The Third Daily Lottery: The Incense Service
The third lottery was unique. This was held to determine who would have a chance to officiate at the incense offering, which according to Jewish tradition (see Zohar I 130:A, for example) was the most beloved part of the Temple service in G-d's eyes; it was influential in subduing evil, and its characteristic quality aided in amplifying the aspect of Divine mercy and benevolence in the world.
Background: About the Incense
The Bible states (Ex. 30:34), "G-d said to Moses: Take fragrances such as balsam, onycha, galbanum, and pure frankincense, all of the same weight, as well as other specified fragrances."
The incense which was offered in the Holy Temple was made from eleven different ingredients, only four of which are mentioned by name in the verse above. The identity of the other seven spices has been passed down in the Oral Tradition. As is the case with regard to many other areas of Temple study, the exact classification of these ingredients is the subject of serious research and scholarship. Many of these are rare, and some can be obtained only in exotic and distant lands.
The method, or recipe, for preparing the special incense offering from these ingredients was a closely-guarded secret, passed down from generation to generation within the ranks of one particular family known as Avtinas. In addition to the identity of the spices and the exact amounts and manner in which they are prepared, the clan protected another important secret of their trade: The identity of an herb known in Hebrew as ma'aleh ashan, literally "that which causes smoke to rise." This herb has a quality which enabled the smoke from the incense to rise up to heaven in a straight column. In our own time, some have speculated that this may be the plant Leptadenia pyrotechnica, which contains nitric acid.
Background: About the Avtinas Family
The Avtinas family was appointed by the Sanhedrin to provide the incense, and they were exclusively responsible for its production, which was done in the chamber named for them, the Chamber of Avtinas. We have learned that this chamber was located in the south side of the court, over the "water gate."
The Midrash (Shir HaShirim Rabbah, 3:4) provides several poignant glimpses of the Avtinas family, which tell us something of the great dedication that burned in their hearts for their holy occupation:
"The Avtinas family were expert in the preparation of the incense spices, and knew how to use the herb ma'aleh ashan, which caused the smoke to rise. But the rabbis were critical that they refused to teach these things to others, and suspended them from office. The sages sent to Alexandria for skilled craftsmen, and engaged these others to try and duplicate the Avtinas' incense. These craftsmen were expert in the spices, but they could not make the smoke rise up in a straight column like the Avtinas family... the smoke from their incense immediately diffused and scattered.
When the sages saw this, they remarked that everything which the Holy One created, He created only for the sake of His own honor, as the verse states (Isaiah 43): 'Every one that is called by My name, for I have created him for my glory; I have formed him, yes, I have made him.' They returned the Avtinas family to their task, and doubled their wages."
"But the wise men asked them: 'What is the reason that you do not share the secret of your profession; why do you not want to teach others?'
They responded: 'Our fathers passed on a tradition to us, that one day the Holy Temple will be destroyed. We did not want to teach our secret, so that it does not fall into the wrong hands, the hands of idolators; and one day, the holy incense offering which we presented before the Holy One would then be used for idolatry.' When the rabbis understood that this was the reason for their silence, the Avtinas family was greatly praised."
"It was also told that no member of their family ever put on perfume. And when one of them would marry outside the family, they would make an agreement that the girl should never wear perfume. And all this was so that no man should ever suspect that they used the secrets of the holy incense for their own personal use, as the verse states (Numbers 32), And you shall be clean before G-d and Israel'."
"Rabbi Akiva related: Shimon ben Luga told me that once (after the destruction of the Holy Temple), he and a young lad - a descendant of the Avtinas family - were gathering herbs in the fields. 'I noticed that suddenly the boy wept, and then laughed. I asked him, my boy, why do you cry?' And he told me, 'For my family's honor, which has been diminished.' And why did you laugh?', I asked him. 'Because the greatest honor is reserved and established for the righteous in the future world. And in the end result, the Holy One will gladden his descendants, may it be speedily.'"
"I asked the boy, what did you see that reminded you of all this?' And he told me 'As we were gatheriing, I saw the plant ma'aleh ashan before me in the field.'
'Show it to me!' I exclaimed. But he told me, We have a tradition never to show it to any man.' Only a few days passed, and that child died. Thus he did not reveal it to anyone."
Background: About the Incense Altar
The Biblical Commands (Ex. Ch. 30)
"And you shall make an altar to burn incense; out of acacia wood you shall make it. It shall be square, one cubit long and one cubit wide, and two cubits high, including its horns. You shall cover it with pure gold, its top, its walls all around, and its horns; and you shall make a gold rim all around it."
"And you shall make two gold rings under the altar's rim on its two opposite side; they shall facilitate holding the poles with which it is carried. You shall make the carrying poles out of acacia wood, and cover them with a layer of gold."
"Place this in front of the curtain concealing the ark of the testimony - before the curtain concealing the testimony area where I commune with you.. Aaron shall burn incense on this altar each morning when he cleans out the lamps. He shall also burn incense before evening when he lights the lamps. For all generations, there will be incense before the L-rd at all times."
"Do not burn any unauthorized incense on it, and do not offer any animal sacrifice, meal offering or libation on it. Once each year, Aaron shall make atonement on the horns of this altar. For all generations, he shall make atonement with the blood of the atonement sacrifice once each year. This altar shall be a holy of holies to G-d."
An extraordinary tradition relates that because it was so beloved to the Creator, He sought to reward those who attended to it in an unusual fashion, whose effects were manifest immediately: whoever officiated in the incense offering became wealthy, and enjoyed the blessing of Heaven-sent bounty and prosperity from then on. This concept is also reflected by the verse (Deut. 33: 10-11), "... they shall put incense before You... bless, L-rd, his substance, and accept the work of his hands... "
The Incense Service is Once in a Lifetime
Thus, in order to give all the priests an opportunity to avail themselves of this Divine blessing, and so that no one man should "monopolize" such favor by receiving it more than once, it was established that unlike the other aspects of the Temple service, each priest may officiate at the incense offering only once... and afterwards, he may not apply again. The priests who arrived at this third gathering knew that if they merit to perform this service, it will be an opportunity they shall have just once in a lifetime - for the winner will not even be allowed to participate in the drawing again.
To paraphrase the language of the Mishna, the overseer of the lotteries would cry out: "Newcomers only! Whoever has never once offered the incense, let him come and draw lots!"
The Talmud expounds on this and states emphatically that in all the hundreds of years that the Holy Temple stood, no man ever repeated the incense service. This fact in itself translates into an amazing detail: there were so many priests in each family clan that a lottery gathering never once took place (and this scene was replayed every day over many hundreds of years) wherein everyone present had already performed this service!