Oz Torah: Ask the Rabbi on “incense in the synagogue”


Question.   In some religions they go in for “bells and smells”. Why does Judaism not burn incense in the synagogue, especially since it used to be the case in the Temple?

Answer.     Probably the only context in which there was anything similar to incense in the synagogue was amongst some of the Chassidim, who would smoke a pipe or perfumed cigarettes before prayers; there is a suggestion that the Baal Shem Tov even said a b’rachah before smoking his lulke.

There is a Chassidic view that there are holy sparks of some kind in the tobacco which help to elevate a person spiritually in the same way, presumably, as the incense in the Temple provided an aroma, an aura and – from some mystical point of view – a means of elevation.

The classical commentators emphasised that it was not God who benefited from the incense, but human beings. The “sweet savours” of the Temple incense were thus designed for earth, not for heaven.

The preparation of the incense was in the hands of the family of Avtinas, who kept the details so much to themselves that they were severely criticised by the rabbis (Yoma 3:11). A Talmudic passage (K’ritot 6a) found in the Siddur – Pittum HaK’toret – is the careful rabbinic reconstruction of the requirements of the incense ritual (Ex. 30:34-38).

The abandonment of incense after the destruction of the Temple may have been part of what seems a deliberate policy to avoid emulating crucial aspects of Temple worship. The use of instrumental musical accompaniment, for instance, was not continued as a mark of mourning for the Temple; Franz Rosenzweig added that this showed that we were now living in “real”, not “ideal” time.

The Temple ritual has been largely replaced by liturgy, and many quote the words of the Psalmist,

“Let my prayer be set before You as incense” (Psalm 141:2).


Question.   How do I answer someone who says, “I don’t go to shule on Shabbat. I sleep in!”?

Answer.     Some people with this idea think the letters of “Shabbat” stand for “shenah b’Shabbat ta’anug”, “sleep on Shabbat is a joy”. Others manage to go to shule and to keep their extra sleep for after lunch.

Rabbi Chayyim of Tzanz told his pupils that Shabbat was too precious to waste in sleep – and in any case sleep was a matter of quality, not quantity. He could compress more sleep into half an hour than others spread out over a whole night.


The Christians say, “It’s your Jewish Christmas, isn’t it?”  The Jews tell me, “What’s the harm in Christmas cake and Santa Claus?”

The fact that both festivals occur at about the same time is mere co-incidence. Christmas celebrates an intrinsically Christian event (and probably gets the date wrong anyhow). Chanukah, despite its universalistic ethics, is Jewish.

There is so much Christmas in the atmosphere at the end of December that one understands why some Jewish families get caught up in its hype, but Santa Claus, Christmas carols and presents on the Christmas tree are out of place for Jews. Since Judaism does not pay homage to Jesus, his birthday is irrelevant for Jews.

What about tolerance and good will?

We respect each other, but we aren’t clones of one another, and we dare not gloss over the differences. Nor does it help to say Christmas is now a secular holiday invented for commercial reasons. If this is all that Christmas has become, the Christians should feel insulted, and Jews should not be part of the insult.

The more serious opinion-makers on both sides argue that both festivals celebrate light. There are festivals of light in many cultures. As an aside, let me recall that when Rev Fred Nile spearheaded an organisation in Australia called Festival of Light, he more or less hijacked a name which belonged in different ways to almost every people and faith.

The rhythm of time is central to everyone’s civilisation and the contrast of darkness and light is a major symbol. In Judaism the theme of light punctuates Biblical literature and is one of the chief features of the prayer book and the rabbinic tradition. It even gave rise to some of our great religious controversies, for example the conflict of the Karaites and Rabbanites over whether a light could burn in a Jewish house on the Sabbath.

Since the “ner tamid” symbolised the Divine presence in the Tabernacle and Temple as in the wider world, it is no wonder that the invaders of the Temple thought they would quench Judaism if they extinguished the light, and the victorious Maccabees were adamant that rekindling the “ner tamid” was a priority.

One cannot believe Chanukah echoed an old pagan sun festival. Like all our festivals, it is a movable feast independent of the solar months. True, some ancient Jewish sects had a solar calendar, but they are an eccentric feature of Jewish history with little influence.

Christianity had an early doctrine of Jesus as “the light of the world” and utilised the idea of the sun as an analogy, with some of the saints regarding Jesus as the new or true sun. Associating his birth with mid-winter invited the symbolism of a new flash of light. It possibly reflected the Roman celebration of the unconquered sun.

There is no law against two religions having festivals of light at the same time of the year, but co-incidence does not mean commonality. They are two different festivals and we are two different faiths. We celebrate for two different reasons. But it should be each to their own.

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