The Bible states (Ex. 30:34), "God 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.
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 reason that you do not share secret of your profession; why 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 them would marry outside the family, they make an agreement girl should never wear all this so man suspect used secrets holy incense for own personal use, as verse states (Numbers 32), 'And you shall be clean before God Israel'."
"Rabbi Akiva related: Shimon ben Luga told me that once (after the destruction of Holy Temple), he and a young lad - a descendant 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 family's honor, which has been diminished.' 'And why did you laugh?', 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 of all this?' And he told me 'As we were gathering, saw plant ma'aleh ashan before in 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."
About the Incense Altar
The Biblical Commandments (Ex. Ch. 30)
"And you shall make an altar to burn incense; out of acacia wood it. It be square, one cubit long wide, two cubits high, including its horns. cover with pure gold, top, walls all around, horns; a gold rim around"
"And you shall make two gold rings under the altar's rim on its opposite side; they facilitate holding poles with which it is carried. carrying out of acacia wood, cover them a layer gold."
"Place this in front of the curtain concealing ark testimonyÑbefore testimony area where I commune with you.. Aaron shall burn incense on altar each morning when he cleans out lamps. also before evening lights For all generations, there will be Lord at times."
"Do not burn any unauthorized incense on it, and offer animal sacrifice, meal offering or libation it. Once each year, Aaron shall make atonement the horns of this altar. For all generations, he with blood sacrifice year. altar be a holy holies to God."