to the modern view that of the ferula herb; (4) "lebonah" (A. V. "frankin-cense"), the resin of the olibanum-tree, e., one of the various species of Boswellia indigenous to Arabia Felix. The same quantity of each is to be taken and, mixed with salt, made into a confection.
In the later tradition (Ker. a, b; comp. Maimonides, "Yad," Kele ha-Miá¸³dash, 2:1-5; on the Arabic words used by Maimonides see Bacher, "Aus dem WÃ¶rterbuche Tanchum Jeruschalmi's," p. 122) these four spices were not regarded as sufficient, and seven others were added, namely: myrrh ("mor"), cassia ("á¸³eáºi'ah"), the flower of nard ("shibbolet nerd"), saffron ("karkom"), kostus ("á¸³oshá¹"), cinnamon ("á¸³innamon"), and cinnamon-bark ("kinashah"). Josephus ("B. J." 5:5, Â§ 5) speaks of thirteen ingredients; this agrees with the fact that in other sources Jordan amber ("kippat ha-Yarden") and a herb now unknown, which caused the smoke to rise (hence called "ma'aleh 'ashan"), are mentioned. Salt is omitted in these lists, a very small quantity being added (Â¼ kab to the incense used for the whole year). But only the salt of Sodom ("melaá¸¥ Sedomit") might be used.
Three hundred and sixty-eight minas of incense were prepared once a year, in the Temple, one for each day and three extra for the sacrifice of the Day of Atonement. Some of the ingredients had to be specially prepared, as, for example, the onycha, which was first soaked in Cyprus wine to take away the tartness. Great care was bestowed upon the comminuting of the ingredients, each of which was pounded by itself; and the man who performed that work incited himself by repeating the words, "hadeá¸³ heá¹eb" = "make it very fine." The incense was pounded in the mortar twice a year, and required care otherwise. On damp days it was piled up; on warm, dry days it was spread out for drying. In Herodian times the preparation of the incense was a kind of privilege retained in the family of Abtinas, which was thought to be in possession of special directions for making it. They were particularly credited with knowing how to cause the smoke of the incense-offering to rise in the form of the stem of a date-tree.
When it reached the ceiling it spread out and descended, and covered the whole space. The smoke from incense prepared by other apothecaries spread irregularly as it rose. The family would not divulge the secret of its art, and was consequently driven from office. Apothecaries from Alexandria were sent for who were proficient in incense-making; but they could not secure smoke which rose regularly. The Abtinases were, therefore, recalled, but they demanded double the pay they had previously received (Yoma 38b; Yer. Yoma 3:9). They gave as a reason for their secrecy that, anticipating the destruction of the Temple, they feared the secret might be used later in idolatrous services (Yer. Sheá¸³. 5:1). The Rabbis, however, severely criticized the Abtinases for their selfishness. The Mishnah records their name as infamous (Yoma , end). R. Johanan b. Nari tells of meeting an old man of the Abtinas family carrying a scroll containing a list of the ingredients used in the composition of the incense; the old man surrendered the scroll to R. Johanan, "since the Abtinases were no longer trustworthy." When R. Akiba heard of this he shed tears, and said: "From now we must never mention their name with blame" (Yer. Sheá¸³. 5:1).
The Ritual of the Offering.
Apparently incense was generally offered in a pan ("maá¸¥tah"), which the priest carried in his hand. In such a pan Aaron carried the incense that he offered for the sins of the people (Numbers 17:11-12 [A. V. 16:46-47]). Each of Aaron's sons had his own pan (Leviticus 10:1 et seq.); and the rebellious Levites also sacrificed incense on pans, which were subsequently used to cover the altar of burnt offering of the Tabernacle (Numbers 17:4 [A. V. 16:39]). It would thus appear that every priest had his censer (comp. Egyptian illustrations). In the Jewish statutory sacrificial ritual, on the introduction of a special incense altar this custom was set aside, surviving only in the ritual of the Day of Atonement. On that day the priest entered the Holy of Holies, carrying in his right hand the pan for the incense, filled with live coals, and in his left hand a spoonlike vessel, called "kaf," containing the incense. After placing both of these utensils on the floor, the high priest took the incense from the kaf with the hollow of his hand, not with his fingers, and heaped it upon the pan containing the coals. It was considered especially difficult to take the incense up thus without spilling any (Leviticus 16:12; comp. Yoma 1:5,47b).
In later times a special altar for the incense-offering was introduced, and this, more than anything else, shows the great importance that was ascribed to the offering. The assumption that the incense-altar mentioned in the Law is of later origin is supported by the passages quoted above, where it is expressly said that the holy sacrifice of incense was not burned on a special altar, but in the censers of the priests. It must, moreover, be noted that this altar is not mentioned in the account of the building and arrangement of the Tabernacle, being referred to only in Exodus 30:1 et seq. Reference to it was similarly added later in the account of the building of the Temple. Otherwise these points of criticism need not be discussed here. According to the description in 1 Kings 6:20-22, 7:48, the altar in the Temple consisted of a table of cedar-wood overlaid with gold. It stood in the sanctuary, near the entrance to the Holy of Holies. The fact that in theEpistle to the Hebrews (Hebrews 9:4) this altar was included in the Holy of Holies shows how sacred it was considered to be.
In the course of time the ritual became increasingly complicated. According to the Talmud (Tamid 3:6, 6:1-3), the ceremony was as follows: After completing the preparations for the morning's burnt offering, such as the cleaning of the altar, etc., two priests removed the ashes from the altar of burnt offering and the lamps; then the sacrificial animals were killed; lots were drawn to decide which priest should offer the incense; and then followed the preparations for the sacrifice. A priest took live coals from the altar of burnt offering in a silver brazier ("maá¸¥tah") and placed them on the incensealtar. The officiating priest then entered the sanctuary, carrying the incense in a jar ("bazak"), which he held over a shallow spoon-shaped utensil (kaf) to prevent any grains from dropping on the floor from the heaped jar; and when the command "burn the incense" issued from the chamber of the priests he spread upon the coals the incense in the jar. An assisting priest held the spoon; he was also to pour into the hollow hand of the officiant any grains that might drop into the spoon. Both priests then left the sanctuary. It is expressly stated that none of the other priests was to be present, and that no other person might be in the sanctuary. After the incense had been consumed the pieces of the tamid were placed on the altar of burnt offering.
Significance of the Incense-Offering.
The importance of the incense-offering is evident from what has been said above regarding its origin. Whatever was pleasing to men was offered to the Deity also; and as men were honored with incense, to the Deity was paid similar honor. This explanation is entirely sufficient. It was natural that the rising smoke should be regarded as the symbol or vehicle of prayer (thus, perhaps, may be interpreted Psalms 141:2; comp. Revelation 5:8). But all other symbolical interpretations are far-fetched and not supported by the ancient sources, as, for example, the opinion of Josephus ("B. J." 5:5, Â§ 5) that the thirteen ingredients, which come from the sea, the desert, and the fertile country, are meant to signify that all things are God's and are intended for His service; or the view of Philo, that the four ingredients mentioned in the Law symbolize the four elements, water, earth, fire, and air, which combined represent the universe.
Maimonides regards the incense-offering as designed originally to counteract the odors arising from the slaughtered animals and to animate the spirit of the priests ("Moreh," , ch. 45, p. 69, ed. Schlosberg, London, 1851). The incense was also considered as an antidote against the plague. The reciting of the incense chapter () after Psalm prevents death from entering the house (comp. Numbers 17:12, Hebr.; Zohar, s. "Pineá¸¥as," p. 224a). This passage of the Talmud is now incorporated in some prayer-books.
- Maimonides, Yad. Temidin u-Musafin, 3:1 et seq. (comp. ib. Kele ha-Miá¸³dash, 2:1-5);
- Benzinger, Arch.;
- Nowack, Hebr. ArchÃ¤ologie;
- the commentaries to Exodus 30;
- Delitzsch, in Riehm's HandwÃ¶rterb. des Biblischen Alterthums;
- Selbie, in Hastings, Dict. Bible, 2:467 et seq.;
- G. F. Moore, in Cheyne and Black, Encyc. Bibl. 2:2165 et seq.
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Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Incense'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tje/i/incense.html. 1901.