Incense and Perfumes

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INCENSE AND PERFUMES

In the ancient world, incense and perfumes were extremely precious commodities, sometimes even more than silver and gold, and were greatly sought after for their fragrance, for both secular and religious purposes. Among the gifts the Queen of Sheba brought Solomon, perfumes are mentioned (i Kings 10:2). "The spices and precious oil" were kept in the royal treasure chamber together with silver and gold (ii Kings 20:13). Some maintain their value lay in their hygienic qualities, since they served to dispel the prevalent evil smells. It is probable that this is true of the incense burned with the sacrifices, where it was an antidote to the smell of the burning meat (cf. Avot 5:5, where the fact that sacrificial flesh did not become putrid is regarded as a miracle). It was stated that a woman needs to perfume herself but not a man, because she was formed from the rib – flesh – which is subject to putrefaction (Gen. R. 17:8). There is no doubt, however, that the main reason for the desire for perfumes was due simply to their fragrance. The price of incense and perfumes was extremely high, due to various reasons: the laborious task of extracting the aromatic juices, the expense and dangers involved in bringing them from distant countries of origin, and the high profits of the spice merchants' middlemen, who in certain cases kept secret the place of origin of the perfumes (see *Cinnamon).

Sources of Incense and Perfumes

Most incense and perfumes originate in tropical countries: cinnamon came from Ceylon and China, aloe (*algum) and *calamus from India; *nard from Nepal and the Himalayas, and *frankincense from India, Somaliland, and Arabia Felix, which last place also supplied *myrrh; *bdellium originated in Africa and the vicinity of Afghanistan, *tragacanth in the mountains of Asia Minor which was also the center for the growing of *laudanum and *galbanum (also widespread in Turkestan, Persia, Syria, and Crete). Among aromatic plants which grew in Israel were *henna, *saffron, and *balsam (the latter besem, nataf, and ẓori in the Bible; ketaf, apparsemon, and balsemon in rabbinic literature). Balsam was the perfume par excellence. In the time of the Mishnah and the Talmud other perfumes were extracted either from plants which were indigenous to Israel, or from plants, like the *rose, narcissus, and jasmine which originated in foreign countries and were successfully introduced and cultivated in Israel. Besides incense and perfumes of plant origin, aromatic ingredients were produced from fauna, such as sheḥelet "*onycha" (the mishnaic ẓipporin). Rabbinic literature mentions musk, and notes that it is derived from a beast (Ber. 43a); elsewhere it is called muskin (TJ, Ber. 6:6, 10d; from Gr. μόσχος. It is extracted from a gland in the body of the musk deer, Moschus moschiferus, which lives in Nepal and Tibet. Saadiah Gaon and Maimonides erroneously identified musk with the scriptural mor ("myrrh"). Apparently at different times efforts were made to grow other tropical perfumes. This is possibly the source of the aggadah about the growing of cinnamon in Ereẓ Israel. An interesting problem is posed by the statement of Theophrastus about calamus and schoenus, apparently two species of keneh-bosem – (Cymbopogon) growing in a valley not far from the Lebanon, probably the Ḥuleh area. The English naturalist H.B. Tristram, who explored Ereẓ Israel in the second half of the 19th century, wrote that the second species grew then in the vicinity of Lake Kinneret. Nowadays no trace of this is to be found.

The "Spice Route" through Israel

From what has been said, it is evident that "the garden of perfumes" to which the beloved is compared, in the Song of Songs (4:14–15) does not reflect the flora of Israel, since six of the plants mentioned do not grow there. It is an exotic, imaginary garden in which the aromatic plants of the world are assembled. Through Israel passed the "spice route" which led from the countries of the south and the east to the north and west, and from the north to Egypt (cf. Gen. 37:25). This route is very old, and it is not surprising that the children of Israel when traveling in the wilderness already obtained four species of perfumes and at least (see below) four ingredients of the incense which had their origin in different parts of Asia and Africa: myrrh, cinnamon, calamus, keneh-bosem, and kiddah (cassia; Ex. 30:23–24); balsam (nataf), onycha (sheḥelet), galbanum, and frankincense (levonah; Ex. 30:34). While the above applied to both perfumes and incense, the following remarks deal with each group separately.

Perfumes

The ancients liked to savor local aromatic plants. Of the lily (shoshannah; see *Flowers of the Bible), it is stated that "it exists only for its fragrance," and was placed upon the table on Sabbaths and festivals (Lev. R. 23:6).

forms of perfume

Sometimes the perfume was in the form of granules that were smelled from time to time, as in "a bag of myrrh that lieth between my breasts" (Song 1:13), where congealed myrrh, which is also called mor-deror, is meant (Ex. 30:23). In the main, expensive perfumes were used in liquid form, dissolved in oil, this being shemen ha-tov ("the precious oil") frequently referred to in the Bible. Two methods are described for the preparation of "holy anointing oil": in the one, the aromatic sap or plant was boiled in oil; in the other, which was more economical, "they brought the roots and boiled them in water, and poured over them the oil which absorbed the smell. Finally they separated the aromatic oil from the water" (Ker. 5a). Some also put the aromatic plants into oil which gradually absorbed the odor, as was customary in preparing rose oil (Shev. 7:7).

the sale of perfumes

Perfume was sold in special shops, the perfumer's craft being regarded as a pleasant and agreeable occupation: "The world cannot exist without a perfumer and without a tanner – happy is he whose craft is that of a perfumer" (Kid. 82b). There were also itinerant peddlers of perfume, whose wares are called avekat rokhel ("powders of the merchant"; Song 3:6). Some falsified their wares, hence the caution against the adulteration of myrrh with kumos (acacia gum; Sitra 1:22). Harlots used perfumes extensively and the perfumeries were near "the market of harlots" (Ex. R. 43:7). The fragrant oils were sold in ẓeloḥiyyot ("small bottles"; Shab. 8:2; et al.), many of which have been found in archaeological excavations.

ritual and secular uses

Perfumes were used for ritual and secular purposes. "Holy anointing oil" was prepared in the wilderness for the *anointing of Aaron and his sons, of the Tabernacle and its utensils. This was prepared from four tropical aromatic ingredients dissolved in olive oil. The Torah forbade it to be used for ordinary purposes, and the preparation of an oil of like proportions was prohibited (Ex. 30:22–33). Samuel anointed Saul and David with the anointing oil, and Zadok anointed Solomon with it. Subsequently, usurpers to the throne of Judah took care to be anointed with the anointing oil. According to rabbinic tradition "a king's son does not require anointing [except in cases where his succession is disputed], nor were the kings of Israel anointed." In the days of Josiah, the anointing oil "was hidden," and from then on kings were anointed with balsam oil (Ker. 5b; tj, Sot. 8:1, 22c). Oil saturated with perfume used for ordinary purposes was called "apothecary's oil" (Eccles. 10:1) or "precious oil" (ibid. 7:1). It "rejoices the heart" (Prov. 27:9); it is the "oil of gladness" (Ps. 45:8). Ecclesiastes, in its description of the life of pleasure says "let thy head lack no oil" (Eccles. 9:8). It was used for scenting the beard (Ps. 133:2) and was particularly favored by the youth (Song. 1:3). Perfume was, however, as can be expected, mainly used by women. The candidates for Ahasuerus' favor were treated "six months with oil of myrrh and six months with sweet odors and with other ointments of the women" (Esth. 2:12).

[Jehuda Feliks]

Incense Offerings

Incense of offerings is designated by two terms which were originally different in meaning: ketoret (qeṭoret) and levonah. Qeṭoret denotes primarily "that which goes up in smoke" and thus can refer to any type of burned sacrifice (Ps. 66:15). In several instances, the piʿel form of the root ktr (qṭr) appears without a direct object and in close parallelism with the root zvḥ ("to sacrifice"; i Kings 11:8; 22:44; ii Kings 12:4; 14:4, cf. ii Kings 22:17; 23:5; Isa. 65:3; Jer. 1:16; 7:9; 19:14). Hence it is doubtful that these verses contain a reference to incense offering, as suggested by many modern translations. But qeṭoret obviously does mean "incense" as attested in Ezekiel 8:11 (cf. Ezek. 16:18; 23:41) and probably in Deuteronomy 33:10 (qeṭorah), and i Samuel 2:28 as well. In sources usually assigned to priestly writers, qeṭoret and qeṭoret (ha) sammim (Ex. 25:6; 30:7; 31:11) designate an offering of a burning mixture of powdered spices, specifically, stacte, onycha, galbanum, and frankincense (Ex. 30:34–38). Many scholars hold that this recipe may have been taken from an older usage.

The second term for incense, levonah (Jer. 6:20; 17:26; 41:5), designates frankincense and is probably so called because of its white color (Heb. lavan "white"). Levonah is one of the ingredients in qeṭoret (ha-) sammim (Ex. 30:34). M. Haran distinguishes three different uses of incense in the Bible. As a supplement to sacrifice, the incense offering was concomitant to other offerings. Frankincense (levonah) was used without any additional aromatic ingredients. This custom is laid down in the ritual for the meal-offering (minḥah; Lev. 2:1ff.), for firstfruits (bikkurim; Lev. 2:14), and for the showbread (Lev. 24:7; cf. Neh. 13:5, 9). In no instance are spices added to the sacrifices of animals or birds. Incense was also offered in a censer called maḥtah (Lev. 10:1) or miktar (miqṭar; Ezek. 8:11). This was a separate offering which is given special prominence in the priestly sources (Num. 16:16–18). Another separate incense offering was performed by Aaron in order to stop a plague (Num. 17:11–12). In other passages (e.g., Isa. 43:23; Jer. 6:20; 17:26; 41:5) it is not clear whether a separate incense offering was intended or whether the levonah was to accompany the meal-offering. Since the sources do not specify the ingredients of the separate incense offering – Leviticus 10:1, Numbers 16:17, and 17:12 speak only of qeṭoret – its composition cannot be determined. When, however, the high priest was directed to carry a censer of burning incense of the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement, he used qeṭoret sammim (Lev. 16:12–13), but this practice is exceptional. There is no compelling reason to assume that the ritual of burning incense in censers appeared late in the Israelite cult. Egyptian paintings and reliefs from the New Kingdom depicting the sieges of various cities in Canaan and Syria occasionally show a man holding a censer of burning incense (see Gressmann, Bilder, fig. 105 and Pritchard, Pictures, fig. 334).

Except on the Day of Atonement, qeṭoret (ha-) sammim was always offered on a special altar, specifically, the "altar of qeṭoret sammim" (Lev. 4:7 see *Altar). The altar incense was burned each morning and evening by the high priest and came to be designated "perpetual incense" (qeṭoret tamid; Ex. 30:7–8). There is good reason to believe that the "altar of gold" (i Kings 7:48) which stood in Solomon's Temple (i Kings 6:20, 22) was an incense altar, a feature that may have been missing in Ezekiel's vision of the Temple (but see his reference to a table in 41:22). Scholars often compare this altar and the one mentioned in Exodus 30:1–7 to the horned limestone altars (tenth century b.c.e.) excavated in Palestine, especially to those of Megiddo and Tell Beit Mirsim. According to many scholars the horns were designed to support a bowl of incense. Though it is not known exactly when the practice of burning incense was absorbed into the Israelite cult, the suggestion of Van Hoonacker that incense was introduced into Israel in the sixth century b.c.e. is certainly not vindicated by archaeological discoveries.

The offering of incense is treated with the utmost seriousness by biblical writers, who chastise the unqualified persons bold enough to offer it (Lev. 10:1–2; Num. 16:6ff.; ii Chron. 26:16–21). Offering incense to other gods – a practice well attested in the Bible (i Kings 11:8; ii Kings 22:17; 23:5; Jer. 1:16; 7:9; ii Chron. 34:25; et al) – is particularly displeasing to the God of Israel (ii Kings 22:17; Jer. 1:16; ii Chron. 34:25). Its use according to the exact specified proportions was forbidden for nonholy purposes. The use of incense was not restricted to the cultic sphere. It was also offered in honor of distinguished persons (Ezek. 23:41; Dan. 2:46). The bride in Song of Songs 3:6 was perfumed with various types of incense. Proverbs 27:9 praises ointment and incense which "rejoice the heart." It was probably assumed that whatever pleased men would also please God. This may be reflected in Psalms 141:2, where prayer is compared to the rising smoke of incense.

[Jean Ouellette]

Another term for the ascending smoke of ketoret is tamer, the smoke being timrah; it was stated that the blessing over the incense had to be recited "as soon as the tamarah ascends" (Ber. 43a). From the Aramaic gumra ("coals") is derived the word mugmar for the incense upon the coals. Hence "to say the blessing over the mugmar" literally means "over the fragrant odor of the incense" (although in modern Hebrew the phrase is used as though the word is derived from "gamar," to finish, to mean "to congratulate on the completion of a task"). The verb is also used for the scent of incense permeating a room or clothes (cf. Shab. 18a).

Preparation of the Incense

An ancient baraita from the time of the Temple (Ker. 6a) describes the preparation of incense in the Tabernacle and the Temple. The preparing of incense was called *pittum ha-ketoret and those who did the work were the pattamim ("compounders"). Although the Torah mentions the names of only four ingredients, according to rabbinic tradition "11 ingredients were mentioned to Moses at Sinai," and the increased number is arrived at by homiletical interpretation of that verse. These are (1) balsam, (2) onycha, (3) galbanum, (4) frankincense, (5) myrrh, (6) cassia-cinnamon, (7) spikenard, (8) crocus, (9) costus, (10) cinnamon bark, (11) cinnamon. Loew regarded the increase in the number of spices as determined by the import of new spices in the time of the Second Temple. The same chapter of the Torah, however, numbers among the components of the anointing oil, myrrh, cinnamon, and also kiddah which is a species of cinnamon similar to cassia-cinnamon and cinnamon bark. There is no ground for doubting the tradition that the other types of incense were already used in the wilderness. In the course of a year, 368 maneh (c. 580 lbs; c. 264 kg.) of incense were consumed. To these was added a small amount of ma'aleh ashan ("that which makes the smoke ascend"), apparently the plant Leptadenia pyrotechnica which contains nitric acid, and also kippat ha-yarden, the identity of which is unknown, but it has been suggested that it is the cyclamen. At the time of the Second Temple the preparation of incense for the Temple was the monopoly of the priests of the House of *Avtinas who kept the technique and exact proportions secret, for which they were censured by the rabbis (Yoma 3:11). The use of incense which was common in biblical and talmudic times steadily declined, and as though in memory of it the blessing "who createst diverse kinds of spices" is said in the Havdalah.

[Jehuda Feliks]

bibliography:

Krauss, Tal Arch, 1 (1910), 233–44; H. Bluemner, Technologie und Terminologie der Gewerbe und Kuenste bei Griechen und Roemern, 1 (19122), 328–55; Loew, Flora, passim; H.N. and A.L. Moldenke, Plants of the Bible (1952), index; J. Feliks, Olam ha-Ẓome'aḥ ha-Mikra'i (19682), 231–77. incense offering: A. Van Hoonacker, in: rb, 23 (1914), 161–87 (Fr.); M. Loehr, Das Raeucheropfer im Alten Testament (1927); H.G. May, Material Remains of the Megiddo Cult (1935), especially plate xii; R. De Langhe, in: Biblica, 40 (1959), 476–94 (Fr.); M. Haran, in: vt, 10 (1960), 113–29 (Eng.); de Vaux, Anc Isr, index.