The potency of incense offerings dates back to biblical times. Ketoret was offered twice a day in the Temple, and on Yom Kippur it was brought into the Holy of Holies.
Sometime in the final decade of his life, the Besht – Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov (ca. 1700-1760) – penned a letter to his brother-in-law Rabbi Avraham Gershon of Kitov (d. 1761), who was living in the Holy Land. The letter was deposited in the hands of Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Hakohen of Polonne (d. 1779) – a student of the Besht who planned to realize the evergreen Jewish dream to move to the Land of Israel.
Sadly, the disciple did not make the journey, and the letter never reached its destination. In a turn of fortune for posterity, the letter remained together with R. Yaakov Yosef’s papers and it was published posthumously in his second book, Ben Porat Yosef (Korzec 1781) – a boon for future generations.
In this letter, the Besht recounted how he battled the danger of death that struck eastern Europe in 1749. First, he ascended to heavenly spheres and requested that whatever punishment was to be meted out to the Jewish people – it should be by the hand of God, rather than meted out by humans. When a plague – rather than a pogrom – ensued, the Besht tried to mitigate its effects with his prayers. Alas, his attempts were rejected by Heaven for he had played a role in the onset of the plague.
“And from then,” wrote the Besht, “I did not recite ketoret, and I did not pray regarding this.” Clearly, the Besht had been reciting the ketoret passage as a means of combating the plague. Ketoret – literally incense – refers to the prayer that details the incense offering in the Temple.
The Besht continued his account, noting an exception: “It was only on Hoshana Raba, I went to the synagogue with the rest of the community, and by using a number of oaths because [I had] great fear, I recited ketoret one time so that the plague should not spread to our area.” By his own account, the Besht was successful on the local level, as the plague did not ravage his community.
It was not just the Besht who turned to the mystical efficacy of ketoret. Fast forwarding to the present: At the height of the corona pandemic, Winner’s Auctions sold a scored parchment of ketoret that had belonged to the hassidic master Rabbi Meshulam Feish Segal Lowy of Tosh (1921-2015). The item came with documentation that the hassidic master had used the sacred object for years, and was sold together with another amulet for US $3,200 on May 20, 2020.
Is ketoret as a mystical means to combat death a hassidic innovation?
The potency of incense offerings dates back to biblical times. Ketoret was offered twice a day in the Temple, and on Yom Kippur it was brought into the Holy of Holies. Ketoret could be fatal: Nadav and Avihu died after offering incense on a foreign flame (Leviticus 10:1-2), while Korah’s band of 250 men also offered ketoret and were consumed by fire (Numbers 16). Yet ketoret also had the potential to save lives: at Moses’ instruction, Aaron used the offering to stop the plague that broke out in the wake of the Korah affair (Numbers 17:11-15).
What about the recitation of ketoret instead of its offering: perhaps that is a hassidic contribution? Here we have precedents from the writings of the great Safed kabbalist, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (1534-1572), known as the Ari, who waxed on the significance of ketoret recitation.
Did the Besht’s ketoret recitation perhaps trigger a particularly hassidic custom? After hassidism coalesced into a movement, we have evidence that ketoret was used to counter plagues even by those who were unaffiliated with hassidism.
In 1831, a wave of cholera struck Posen, Prussia – today Poznań, Poland. This was part of the second Asiatic Cholera Pandemic, which began around 1826, and swept through much of the world until 1837. The rabbi of Posen, Rabbi Akiva Eger (1761-1837), cooperated with the local authorities in a bid to curb the plague. He directed people to strictly heed the guidelines issued by physicians: anything the doctors said should not be eaten was to be treated as foodstuff prohibited by Jewish law. He encouraged people go for walks in the fields, and to open the windows in their homes to air out their houses. In addition to limiting prayer services to no more than 15 participants, he also encouraged people to add certain prayers and supplications. Amongst other prayers, Rabbi Akiva Eger directed people to recite the ketoret portion twice a day.
Even in the current corona crisis, there are kabbalists – unaffiliated with hassidism – who tapped into these ketoret traditions in order to combat the pandemic. On the Fast of Esther this year (March 9) – a mere three months ago – it was reported that a cadre of kabbalists took to the skies in a helicopter in order to pray as they hovered over the Holy Land. The group was headed by leading non-hassidic rabbis in Israel: Rabbi Shlomo Moshe Amar (b. 1948) who was born in Casablanca and currently serves as the Sephardi chief rabbi of Jerusalem; Rabbi Tsiyon Shalom Boaron (b. 1945) who was born in Tripoli and served as a judge on the highest rabbinic court in Israel; and Rabbi Yehiel Abuhatzeira (b. 1944) who serves as the Sephardi chief rabbi of Ramle. Amongst various prayers and the sounding of shofars and trumpets, the aerial ritual included the recitation of ketoret.
Ketoret as a tool for combating the spread of sickness is not – and never was – a purely hassidic practice. It is a mystical mechanism with deep roots. From the perspective of hassidic tradition, tracking the course of ketoret over the ages and through different communities reminds us of something about the nature of hassidism. For all its unique aspects and singular contributions, the hassidic movement is embedded in the mosaic of Jewish tradition.
The Maggid of Melbourne is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassa. He is a teaching fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Law. His column appears in The Jerusalem Post Magazine. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.