Temple Incense

The Ketoret Incense Offering


The ketoret incense offering is an essential element of the Daily (Tamid) offering in the Holy Temple. It's ingredients were among the materials which G-d called upon Israel to donate to the building of the Tabernacle in the desert:

"And HaShem spoke unto Moshe, saying: ’Speak unto the children of Israel, that they take for Me an offering; of every man whose heart makes him willing you shall take My offering. And this is the offering which you shall take of them: gold, and silver, and brass; and blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine linen, and goats’ hair; and rams’ skins dyed red, and sealskins, and acacia-wood; oil for the light, spices for the anointing oil, and for the sweet incense; onyx stones, and stones to be set, for the ephod, and for the breastplate. And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them." (Exodus 25:1-8)


Preparing Ketoret

‘Take for yourself sweet spices"


In Exodus 30:34-38 we read the recipe and instructions for the preparation of the ketoret incense:

"And HaShem said to Moshe: ‘Take for yourself sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum; sweet spices with pure frankincense; of each shall there be a like weight. And you shalt make of it incense, a perfume after the art of the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy. And you shalt beat some of it very small, and put of it before the testimony in the tent of meeting, where I will meet with you; it shall be unto you most holy. And the incense which you shalt make, according to the composition thereof you shall not make for yourselves; it shall be unto you holy for HaShem. Whosoever shall make like unto that, to smell thereof, he shall be cut off from his people.’"

The picture above depicts the preparation of the ketoret (incense) for the Yom Kippur service. The Kohen Gadol (High Priest) is seen practicing for the complex procedure. In the background on both sides are seen members of the Avtinas family grinding the ketoret, for which they were responsible, both on Yom Kippur and for the daily incense service.



Chamber of Avtinas

Bet Avtinas

The preparation of the ketoret in the second Holy Temple was the responsibility of the Avtinas family (Bet Avtinas). Preparing the incense earned the Avtinas family both an honorable mention and a shameful one in the Talmud. They were mentioned in shame for not teaching others how to prepare the incense. On the other hand, “never did a bride of their family walk outside with perfume, lest people assume that the perfume came from the incense – and for this, they were mentioned with honor” (Yoma 38a).

The chamber of Avtinas, where the ketoret was prepared, was located in the southern wall of the inner courtyard of the Holy Temple, as seen in the diagram above.


Pitum Haketoret

The Pitum HaKetoret prayer, written on leather parchment.

Pitum HaKetoret


A special prayer is recited every day of the week, twice in the morning prayer service and once again in the afternoon prayer service. This prayer, known as Pitum HaKetoret, (Preparing the Ketoret Incense) includes quotes from Torah (Exodus) and sections of the Talmud that deal with the ingredients and instructions for preparing the ketoret incense, along with the laws governing its use and its production. The recitation of the prayer in the morning and afternoon service parallels the incense offering itself, which was performed both in the morning and afternoon service of the Holy Temple.

The Pitum HaKetoret prayer is exceedingly beloved, as was the incense service in the Temple itself, and its recitation is considered to impart Divine favor upon the person reciting it. It is also considered to offer protection from plagues (pandemics), as was evidenced by Aharon's use of the ketoret incense to stay the plague, as described in Numbers 17:11-13:

"Moshe said to Aharon, 'Take the censer and put fire from the altar top into it and put incense. Then take it quickly to the congregation and atone for them, for wrath has gone forth from HaShem, and the plague has begun.' Aharon took it, just as Moshe had said, and he ran into the midst of the assembly, and behold, the plague had begun among the people. He placed the incense on it and atoned for the people. He stood between the dead and the living, and the plague ceased."

An English translation of the Pitum HaKetoret prayer:

You are HaShem our G-d, before whom our fathers placed the ketoret incense at the time in which the Holy Temple stands, as You commanded them by Moshe Your prophet, as is written in Your Torah, "And HaShem said to Moshe, take for yourself spices balsam, onycha and galbanum, sweet spices and pure frankincense, each of equal weight, and make it into incense, the work of a pharmacist, purified by salt and finely pulverized. And you shall place it before the [Ark of the] Testimony in the Tent of Meeting, where I will meet you. Holy of Holies it will be before you."

It is also said, "Upon it Aharon shall place the ketoret incense every morning, when he cleans the [menorah ]lamps he will place it. And when Aharon lights the lamps in the afternoon he [will place] the ketoret always before HaShem, throughout the generations."

Our sages taught: how to prepare the ketoret:

368 portions were contained therein. 365, like the days of the solar year, one portion for each day, half in the morning and half in the evening, and three extra portions from which the Kohen Gadol took and rendered two fistfuls on Yom Kippur. He would return them to the mortar on the eve of Yom Kippur in order to fulfill the commandment to make it finer than fine.

As compounded, the incense offering [comprised of eleven fragrant spices]: and they are balsam, onycha, galbanam, frankincense, weighing 70 portions each; myrrh, cassia, spikenard, saffron, weighing 16 portions each; costus, 12 portions, aromatic bark 3 portions, and cinnamon, 9 [portions];

carshina lye, 9 kabin; and wine from Cyprus, 3 se'ah and 3 kabin; If there was no wine from Cyprus they would use aged white wine.

a quarter of a kab of salt from Sodom, and a minute amount of a smoke-raising herb.

Rabbi Natan haBavli says a minute amount of Jordanian amber [was also added]. If honey was added the offering was disqualified. If one omitted any of its spices, he was liable to the death penalty.

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says, balsam is simply the sap that drips from the balsam tree.

Carchina lye [was used] for what purpose? to clean the onycha to make it more pleasant.

Wine from Cyprus was used for what purpose? for steeping the onycha to improve its fragrance.

Although waters of raglayim [urine] could have been used for that purpose, waters of raglayim is not brought into the Holy Temple out of respect.

We were taught: Rabbi Natan says, when he {the kohen] grinds [the spices] he says "Hadek heytev, heytev hadek," ["make it fine!"] because the sound of the voice is beneficial to the spices. If half the quantity is prepared, it is acceptable. {However] if a third or a quarter [of the amount is prepared] we have not heard. Rabbi Yehudah said; this is the rule, regarding the same proportions, half is acceptable. But if he omitted any of the spices, he is liable to the death penalty.

We were taught: Bar Kaparra [says], once every sixty or seventy years the accumulated leftovers would amount to half. Also also Bar Kaparra taught, if one adds a kortov [tiny amount] of honey no man would be able to withstand its aroma. So why is honey not mixed in? Because Torah stated neither leaven nor honey shall you burn [as an offering to HaShem.

HaShem of legions is with us!

A stronghold for us is the G-d of Yaakov, selah!

HaShem of legions, happy is the man who trusts in You!

HaSHem, deliver us!

Our King, answer us on this day we call out to You!

May the offerings of Yehudah and Jerusalem please HaShem, as in the past and bygone years!


NOTE: the preparation of the Ketoret incense for any use or purpose whatsoever,

outside of offering it in the Holy Temple is strictly forbidden!



Tzori (Balsam) is referred to in Torah as nataf (נטף). It is a resin that is bled from the Balsam plant. Balsam is the Arabic name for the Hebrew Afarsimon tree. The Afarsimon tree (translated as Persimmon, but with no relation to the fruit tree of that name), is legendary for its ambrosial aroma. It was used also in the anointing oil for kings and kohanim (priests).

The Afarsimon tree was cultivated in the Jericho area and in Ein Gedi, by the Dead Sea, in ancient times. It was considered exceedingly valuable, literally worth its weight in gold.

The Arabic name Balsam may be related to the Hebrew word for fragrance, bosem, (בושם) which is used frequently in Torah, many times in conjunction with the ketoret incense.

Rambam, (Maimonides) was of the opinion that the wood of the Tzori tree was itself burned in the incense. Ramban, (Nahmanides) opined that it was the resin that was used in the incense.



Tziporen (צפורן) is the more commonly used name of the Torah-named Shechelet (שחלת). More than one opinion exists as to its true identity. The name Tziporen, which means fingernail (or claw) in Hebrew, refers to the finger nail like shape of the ingredient.

Both Saadia Gaon and Maimonides identify the Tziporen as a type of Red Sea conch, which emits a pleasant fragrance. Nachmanides likewise identifies the Shechelet as a sea creature. The Gemara, however, identifies it as something which "grows from the ground," a description which does not necessarily rule out a conch, which dwells on the floor of the sea.

The conch shell itself is not used in the ketoret, but an internal finger nail shaped flap.


Chelbana (Galbanum), according to Talmud Masechet Kritot, emits an unpleasant odor. However, when added to the other ingredients of the ketoret incense, it serves to accent the positive fragrances of the compound. Both Maimonides and Saadia Gaon identify the Chelbana (חלבנה) as the plant known as Meiya in Arabic and Liquidamber orientalis in Latin.

Levona (לבונה) (Frankincense) is the fourth of the four ingredients explicitly mentioned in Torah. It is a resin which beads up on the bark of tress of the genus Boswellia of the Burseraceae family.

Resin harvested from the Mor plant (מור), known in English by the name Myrrh, is considered by most sages to be the source of the Mor ingredient of the ketoret incense. Mor is known as Commiphora in Latin.