כ״ו באב ה׳תשע״ט (August 27, 2019)

Karetot 6a-b: The Ingredients of the Temple Incense

As we learned on yesterday’s daf, the preparation of the Temple anointing oil was a specialized responsibility and it was prohibited to prepare for mundane purposes. According to Rabbi Yoḥanan, although the ingredients for the oil are spelled out in the Torah (see 30:22-23), nevertheless there were others – making a total of eleven – that were taught to Moshe directly. The Gemara discusses how this was derived, and why it was necessary to spell some of the ingredients out clearly in the Torah. With regard to ḥelbina (galbanum), the Gemara explains that since it had an unpleasant smell, if the Torah had not specifically included it, we would have thought that it would be inappropriate to include.

Ḥelbina is a resin that is prepared from plants from the ferula genus of the Apiaceae family, and, in particular from ferula galbaniflua, which grows in Syria and in its northern regions. This resin is often used for medicinal purposes. It has an unpleasant smell, but still is a central ingredient in preparing the Temple incense as well as the anointing oil. When mixed with other, sweet smelling plants, the ḥelbina serves to highlight certain other smells, or creates a pleasant odor as part of the mixture.

The Gemara continues:

Said Rav Ḥana bar Bizna in the name of Rabbi Shimon Ḥasida: Any fast in which none of the sinners of Israel participate is not a fast; for behold the odor of ḥelbina is foul and yet it was included among the spices for the incense. Abaye says: We learn this from the text “And has established his bundle upon the earth” (Amos 4:6).

An established fast day, like the Temple incense, serves as an atonement for the people of Israel, and the Gemara teaches that if the incense is missing a single ingredient – even the unpleasant smelling ḥelbina – it is invalid. This is the source for the tradition to open Kol Nidrei – the Yom Kippur prayer service – with a specific request to include sinners among the “bundle” – the members of the prayer community.