Of Puppies and Perfume
  • March 30, 2022 | Klau Library Blog | Author:

    From the desk of Jordan Finkin, Klau Library, Rare Book and Manuscript Librarian

    As we enter April, budding trees and flowers make the air redolent of spring. The appreciation of fragrance is of course nothing new to Jewish tradition. Nowhere is that fact more readily on display than in the descriptions of the incense offerings. In Exodus (chapter 30, especially verses 34-38), we learn that the incense offering was to include “nataf” (stacte, a gum or resin whose identity is still disputed); “shehelet” (onycha, another unidentified fragrant ingredient); “helbenah” (galbanum, an aromatic resin); and “levonah” (frankincense—you guessed it, a fragrant gum resin). Knowledge of these various ingredients in the Biblical world was clearly great, and greater still the heady smells produced by their combustion.

    temple micrography

    Here, for example, is a close-up of the burning of incense from a 17th-century manuscript of the Temple mount, in Dutch micrography of the text of I Kings (RBR Broadsides 1).

    If the Biblical account of the Temple ritual is intricate, then the Talmudic elaboration of that ritual is, shall we say, Byzantine. In a significant passage from the Talmud (Keritot 6a), the Rabbis increase the number of fragrant substances to eleven: stacte, onycha, galbanum, frankincense, myrrh, cassia, spikenard, saffron, costus, aromatic bark, and cinnamon. To these are added other ingredients: a special type of lye, Cypriot wine (for steeping the onycha), and sea salt, all of which are meant to enhance the aromas of the incense, as well as a particular herb that makes the smoke rise appropriately. Read the rest on the Library blog