The ketores, incense offering, had its own inner Altar in the Sanctuary. Composed of eleven ingredients (Talmud, Kereisos 6a), one half of a maneh measure was offered in the morning and another half in the evening (See Exodus 30:7-9). Three portions were burnt by the High Priest in the sacrifices of Yom Kippur taken into the chamber called the Holy of Holies.
A key function of an offering was its fragrance: it was to produce a “satisfying aroma” before G-d (Numbers 28:2). Nowhere was this more apparent than the ketores, “the most endearing of all the sacrifices” (Bamidbar Rabbah 18:7) and its fantastic aroma. It had an altar exclusively for it within the Sanctuary and was brought by the High Priest on Yom Kippur into the Holy of Holies chamber. Indeed, the contest between Korach and his 250 men, who disputed Aharon’s role as High Priest, was determined by the offering up of ketores (See Numbers 16:17).
A korban, as related to the Hebrew word “kareiv, to draw near” reflects how this service is to draw ever closer to G-d. What needs elucidation is in what respect sacrificial offerings – and most pertinently the ketores- present a pleasant fragrance before G-d? What is the symbolism why smell is used rather out of the five human senses?
The life force within man came when G-d “blew into his nostrils the soul of life and man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). This is why the nose, used for breathing and smell, is the organ through which the neshama, soul enters and leaves” (See Rabbeinu Bachya, ibid).
The smelling of a fragrance invigorates his soul – “What is it that gives enjoyment to the neshama and not to the body? That is fragrant smell” (Talmud, Berachos 43b) – and points to its life force. A pleasant fragrance is emitted by a living thing while still alive and fresh, in stark contrast to the foul odor of a dead creature. In general, the greater the ‘life-force’ of something, the more putrid is the stench given off upon its death and demise.
Of the three parts of the soul, the highest, unsullied component is the neshama (as in the Eloykei Neshama prayer: “My G-d, the neshama that You implanted in me is pure”. This soul can never be contaminated. Why not? This is because it has no association to sin – and by extension, to spiritual distance from the Creator – as apparent in the primeval sin.
In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Chava defiled four out of their five senses. They heard the serpent’s alluring words, the fruit was “a delight to the eyes”, they touched it by taking from its fruit and they tasted it. But the sense of “smell” remained untarnished. Accordingly, this sense denotes inner purity and deep attachment to G-d and the fulfilment of His Will (Bnei Yissacher, Adar 1:10).
Smell retraces the holy, unadulterated level of a Jew’s innermost soul – his neshama – that is indeed free of defilement. Ketores warrants the inclusion of the pungent chelbenah spice – a reference to Jewish sinners – because even they possess an innate purity with the ability to reattach themselves to G-d at any time. Indeed, this explains why the ketores as related to the purity of the neshama was brought into the innermost chamber of the house of G-d on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. And the first part of the High Priest’s body to enter was the nose (Talmud, Yoma 19b & Rashi ad. loc.)
So the purity of fragrance, in-other-words the contact with the sinless dimension of man’s personality, is best exemplified in korbonos, offerings. Smell is the appropriate sense and wherewithal to manufacture “a satisfying aroma” because this re-establishes the very breathe and life force of man – as represented in the nose – dedicated to the divine service and to attachment to G-d.
Ketores, symbolized in its incredible fragrance, had an unsurpassed potency to represent the maximum association between man and their Creator. This is echoed in the root letters of ketores – (kof, tes, reis) that is the Aramaic equivalent of kesher, “a bond” (Rav Menachem Recanti).
In that it involves the life force, ketores paradoxically carries within it the ingredients of life and death. Instances where people have wrongful attempted to draw closer to G-d with ketores include the likes of Nadav and Avihu or Korach’s band led to a Heavenly fire entered their nostrils (See Numbers 16:35).
Today, in the absence of the Temple and the ability to offer sacrifice, our life force are channeled towards our actions and mitzvos (as seen in the symbolism of the Four Species when taste refers to “Torah learning” and smell is related to “good deeds” – See Vayikra Rabbah 30:12) through which to draw ever closer to G-d. Text Copyright © 2006 by Rabbi Osher Chaim Levene and Torah.org.