Online Torah

Back to Shiurim List

The Secret of the Incense

By: Rav Yonny Sack

In this week's parasha, Korach (in Israel), we learn of the famous rebellion instigated by Korach against the leadership of Moshe and Aharon. Korach gathers together a band of followers in his attempted uprising, his major claim to Moshe and Aharon being:

  . . . " ":       

"It is much for you! for the entire assembly, all of them, are holy and Hashem is among them, so why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation of Hashem" ( Bamidbar 16:3)

Moshe was the 'king', Aharon his brother the high priest. On the surface it seems Korach was challenging why these two brothers should have elevated themselves above the rest of the nation - of whom he says "all of them are holy!"  It is of course Hashem and not Moshe who decided who got these roles and Korach's seemingly utopian cries of 'everyone is equal' and of 'injustice' are really only deceptively masking his personal selfish intentions of "I want a better position for myself!" Then as a face-off of sorts, to show who is really the chosen one of Hashem, Moshe tells Korach and his assembly to do the following:

"In the morning Hashem will make known who is His, and who is holy, and He will draw [them] near to Him, and the one He chooses, He will draw near to Him.. Do this: Take for yourselves fire pans - Korach and his entire assembly - and put fire in them and place Ketoret upon them before Hashem tomorrow. Then the man whom Hashem will choose he is the holy one . . ." (Bamidbar 16:5-7)

The Ketoret mentioned here is a special incense mixture which was used as part of the daily worship in the Beit Hamikdash. Why was this used to distinguish between Aharon and Korach and his gang? Why specifically this incense offering?

The Ketoret seems to appear in disparate places throughout the Torah and Chazal without any obvious connection between them. Besides being burnt as a twice daily offering in the Beit HaMikdash, the Ketoret also formed a major part of the Cohen Gadol's Yom Kippur service where he would have to go into the Holy of Holies, and burn up the Ketoret while inside. This was considered one of the most difficult and lofty aspects of the Cohen Gadol's Yom Kippur avoda. The Ketoret was also brought up by Nadav and Avihu (1), Aharon's sons, when they offered up an alien fire and resulted in their untimely death. We also find a fascinating reference to the Ketoret back in Bereishit. Yaakov has dressed up as his brother Eisav in order to receive the blessings of his father Yitzchak. When Yaakov draws close to his father Yitzchak to kiss him, Yitzchak remarks that "the fragrance of my son is like the fragrance of a field which Hashem had blessed". Rashi explains, from the Midrash, that along with Yaakov came a 'Re-ach' a fragrance of Gan Eden, and this is what Yitzchak was smelling [2]. The Targum Yonatan [3], says that the fragrance was that of the Ketoret!

The Midrash teaches that the Ketoret is the most dear of all the sacrifices to Hashem:

"Said the Master of the Universe: of all the Korbanot (offerings) that you bring to me, nothing is as dear to me as the Ketoret” (Tanchuma, Tetzaveh 15).

Rav Dessler[4] brings a Zohar which says the following mysterious teaching:

"Ketoret; anyone who smelled this smoke, when the pillar ( of smoke) went up .  . . he would clarify his heart with clarity (of light with joy) for the service of his Master, and the impurity of the evil inclination would leave him and he would have only one heart for his Father in Heaven - For the Ketoret is the definite breaking of the Evil Inclination, for there is nothing as dear to Hashem as the Ketoret."

What is the secret of the Ketoret? Why was it brought in the holiest place in existence by the High Priest on the holiest day, Yom Kippur? How does it connect to Gan Eden and Yaakov? How could it have the power to 'clarify the heart' and break the evil inclination? And of course, why was it chosen to prove Aharon as the correct choice for Cohen Gadol?

To understand the secret of the Ketoret we must first delve into the most spiritual of the senses – the sense that the neshama takes pleasure in – the sense of smell [5] (Brachot 43b).

Taking a journey back to the Garden of Eden we find that the sin of Adam brought impurity to the senses. The sight, taste, touch, and hearing were all tainted by the sin because of their involvement. Only one sense, the sense of smell, remained untouched. It is this sense, the 're-ach' which connects to the ruach - spirituality of the person - which in some way, despite the spiritual decline of all humanity from Adam's sin,  maintains an other-worldly existence. This is hinted at on Purim when we say that a person is obligated to Livesumei until he can no longer distinguish between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai. The word Livesumei relates to word besamim, spices. On Purim we are supposed to elevate above and beyond the sin of Adam, to a state of joy and faith that transcends good and evil (R Yerucham Levovitz, Daas Chochma uMussar).

It is also the fragrant besamim we smell to enliven our souls after the loss of the extra soul of Shabbat. Shabbat is a taste of another world, the sense of smell, the re-ach, has the ability to elevate us out of the world of good and evil, to a world where everything is good. The soul of man was breathed in through the nostrils, and thus it is no coincidence that our nose is both the place from which we breathe our neshima – breath - and also received our neshama - soul - and it is this faculty through which we smell re-ach - ru-ach. The neshama is the untouchable G-dly spirit within us, it gives us life, it breathes into us Divine consciousness, it is the essence of who we are, our innate, essential purity. Therefore, the untouchable, pure neshama within takes pleasure in the untouched, untainted sense of smell - the sense which was not tainted by the sin. The Bnei Yissachar thus writes that this is the sense which denotes inner purity and deep attachment to G-d and the fulfillment of His will [6].  

With that background, we gain a glimpse at the unique power of the Ketoret and its connection to Yom Kippur, Aharon and Gan Eden. 

The Ketoret consisted of 11 different ingredients. One of the ingredients, the Chelbna, actually produced a foul odor. Nevertheless, the potent mystical Ketoret fragrance was not possible without it. When brought together with the other spices, the chelbna's pungent aroma somehow lent to make the beautiful bouquet of the Ketoret. The Gemara (Kritut 6b) teaches a powerful idea based on the Chelbna's inclusion in the Ketoret - that any public fast that is organized to repent and pray for Divine mercy is not a fast unless it also includes the sinners of Israel. The word ketoret is the Aramaic equivalent of the word meaning Kesher - (Keter) connection [7]. It is the Ketoret which bonds the Jewish people to their Father in Heaven and is most dear to Him, in that it represents the deep inner love that every Jew has for each other and for their Father - even if that love is hidden in another realm, the untainted, pure place of the soul.

Rav Dessler connects the Ketoret to the deep super-conscious will within every Jew to connect to G-d, to do what is right - even if on the outside he is a "sinner of Israel". Just like the sense of smell in general has the ability to transcend what the eye sees, to move above this world, the Ketoret is the ultimate expression of this, representing the purity within every Jew, no matter how far he has strayed.

It is thus the Ketoret which is offered in the Holy of Holies, that space which represents the inner chamber, the pure essence of the soul, and it is burnt there on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when the entire nation is forgiven for their sins through the process of Teshuva, returning to the essential purity within. We can also get a taste of what the Zohar quoted above might be hinting at. The Evil inclination only exists in the outer realm of the person, the ego and external shell of the soul. But once the person journeys into the inner chamber, the Holy of Holies within themselves, through the power of the Ketoret, they arrive at the level of Gan Eden, of Adam before the sin, the level of Neshama which cannot be tainted nor sullied by anything the person had done. The Ketoret thus "clarifies" - literally "separates" the outer shells away from the inner fruit.

Now back to Aharon and parashat Korach. We are taught in the Mishna "Become a student of Aharon; love peace, pursue peace, love all people and bring them closer to Torah". Aharon was the quintessential lover of all. He was not the one to rebuke, but rather to lead by example and with his non-judgmental, unconditional love he saw the inner purity in everyone and thus taught them how to see it within themselves (See the Bartenura on the Mishna).  He was the perfect choice, chosen by Hashem to be the Cohen Gadol, the one to bless the entire nation with peace and help them achieve repentance. What a ridiculous irony, what a deceptive chutzpah, that Korach comes to challenge Aharon's appointment with the words "Kulam Kedoshim" - everyone is holy!, when all Korach really wanted was to be above everyone else! And he says this in challenging who? Aharon! the quintessential believer of Kulam Kedoshim! He was the one who really saw to the essential purity of everyone. And so it is with none other than the Ketoret, that mystical combination of spices which pierces to the core purity within, which would be used to distinguish Aharon as the right one for the job.

May we all learn from the Ketoret, to see beyond the externals, to not judge others and ourselves and to look for the Divine within all those around us, and then the likes of the divisive machlochet (dispute) of Korach will be eradicated from our midst.

Shabbat Shalom

[1] see the Meshech Chochma on this parasha, who explains the reason the Ketoret was used here and its connection to Nadav and Avihu

[2] This is also what the Zohar says

[3]   (Bereishit 27:27) Ascribed to the Tanna, Yonatan ben Uziel. It is a translation/commentary on the Torah, written around 2000 years ago.

[4] Michtav MeEliyahu, Vol.5, page 416

[5] Brachot 43b “What is it that gives enjoyment to the neshama (soul) and not to the body? That is fragrant smell”. 

[6] Bnei Yissacher, Adar 1:10 as mentioned by Rabbi Chaim Osher Levine - , "Ketores: It smells Divine" 

[7] R Menachem Recanati



Midreshet HaRova

Location: 50 Chabad Street, Old City, Jerusalem

Mailing Address: P. O. Box 1109, Jerusalem 9101001, Israel

Telephone: 972-2-626-5970    Fax: 972-2-628-4690    Email:

© 2020 All rights reserved.  Design by Studio Bat Amit, Development by Coda