(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)
Two kinds of smoke please God, according to the book of Exodus:
* the smoke from burning sacrificial animals and grain products on the copper altar in front of the Tent of Meeting described in last week’s Torah portion, Terumah,1 and
* the smoke from burning incense on the gold altar inside the tent, described in this week’s Torah portion, Tetzavveh (“you shall command”):
And you shall make an altar for miketar ketoret; from wood of acacias you shall make it. …And you shall plate it with pure gold …And place it in front of the curtain that is over the Ark of the Reminder, …where I will reveal myself to you. Vehiketeyr on it, Aaron, ketoret of spices … (Exodus/Shemot 30:1-7)
ketoret (קְטֺרֶת) = incense. (From the root verb ketar.)
vehiketeyr (וְהִקְטֵיר) = And he shall make smoke. (Another form of the verb ketar.)
In the Wilderness
The altar for burning animals and grain (which would otherwise be food for people) is outside the Tent of Meeting that the Israelites construct in the wilderness of Sinai. The incense altar is inside, right in front of the Holy of Holies. All the Israelites worship God by bringing food offerings for the priests to burn on the outdoor altar. Only the high priest, Aaron, burns spices on the incense altar for God.
Food offerings are sent up in smoke for various reasons. Some offerings express gratitude to God, some atone for transgressing God’s rules, some mark a change in ritual status, and some observe holy days. The fragrance of the incense, however, is intended only to honor and please God.
The Israelites send columns of smoke up to God. And God sends columns of cloud and fire down to the people. When the Israelites are walking from Egypt to Mount Sinai,
God was walking in front of them in a column of cloud by day, to lead them on the way, and in a column of fire by night, to make light for them, [so they could] walk day and night. (Exodus 13:21)
For the cloud of God was over the dwelling-place by day, and there was fire in it by night, before the eyes of all the house of Israel, on all their journeys. (Exodus 40:38)
During the Babylonian Exile
Israelites continue to use the smoke from burning food and incense as their main communication with God until the Babylonians destroyed the first Israelite temple in Jerusalem in 597 B.C.E. (The Bible also mentions a few individual prayers, but does not portray Levites as singing psalms until the time of the second temple.)
The Israelites deported to Babylon were not sure what to do. Should they continue sending up smoke to God, even without the temple, the food altar, or the incense altar? Or should they use another approach?
Psalm 141 is a plea for God to help the psalmist avoid harmful speech and bad company. The psalm opens with a request that this prayer be considered as a substitute for making smoke.
God, I called You. Hurry to me!
Listen to my voice when I call to You!
May my prayer endure as ketoret before You,
Lifting up my palms2 as an evening offering. (Psalm 141:1-2)
After the Second Temple
After the Persians conquered Babylon, some of the Israelites returned to Jerusalem and built a second temple in 516 B.C.E. They reinstituted the sacrificial system in their new temple, making both an outside altar for burning food offerings and an inside altar for incense. This type of worship continued until the Romans destroyed the second temple in 70 C.E.
After the fall of the second temple, some Jews hoped for a third temple, and another return to worshiping God through smoke. The Amidah (“standing”) prayer, which is recited at morning and evening services to this day, begins with a verse from Psalm 51 about spoken prayer:
My lord, may you open my lips,
And my mouth will declare Your praise. (Psalm 51:17)
However, Psalm 51 ends:
May You rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
That is when You will want slaughter-offerings of righteousness,
Rising-offerings and complete offerings. (Psalm 51:20)
Similarly, in traditional prayer books the Amidah3 includes this request: “And return the service to the inner sanctum of Your house, and the fire-offerings of Israel, and their prayer, with love, accepting it with favor.” According to this tradition, prayer is good, but prayer and smoke together are better.
Many liberal prayer books produced in the last century or so omit or reinterpret this prayer in the Amidah, so as to avoid praying for either reinstituting animal sacrifices or building a third temple.
Psalm 40, composed at least 2,000 years ago, is bolder and more direct:
Slaughter and grain offering You do not want.
You dug open a pair of ears for me!
Rising-offerings and guilt-offerings You do not request.
That is when I said:
Hey, I will bring a scroll of the book written for me.
I want to do what You want, my God,
And Your teaching is inside my guts.
I delivered the news of right behavior to a large assembly.
Hey! I will not eat my lips. (Psalm 40:7-10)
The speaker in Psalm 40 insists that God does not want smoke, only words. Nothing can make this prophetic poet recant; he will not “eat his lips”.
I almost envy the simplicity of the early Israelite religion, in which people and priests burn something to make a column of smoke rise up to God in the sky or “heavens”, and God sends down a column of divine smoke (described as cloud and fire) to guide the people.
Personally, I could not even imitate this process by burning incense, since I am allergic to any type of smoke. And these days, columns of cloud and fire do not descend from the sky; we only get lightning and general precipitation.
But I do pray to God with words, for all the reasons the ancient Israelites made smoke: to express gratitude, to ask for forgiveness and self-improvement, to observe holy days, and just to honor the divine. And though I often say, or sing, the words out loud, I do not pray to a God in the sky, but to a divine source I encounter “inside my guts”, like the author of Psalm 40.
I was brought up to be an atheist; I did not begin praying until I was 32. My life for the past 30 years has been deeper, thanks to prayer; I have become more grateful, less egotistical, and more accepting. And, God willing, I can continue to improve.
May everyone who would benefit from a prayer practice discover a good one.
Oh God, may you open my lips,
And my mouth will declare Your praise. (Amidah and Psalm 51:17)
2 The Hebrew Bible describes two postures for prayer. Prostration—bowing until you lie face down on the ground) indicates submission and the willingness to receive any word God might send you. Raising your hands, palms up, toward the sky (with or without kneeling) indicates a petitionary prayer, in which you are asking God for something.
One example is when King Solomon dedicates the first temple in Jerusalem:
As Solomon was finishing praying to God all this prayer and this supplication, he got up from in front of the altar of God, from kneeling on his knees and his palms spread toward the heavens. (1 Kings 8:54)
3 This prayer, called the Avodah (“Service”), is number 5 in the Shabbat Amidah, and number 17 in the longer weekday Amidah.