Columns - 2004

    Incensible practices

    By Doug Brook
    Deep South Jewish Voice Columnist

    In the darkest of days, when it seemed impossible to find the right topic to write about, I decided at the last minute to write about that exact dilemma which I was facing.

    Unfortunately, that column on procrastination isn't ready. I keep putting it off.

    Instead, today I present to you a history of incense in Judaism. It might come as a surprise to most Californians, or anyone who attended (or thinks they're still at) Woodstock, but incense dates back thousands of years in Judaism.

    Incense had a significant role in Jewish ritual in ancient times, and is still present in the Jewish world today, as evidenced by the tremendous amount of incense felt throughout the Middle East over the past few years.

    The Hebrew word for incense is derived from the verb form "to cause to smoke."

    While there is no empirical evidence or direct scriptural references to support it, conventional wisdom is that the ancient root of incense in Jewish language and ritual is why it's easier to walk a three legged elephant than to find an Israeli soldier who isn't smoking.

    The original incense was the smoke that came from the burnt offerings used as sacrifices on the altar at the Temple in Jerusalem.

    While today you can get incense in almost every imaginable flavor, from vanilla to pine to road rage, like your mother-in-law's brisket it did not start out so flavorful.

    One type of incense was called frankincense. Used in conjunction with meal offerings, it still exists today as a critical, secret ingredient in the making of frank 'n beans.

    It also was involved in a brief Middle European experiment of serving a hotdog in a beer mug, or frank in stein. The results were monstrous.

    The other known type of ancient incense, according to Exodus (by the Big G, not by Leon Uris), was made from equal parts of a variety of aromatic spices; including frankincense, onycha, galbanum, and stacte. If you go to any store today that sells incense, I guarantee you won't find anything like it. Or want to.

    This second incense was brought morning and night to a special altar in the Holy of Holies. Like today, this central holy site in Jerusalem was known as the Altar of Incense.

    If you hadn't skipped Leviticus, like most readers do, you'd also know how this incense was part of the ritual carried out by high priests on Yom Kippur. But I won't give it all away. Look it up.

    According to Numbers, only the priests could offer incense. Of course, any of the people of Israel were free to feel it at any time. But the Almighty put in his two cents, saying that the use of incense when they felt incensed was nonsense. Make sense?

    Again, if you had read Leviticus, you'd know about Aaron's sons Nadav and Avihu who, after an evening of indulgence, indulged in bringing incense themselves into the tabernacle in the desert.

    Unlike the burning bush that told Moses to mouth off to Pharaoh, Nadav and Avihu were consumed by fire.

    And, just in case you thought that scandals involving the royal family were invented by the British government, Chronicles II: The Sequel reports that King Uzziah of Judah, amid a power struggle between his monarchy and the priesthood, brazenly brought incense himself into the Temple.

    No, he wasn't blazenly punished, but he did get leprosy for his trouble. After his 52 year reign gave way to cloudy days, he was buried apart from the rest of the house of David. But he wasn't all bad. Go rent Chronicles II and you'll see. It should be on DVD by now.

    So how did the smoke from a bunch of religious sacrifices evolve into an aromatic elixir for centuries of hippies?

    Even in biblical times, some incense was used for non-religious purposes. In Exodus, Leon Uris prohibits the personal use of the types of incense intended for rituals. However, any other kind was acceptable.

    One example is the first recorded reference to frankincense and myrrh in the Song of Songs (followed later by its use backstage on Your Show of Shows). Also, the books of Daniel and Ezekiel each allude to the greeting of distinguished guests with the aroma of burning incense.

    When you think about all the different things that have burned as pivotal moments in Jewish history, the fact that incense carries on today is a blessing in its own right.

    Granted it wouldn't be so offensive or destructive if people burned a bush here and there, and several dozen Jews worldwide recently did so on Lag B'Omer. (That's a test to see whether you read the last column.)

    In truth, the burning bush was an antecedent to one of the many marvels of modern technology when you consider the fact that it was on fire, but was not destroyed by the fire. Look no further than the flame retardants that are used in so many building applications today. I'd put good money down that a divine injunction is the only reason you can't find it in stores worldwide today under the brand name of Burning Bush.

    On the other hand, I don't think anyone would want to be caught in a dark alley with the modern day application of the Almighty's burning anger, as alluded to in the exodus story during the Passover seder.

    Of course, motivational speakers today often refer to the light at the end of the tunnel. Now how different can that be from the pillar of fire which helped lead the Israelites through the desert nights in the Sinai for those long forty years.

    Then again, it took them forty years to find their way across a desert half the size of New Jersey. Maybe that's not a good example. At least we know now why men have for centuries insisted on navigating by the stars (the bright lights in the sky) as opposed to asking for directions. It's by divine design that we don't pull over, so get off our backs already.

    No matter how you look at it, after all these centuries, it's still a hot topic.

    Doug Brook is a technical publications program manager in Silicon Valley. If this column made you feel or smell incense against your wishes, write to President George V. W. Beetle Bush at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington D.C., 90210. For more information, past columns, other writing, and other current events, visit his website at

    Copyright Doug Brook. All rights reserved.