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What's That Smell? The Recipe for the Biblical Incense of Exodus 30:34-38 by Dr. Terry Harman

"Priest Offering Incense Before the Lord" photo by Aaron Harman ©2008

"Priest Offering Incense Before the Lord" photo by Aaron Harman ©2008


This blog's purpose is limited to exploring the harvesting and refinement of the five ingredients listed in Exodus 30. The goal is to surmise how each spice's production and aromatic qualities might be used as an analogy for understanding our prayers.

If you are interested in a deep dive into the study of the incense from the Second Temple period a great resource is the Temple Institute in Jerusalem (1) and Rav Kook Torah (2). The graphics and detailed research will satisfy your appetite! There you will learn the formula for more than the four spices listed in Exodus 30 comes from the Oral Torah which was continuously passed down to the time of the Second Temple.

Exodus 30:34-38, JPS 1917

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

The Once in a Lifetime Honor

This daily routine could have become a stale ritual whereby the priest would perform his duties without enthusiasm. Only first-timers were chosen to bring the incense offering to prevent this ritual from growing old and monotonous. A lottery system was implemented to determine who would offer the incense. Why? Rabbi Joshua Heller explains the lottery to first timers was used “to ensure continued novelty and freshness of the time-honored ritual.” (3)

The Secret Recipe

The biblical incense of Exodus 30 was a unique blend of spices. The Hebrew word for “spices” (besamim) is derived from basam which means “to be fragrant.”  Many have speculated the exact formula for making the Exodus 30 incense (Ketoret).  Biblical scholars and researchers are not certain of the precise formula. Exodus 30:34-38 lists five ingredients but not the recipe for preparing the ingredients.

Since biblical times the family (House of Avtinas) entrusted with the formula guarded the recipe (BT Yoma 38). While Exodus only lists the four main ingredients plus the salt. The incense was placed on the golden altar to be burned at the time of the daily Tamid offering, every morning and evening in the Tabernacle of Moses and the Temple. Like the recipe for the showbread, the exact process and formulary for the blend of incense for the golden altar is a guarded secret. No one was allowed to make the incense for personal use.

And the incense which thou shalt make, according to the composition thereof ye shall not make for yourselves; it shall be unto thee holy for YHWH.  Whosoever shall make like unto that, to smell thereof, he shall be cut off from his people.'

The Meaning of Ketoret

In Midrash Tanchuma, Tetzaveh 14:1 the meaning of the Hebrew word ketoret is explored. "What do the letters in the word ketoret ('incense') stand for? The kuf stands for kedushah ('sanctification'), tet for taharah ('purity'), resh for rahamim ('mercy'), and ta for tikvah ('hope')." (4)



Stacte or gum resin comes from a tree much like the Myrrh family.  "The exact identity of stacte is uncertain, but it is believed to have been derived from the resin of the storax tree (Liquidambar orientalis) or the balsam tree (Commiphora opobalsamum)." (5)

It flows freely without making an incision in the bark of the tree.  It can also be obtained in powder form.  It was rare and valuable during biblical times.  The gum resin has a chemical type smell.  When blended with the other ingredients it produces a balsamic aroma. 

Myrrh incense from Exodus 30.

"Stacte" photo by David Hamilton Mishkan Galleries ©2023


Onycha is the operculum or flap of a mollusk found in the Mediterranean.  A sharp instrument must be used to free it from the shell.  The creature lives deep beneath the surface and the shells must be harvested from 400 to 500 feet. 

In biblical times it was used in incense and perfume formulas as a fixative agent to help intensify the overall aroma of the compound.    Pressure must be applied to the mortar and pestle to grind it into a fine powder.  Our prayers and praise may come from the depths of our hearts, especially during trials and tribulations. 


Onycha Exodus 30 biblical incense

"Onycha" photo by David Hamilton Mishkan Galleries ©2023


Galbanum is a gum resin obtained from a large perennial herb that contains resin ducts.  The resin is collected by making incisions at the base of the plant.  Mixed in with the resin are fragments of the plant.  The odor is not pleasing.  It has a pungent turpentine-like scent.   


“Locked in each of the spice roots were fine fragrances that could not be freed without galbanum, whose own odor was bad, but whose sharpness had a positive effect on the others.” (6)

Despite its unpleasant odor, it brings out the best qualities in the other ingredients!  From the depths of our hearts and soul, when we sincerely approach God in prayer, with the stench of sin still on our clothes, He allows us to enter the throne room of Grace!

Galbanum incense

"Galbanum" photo by David Hamilton Mishkan Galleries ©2023


Frankincense is a white, milky resin harvested by making an incision in the bark of the Boswella Carteri tree.   It has been harvested this way for centuries.  After the incision has been made it takes hours before the resin flows.  Often in the fall season, the cut will be made before nightfall to allow enough time for the sap to flow. 

Once it begins to flow the resin drips spontaneously and is free of contaminants.  Sometimes we toss and turn in turmoil throughout the night.  When a small chunk of frankincense is placed upon hot charcoal it does not immediately burn.  It has to sit on the hot coal for a while before it produces a fragrant aroma.

Frankincense raw

"Frankincense" photo by Aaron Harman ©2023


During biblical times salt was used to temper together or bind the ingredients to one another.  Sometimes our prayers are bound together with our tears.   

Coarse sea salt for incense

"Salt" photo by Aaron Harman ©2023


Thank you for viewing my website and reading my blog. If you enjoy what you see and read here is how you can thank me - help someone in need. Look where you live and work. Is there someone who could use a helping hand? Consider supporting a widow, or elderly person. Encourage the person who is going through a difficult time. Become the salt and light of this world that is a breath of fresh air, a sweet-smelling change in a world polluted by the stench of sin. Trust me. You can make a difference in this world. Shalom, Shalom. Terry


In Your presence, we approach You with hearts full of gratitude and reverence. Today, we reflect on the profound symbolism of the sacred spices described in Exodus 30, which were used to create the holy incense for the golden altar of incense.

These spices—stacte, onycha, galbanum, and pure frankincense—were meticulously measured and blended to produce a fragrant offering pleasing to You. In the same way, we offer our prayers that our words may be pleasant to you.

Like the spices of the incense, there are times we come to you in the dark of night, feeling beaten and bruised by the world we live in. There are times when the stench of sin is present when we reach out to you. At other times when we pray we are refreshed and full of passion for your word and your ways. Our prayers are a sweet aroma.

Regardless of whether we are hiding in the dark or basking in the light of your presence,

May our prayers be profound and sincere, not just uttered with words but filled with the depth of our hearts and minds, conveying our deepest praise, and gratitude, not just needs and desires.

May we serve this world not half-heartedly, but with the full intensity of our love and commitment to You.

We seek to align our wills with Yours, dedicating our lives to Your service and glory. Just as these spices were blended to create a harmonious and sacred incense, we ask that You blend our prayers, praises, and petitions, into a unified offering that ascends to Your throne. Amen.


During the Second Temple period, the incense was used twice in the daily Tamid services, three times on Yom Kippur. The Rav Took Torah site offers this insight into the eleven spices.

"The Torah does not provide the exact recipe for the Ketoret, the incense that was burned daily in the Temple. Only in the oral tradition do we find a detailed list of eleven ingredients: 70 portions of the four fragrances mentioned in the verse. 16 portions of myrrh, cassia, spikanard, and saffron. 12 portions of costus. 9 portions of cinnamon. 3 portions of cinnamon bark. Each portion (maneh) weighed five pounds. The total weight was 368 portions — one measure daily, plus three extra measures for Yom Kippur. That’s 1,840 pounds (835 kilos) of incense."

4 Midrash Tanchuma, Tetzaveh 14:1,

6 Sorotzkin, Zalman.  Insights in the Torah, Exodus 30:34, Mesorah Pub, NY:1993, p. 356).

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