Incense

The smells of the Temple in Jerusalem.

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Incense is found in the worship of most ancient societies, no doubt because of the pleasant aroma ascending upward s towards heaven and as a symbol of purification. Maimonides' explanation of the incense (Guide for the Perplexed, 3.43) scandalized the pious who considered it far too banal an explanation for so numinous a rite: 'Inasmuch as many beasts were slaughtered daily in that holy place, the flesh cut into pieces, and the intestines burnt and washed , there is no doubt that if it had been left in that state its smell would have been like that of a slaughterhouse. Therefore it was commanded in regard to it that incense would be burnt there twice daily in the morning and in the afternoon in order to improve its smell and the smell of the clothes of all who served there…This also preserved the fear of the Sanctuary. For if it has not a pleasant smell, and all the more if the contrary were the case, the result would have been the opposite of glorification. For the soul is greatly solaced and attracted by pleasant smells and shrinks from stench and avoids it.'

For the  Zohar the incense has a profound mystical meaning. The smoke of the incense represents the ascent of all creation to the Sefirot and of the Sefirot to their Source in En Sof, the Zohar observes (ii. 218b): 'It is a firmly established ordinance of the Holy One, blessed be He, that whoever reflects on and recites daily the section of the incense will be saved from all evil things and sorceries in the world , from all mishaps and evil imaginings, from evil decrees and from death; and no harm will befall him that day, as the "Other Side" has no power over him . But it must be read with devotion.' Following this, the Talmudic passage of pittum ha-ketoret, referred to above, is recited in man y rites at the beginning of the morning and afternoon services.

Incense itself, however, is never used in the synagogue, probably in order to distinguish the synagogue from the Temple, although synagogues have been known to spray the building with aromatic herbs. not as any kind of ritual but solely for aesthetic reasons. Some of the Hasidic masters used to smoke a pipe of fragrant tobacco when they meditated before their prayers.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.