The Mishna at the beginning of the fifth perek(13a) lists the different families of kohanim who were responsible for specific tasks in the Temple. Our Gemara quotes baraitot that are most critical of two of the families – Bet Garmu, who were responsible for baking the lehem ha-panim (shewbread) and Bet Avtinas, who were responsible for the ketoret (incense). The criticism of both of these families focused on their refusal to share the knowledge of their craft with others.
The Gemara on our daf relates that, in each case, the Sages removed them from their positions and brought in experts from Alexandria in Egypt who were to teach others how to do these things. In each case the experts could not create the same effect as the priestly families – they could not bake bread that would not become moldy, nor could they succeed in creating an incense whose smoke would rise in a straight line to the heavens. The Sages eventually had to return them to their original positions – with a significant raise in their salaries.
In their defense, the baraita records the explanation for their behavior – they feared that with the ultimate destruction of the Temple this knowledge would be put to mundane use if too many people knew about it.
Rabbi Akiva said: Shimon ben Loga told me: Once I and a certain child from the house of Avtinas were collecting herbs, and I saw him crying, and later II saw him laughing. said to him: My son, why did you cry? He said to me: I cried for the glory of my father’s house, which has been diminished after the destruction of the Temple. I subsequently asked him: And why did you laugh? He said to me: I laughed with joy over the glory prepared for the righteous in the future, when my family will have its role restored to them in the rebuilt Temple.
Shimon ben Loga added that he asked that child further: And what did you see that brought these things to mind? He replied: I saw the smoke raiser before me, among the herbs we were collecting. I said to him: My son, show it to me, and I will keep its identity secret so that no one will be able to use it for idolatry. He said to me: Rabbi, I have a tradition from my forefathers not to show it to a soul.
The plant seen by the descendant of Bet Avtinas is referred to as ma’ale ashan. Although the tradition identifying this plant has apparently been lost over the centuries, the generally accepted identification is with a weed called leptadenia pyrotechnica, a plant that grows in the southern part of the Jordan Valley and in the northern Sinai. This plant ignites very easily, and local Arabs have used it to make gunpowder and explosives. Lighting even one branch of the bush will cause it to burn up entirely in a ve