The Mitzvah of Ketoret
The Torah portion of Tetzaveh contains the mitzvah to build the inner golden alter and the mitzvah of burning the Ketoret (incense) on it. The mitzvah was to burn certain fragrant herbs every day in the morning and in the late afternoon, on the golden altar in the Tabernacle and Holy Temple.
In the words of the Torah, “Aaron shall make incense of spices go up in smoke upon it; every morning when he sets the lamps in order, he shall burn it.” And in next week’s portion, “And the Lord said to Moses: “Take for yourself aromatics, [namely] balsam sap, onycha and galbanum, aromatics and pure frankincense; they shall be of equal weight. And you shall make it into incense, a compound according to the art of the perfumer, well blended, pure, holy. And you shall crush some of it very finely, and you shall set some of it before the testimony in the Tent of Meeting, where I will arrange meetings with you; it shall be to you a holy of holies.”
The commentaries offer several reasons for the mitzvah of Ketoret.
- The smell of the Ketoret was the most pleasant smell known to man. A good smell has a very powerful effect on man and can draw his heart in a particular direction. The burning of the Ketoret in the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and Bait HaMikdash (Holy Temple) thus brought great pleasure and joy to the Jews who were there and thereby magnified the honor and awe of these holy places in their perception.
- Maimonides writes in the Guide for the Perplexed that since the Ohel Mo’ed (tent of meeting) was a place where they cut up the parts of the sacrifices and washed their innards, G-d therefore commanded that they burn incense there in order to remove and substitute that smell. The good smell would be so powerful in that place that it would also perfume the clothes of the Kohanim.
- Several commentaries sharply disagree with that this explanation and say it is too superficial. They therefore offer other reasons for the mitzvah.
- The Kli Yakar says that the Outer Altar and the sacrifices offered there were to atone for the sins committed by the body. This is why animals were sacrificed there, representing the animalistic tendencies that we have which stem from our body’s desires. The Inner Altar and the Ketoret offered there represents the soul. For this reason:
- The dimensions of the length and width of this altar were one by one amah (cubit). The single unit represents the soul that has a singular desire (yechidah) to cleave to G-d.
- The height of this altar was two amot. This represents the singular soul returning to the one G-d.
- The Ketoret were very finely ground, representing the soul which is extremely refined and spiritual, but still needs atonement to be able to return to its source.
- The Ketoret were sacrificed in the morning and in the evening. These times represent the birth of man (morning) and the time of his passing (evening). We must toil to ensure that the soul is as pure when we return it to our Maker as when they were granted to us.
- The morning Ketoret was offered at the time of the cleaning of the Menorah. And the afternoon Ketoret was offered at the time that Aharon “elevates (kindles) the lamps.” This represents the need for the soul (symbolized by the lamps of the Menorah) to be cleansed through good deeds and Teshuvah (repentance) during one’s lifetime (symbolized by the morning). And the elevation of the soul to its source at the end of one’s life (evening) when we must ensure it is as pure as when it descended to this world.
- The golden crown on the Inner Altar represents the crown that each soul will (hopefully) merit in the World to Come. These are the same crowns that the Jews received at Sinai, but had to give up when they sinned with the golden calf. This is why the Inner Altar was placed in an area corresponding to the Ark of the Covenant which contained the Tablets of the Law. This symbolized that the crown of the soul stems from the Torah.
- There were special offerings of Ketoret on Yom Kippur. This represents the purification of the souls on this holy day when they become as pure as an angels of G-d as they were in years gone by and in days of old.
The Inner Meaning
- From a Chassidic/mystical perspective, the Outer and Inner Altar represent the outer and inner levels of a Jew’s heart. The external aspect of the heart, represented by the outer altar, is the level of thought and contemplation which one must use to inspire oneself with a love for G-d. This love is revealed, palpable, and perceptible. The internal aspect, represented by the Inner Altar, is the desire (for G-d) which is beyond love. It is rooted in the deepest level of the soul which transcends intellect. In fact, it is so profound, it is barely perceptible. By its very nature it can never be extinguished. This explains many details of the law regarding the Inner and Outer altars;
- The Outer Altar was in the courtyard of the Tabernacle and Holy Temple which were open to the elements. It was a miracle that the rain never extinguished the fire of this altar. This represents the fact that the love in this level of the heart is affected by one’s physical desires and base tendencies and might even be extinguished by these. One who battles these desires will be miraculously aided by G-d to be able to overcome these challenges so that his fire (love) not be extinguished.
- Conversely, the Inner Altar was inside the sanctuary which was not open to the elements because the connection between the deeper aspect of the soul and G-d cannot be diminished by external forces.
- The fire for the Inner Altar was taken from the Outer Altar. This represents the fact that one cannot unlock the deeper aspects of his soul before he purifies and elevates the conscious level of the soul, over which he has full control.
- The Pesukei Dezimra (verses of praise recited in the beginning of the morning service) and the first blessing of Kriat Shema (Yotzer Ohr) is when we try to excite the revealed aspect of the heart to achieve a love of G-d. In the second blessing of the Shema (Ahavat Olam or Ahava Rabbah) we ask G-d to “unite our hearts (veyached levaveinu).” This mean that we ask Him to help us reveal the deep innate yearning we have for G-d, into the outer aspect of the heart as well.
In our Daily Prayers
It is customary to recite the Torah verses and several mishnayot (teachings from the oral law) about Ketoret in the preliminary prayers to the morning and afternoon service. Some recite these at the end of the morning service as well. Since we cannot actually offer the Ketoret today, we ask G-d to consider the recitation of these verses as if we had actually sacrificed the Ketoret.
These recitals have great significance;
- The Zohar says that the recital of the Ketoret before prayer removes impurity from the world.
- The recital after the morning prayers (in Chassidic and Sefardic tradition) is considered the most important recital, since the Ketoret was actually burned after the tamid sacrifice which is represented by the morning prayers.
- One who is careful to recite the Ketroret properly will be blessed with success in his actions, he will merit to increased parnassah (income) and he will be aided in doing teshuvah. He will be saved from bad events, bad thoughts, bad judgments, Gehinom (purgatory) and he will not be injured during that entire day. He will get a (greater) portion both in this world and in the next world. 
- These blessings can only be achieved if one reads it with great precision, slowly, word by word and with concentration in their heart.
- Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai said, “If people would only know how exalted the service of Ketoret is, they would take every word and place a crown on its head like a crown of gold.”
Some of the laws and customs relating to these recitals;
- One should not miss the time for praying in order to say the Ketoret (and other introductory prayers). If it is late, they should pray first and recite them afterwards.
- If one is late for minyan they may skip these prayers as above. However, one should be cautious about doing so as this can lead to these prayers being treated as secondary and unimportant. The Pesukei Dezimrah prayers may be the next in line to receive this treatment, and so on and so forth, G-d forbid. One should therefor take great pains to ensure that they not have to skip these prayers.
- The Arizal (and the Lubavitcher Rebbe) would count the herbs of the Ketoret as they recited them. This was to ensure that they didn’t skip any of them (which is considered a severe violation), and to show how precious it is. In addition, the physical hand movements represent the physical movement of the actual sacrifice.
- Some have a custom to read the Ketoret from a special parchment scroll on which the verses and mishnayot are written by a scribe. In the words of the Seder HaYom, “the Ketoret is a great method to nullify any disease or bad occurrence. And to break the negative forces and block the evil impulse. With this easy technique, one can be saved from many serious matters. One should read it with concentration and full awareness. One who cares for his soul, should try with all his might in this matter. And he should write it all on kosher parchment with the Torah script and read it morning and evening with great concentration. I will guarantee this.
May we all merit to all of these blessings, Amen!
 Exodus, 30, 7
 Ibid, 34 – 36
 See Yoma 39b that its pleasant smell would extend all the way to Jerusalem.
 Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 103
 3, 45
 See Rabeinu BaChaye on Exodus, ibid, 1
 On Exodus, ibid, 30, 1
 See Shabbat 88a and Berachot 17a
 Avot, 5, 5
 See Kiddushin, 30b, Tanya, chapter 13
 See Rambam, Hilchot Temidin UMusafin, 3, 5
 Ohr HaTorah of the Tzemach Tzedek, Hosafot on Bamidbar, page 1,471 and 1,472
 See Shulchan Aruch HaRav, Mahadurah Kammah, 1, 11 and 19, and Siman 48, 1. Mishna Berura, 234, 6
 Parshat VaYakhel, 219b
 Siddur Yavetz, Sha’ar HaKollel, 3, 12
 Siddur Yavetz, quoted in Piskei Teshuvot, 48, 5
 Piskei Teshuvot, ibid in the name of the Seder HaYom and the Kaf HaChaim of Rav Chaim Palagi
 Zohar, Vayakhel, ibid
 Mishan Berurah, ibid
 See O.C. 52
 See Sha’arei Halacha UMinhag, 1, page 147 and 148
 See sources quoted in Piskei Teshuvot, ibid, note 45
 See the end of the paragraph of Tanya Rabi Natan
 Ben Ish Chai, Miketz, 8
 By Rabbi Moshe Ben Yehuda Makhir, first published in 1599
 Quoted in Piskei Teshuvot, ibid. See Kaf HaChaim, 132. 23 in the name of the Chidah, See Teshuvot VeHanhagot, 4, 18
Rabbi Aryeh Citron was born in California and learned in Yeshivahs around the world before receiving his Smicha in Melbourne Australia. He lives in Miami where he teaches Torah to Jews of all ages. He sends out a weekly email called Parsha Halacha and recently authored a book called “The Practical Parsha” Weekly Halacha for Daily Living. To subscribe to his email you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.