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The Scent of Spiritual Intimacy: Burning Incense in the Tabernacle - Exodus 30:34-37 by Dr. Terry Harman

Updated: 6 days ago

The High Priest at the Golden Altar of Incense

The Tabernacle Man at The Altar of Incense, © 2005 Terry Harman

The Scent of Worship

The Indiana State Prison (ISP) was built in 1860 and remains Indiana’s oldest correctional facility. It is designated as a level four maximum security prison for 2,400 men. For many years I served as one of the two full-time chaplains. One of my duties was to assist outside volunteers who provided religious services to the men serving time. One such volunteer was the priest, Father Paul Martin from the Eastern Orthodox Christian community. He provided The Divine Liturgy on Saturday mornings.


Every Sunday morning when I entered the prison chapel, I knew the priest served at the altar the day before.  Why? The residual aroma of Lilac incense burned the day before still lingered in that sacred space. The hint of lilac reminded me this is a SACRED SPACE, set apart and made holy amid the chaotic sounds and unique prison smells.

Prison chapel at the Indiana State Prison Michigan City Indiana

The Chapel at the Indiana State Prison was built in 1908. Photo taken with permission by Terry Harman, 2005

The Sense of Smell

The memories connected with our sense of smell are instantly recalled and recognized. Do you remember the smell of your mother’s freshly baked bread? Can you identify the scent of roses? Do you recall the smell of your grandfather’s garage? The sense of smell is powerful.  Pleasant aromas attract and draw us in. Unpleasant odors repel and we distance ourselves from the source – think of bad breath or other bodily odors.


Burning incense every morning and evening (Exodus 30:7-8) was an integral component in the Jewish rituals of the Mishkan and Temple. The smell of the incense was so potent that people living in Jericho, 12 miles from the Temple, could smell the fragrance (1).


The Ketoret - Incense

The Ketoret or incense was a special blend of “sweet spices (Exodus 30:7, 34-35). The 368 pounds of incense was prepared once a year. The House of Avtinas was responsible for preparing the incense for the year. One pound for each day or one half a pound to be burning at the time of the morning Tamid offering (3rd hour – 9:00 AM Talmud, Tamid 3:7) and the other half pound for the evening Tamid offering (9th hour – 3:00 PM Talmud, Tamid 4:1). The total for daily offerings was 365 pounds.

However, during the Yom Kippur rituals the High Priest would burn 3 pounds of incense, totaling 368 pounds for the year (Talmud, Tamid 3:8). Standing before the Ark of the Covenant, the High Priest would pour the incense onto the shovel of hot coals and wait until the sweet-smelling smoke saturated the Holy of Holies. (2)


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. This lottery was open to those who never served at the Golden Altar of 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 Talmud (T.B Yoma 26a) proposes one reason for this practice -- anyone who offered the incense was assured of wealth, and there was a desire to make sure that that blessing would be spread as widely as possible. This practice had the equally important auxiliary effect of ensuring that each day, there would be someone coming to the morning's routine with the excitement of doing something for the first time. The incense was not only a column of smoke, but also a breath of fresh air.” (4)

The Practical Reason for Incense

The brazen altar was an altar for the burning of sacrifices (korban, “to draw near or close to”). The life of the animal was in the blood. Being slaughtered in a kosher manner did not exempt the Mishkan from foul odors. The smell of blood, bone, and hides were easily detected. In the hot sun the odors would have distracted people from the purpose of the rituals. The antidote – the pleasing aroma of sweet-smelling incense.


Since many beasts were daily slaughtered in the holy place, the flesh cut in pieces and the entrails and the legs burnt and washed, the smell of the place would undoubtedly have been like the smell of slaughter-houses, if nothing had been done to counteract it. They were therefore commanded to burn incense there twice every day, in the morning and in the evening (Exod. 30:7, 8), in order to give the place and the garments of those who officiated there a pleasant odour. There is a well-known saying of our Sages, “In Jericho they could smell the incense” [burnt in the Temple]. This provision likewise tended to support the dignity of the Temple. If there had not been a good smell, let alone if there had been a stench, it would have produced in the minds of the people the reverse of respect; for our heart generally feels elevated in the presence of good odour, and is attracted by it, but it abhors and avoids bad smell. (5)

Priest offering meat offering at the brazen altar

The Priest Offering the Sacrifice at the Brazen Altar, © 2016 Terry Harman

The Spiritual Reason for the Incense

Maimonides correctly points out the practical reason for burning incense to cover the “stench” of sacrifice. However, there is something deeper than burning incense than to provide a pleasant odor during worship. There's more to it than just lighting incense to hide stinky smells.


The offerings, called korban in Hebrew, were taken to the Tabernacle or the temple because people wanted to get closer to God. Korban means "to draw close to." It was a way to bring people nearer to God's presence. But just giving an offering doesn't mean you are truly connected with God, especially if your reasons for doing it weren't right. It's like bringing a "Secret Santa" gift to an office Christmas party – it doesn't mean we're bonded with the person. We can't buy God's favor with acts of service, gifts, or money.


On a deeper level, the Hebrew word for incense, ketoret, comes from the Aramaic word keter, which means "to bond with." So while the korban brought someone closer to God, experiencing the incense allowed them to bond with God on a deeper, more personal level. Interestingly, offering or the word korban is used eighty times in the book of Leviticus which is the instructional manual for the people bringing offerings and the priests ministering at the altars of the Tabernacle.


“The smell of the mishkan that remained with a person after he left, and, therefore, it was that smell which conjured up in his mind the meaning behind the mishkan experience. Therefore, the Torah wanted us to take away with us the message of the incense as we left the mishkan, rather than the smell of animal parts.” (6)

The Scent of Haiti

I volunteered with Health Corps Haiti, led by Dr. William Forgey. The area where we served had a small foundry that took scrap metal from wrecked vehicles that were beyond repair. After the metal was cut down into workable sizes it was melted in the forge to be poured into molds to make pots and pans. Haiti has a severe shortage of wood for cooking and building. The local foundry recycles aluminum to make cooking pots and uses anything that would burn – wood, tennis shoes, plastic, cardboard, rags, and garbage. The unpleasant smell permeated the village. The picture below illustrates the smoke produced by recycling aluminum. (7)

Making aluminum pots in Haiti

Making aluminum pots in Haiti

As I packed for Haiti, I would pack one, fresh set of clothes, wrapped in a plastic kitchen garbage bag that was scented. Regardless of my ingenuity, by the time we made the three-and-a-half-hour trek to the airport, my clothes carried the scents of the fires along the way. I was conscious of my odor in the confined space on the plane. When I arrived home and opened my luggage there was no doubt where I served. My family could smell the fires of the village foundry that saturated my clothing!



The use of incense in the Mishkan and the Temple was an important aspect of the daily rituals of the people who brought offerings to the priests who served at the altars, especially the golden altar of incense within the Holy Place. The incense was not burned only to cover up the smell of the animal offerings burned upon the brazen altar. Incense enhanced the experience of worship and transformed the space into the holy. When I returned from Haiti my family knew where I had been. The scent from the village followed me home. It permeated my pours as well as my clothing.


Likewise, the incense burned at the Tabernacle wafted its way through the tribal encampment around the Tabernacle. Those who had the privilege of serving at the altar of incense could be quickly identified. The experience of drawing closer to the Lord and the scent of worship were evident to all who encountered the priest on his way home.


May the experience of our worship, prayers, music, sermons, Bible studies, and even the incense burned in our service, let those who encounter us know by our words and our actions that we have been in the presence of The Holy One! Lord, strengthen our witness to those we encounter daily. “In Life, like incense, you have to be on fire to fulfill your purpose and positively affect others.” (8)

Speaking of the lilac incense used in the prison chapel, I could not help but add this picture my friend Peter B. sent me. It originated with the Holy Cross Orthodox Church. Peter has been one of the faithful Orthodox volunteers at the Indiana State Prison for many years.

Eastern Orthodox Priest with Censor


(1)   Tamid chapter 3, 30b 15


(2)   Leviticus 16:12-13; and Shurpin, Yehuda. Why Ketoret Incense in the Temple?


(4)   ibid.


(5)   Friedländer, Michael, translator. Guide for the Perplexed. By Moses Maimonides, part 3:45. 1903.




(8) The Quote of the Day


All scriptures are from, The Holy Scriptures According to the Masoretic Text: A New Translation. Jewish Publication Society, 1917.

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7 days ago

Once again, thank you for y our insights!

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