Yael Chaya Miriam Gray

Have we not raised smoke enough for You, O G-d?


Distillation of

Her tear, it has the roar of

LIONS. Shechelet.

Explanation: It’s about the Onycha (/ˈɒnɪkə/, Ancient Greek: ὄνυξ, romanized: ónux) which, along with equal parts of stacte (which is merely the sap that drips from balsam trees), galbanum (a foul smelling spice), and frankincense (an aroma so sweet it palliates the angel of death himself) was one of the components of the consecrated ketoret (incense).

The recipe for compounding this sacred incense appears in the Torah book of Exodus (Ex.30:34-36) and in the Siddur (Cf. INCENSE, OFFERINGS, the Shacharit service, the Artscroll Complete Siddur). It was used in Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. This formula was to be incorporated as an incense, “the handiwork of an expert spice compounder, thoroughly mixed, pure and holy,” and it was not to be duplicated for non-sacred use.

No one can really say with certainty what the onycha of antiquity actually was. So let’s examine the original Hebrew word for onchya, which is שחלת, shechelet, meaning “to roar; as a lion” or “peeling off by concussion of sound.” Shecheleth is related to the Syriac shehelta which is translated as “a tear, distillation, or exudation” (Onkelos, Shemot 2:10).

What is the “peeling off [of impurity] by concussive sound”? It says in the Siddur, “As one would grind the incense, another would say ‘Grind thoroughly, thoroughly grind, because the sound is beneficial for the spices.” The first part of this verse (“Grind thoroughly, thoroughy grind”) means that one is to “grind one’s character thoroughly” so as to be “exceptionally fine” (see below), examining his spiritual ledger regularly and ruthlessly, purging himself of his egoistic desires to the extent he is capable, and repenting before Hashem in love and in awe, teschuva al teschuvah, every single day and sometimes, when our strength is at its height and full maturity, at every single moment.

The second clause of the above verse (“for the sound is beneficial for the spices”) refers to the phenomenon of synesthesia, which all of Israel experienced at matan Torah, standing at the foot of Mt Sinai. This is the Voice which “forgives, but does not cleanse,” because a man may “bind” but may never fully “slay” his selfish desires of reception, for it is not in his power to change what the Alm*ghty has created. Without this G-d-given desire to receive for himself, he will never come to the desire to receive for the sake of the Creator, and mankind would not grow spiritually. The gift of this desire was bequeathed to us by our ancestor, Yitzchok, who realized that, without it, his children would be unable grow spiritually, to rise from a lower level to a higher level, to receive all the beneficence which Hashem wished and still wishes to bestow upon them, on account of which the entire creation was created (Cf. Zohar.)

The best a man can do is to “hide” or “bind” this G-d-given desire for selfish reception, with assistance from Above, by drowning his egoistic desires in the “waters” of Torah (see “The Song Of The Sea” in the Siddur), in his good deeds, in his prayers for the elevation and correction of his soul (Mei Nukvin), and (especially) in the waters of his Torah study. For “Hashem, the Torah, and Israel are ONE,” and the roar of the vast sea of Torah is the very Voice of G-d (“Mightier than the roar of many waters,” etc.,) against which nothing may stand. This is the ‘peeling off [of impurity] by concussion of sound,‘ just as we perished and were promptly resurrected with every single word pronounced by the mouth of G-d that reached our eyes and ears (“and ALL the people saw the voices”) during matan Torah (the giving of the Torah).

Why is the onchya described as a lion? Because the holy fire that issued from heaven to the Altar of the Temple to consume the various fire-offerings descended in the shape of a LION. (“If the lion roars, who shall not fear?”) This is because moshaich ben Dovid will be born under the sign of LEO, on the ninth of AV, in Judaism, a deep day of mourning, which will be CELEBRATED during messianic times as a Festival of the greatest gladness.

Whatever this substance is*, before it is rendered “fit for use in the Holy Temple as שחלת” – an element of the Holy Incense – the שחלת first had to be “bleached,” i.e., “sweetened,” that is, purged of its egoistic desires, BINDING the point of egoism/judgment/Din/Gevurah in his soul and in the PARTZUF which is the collective soul of Israel – turning the red, din, or Gevurah d’Malchus d’Asiyah, in the mystical rose which is Israel (see Zohar 1:1) – into to the property of mercy – the white, Keter & Chesed d’Malchut d’Asiyah, in the aforesaid mystical rose of Israel, the Shekhinah. 

Then, the שחלת, thus purged of its egoistic desire, had to be made pungent.” That is, the stink of its former egoism (his habitual obsession with the pursuit of selfish pleasure) had to be transformed into the sweet smell of the שחלת, the satisfying odor of habitual HOD, that is, Glory or Submission to the Divine will, an indispensable component of the Holy Temple’s Incense. And by these corrections, it seems to me that the שחלת becomes completely altruistic, achieving similarity of form with the Creator, which is a type of union with Him, Blessed is He. 

Then and only then is the Onchya fit to be used as a component of the Temple’s holy incense.


*Since it seems to be anyone’s guess what the onchya actually is, I’m willing to humiliate myself and speculate a bit.

What is the שחלת to me?

It is the tear of the aravshina (the phoenix, see article below), an exudation from the eye of the immortal, Light-filled KLI that is the collective soul of Israel (“eye” is a code word for Partzuf Abba d’Malchut d’Asiyah). These are “the tears of our Mother Rachel, weeping for her children, who are no more” – and they INVARIABLY arouse Hashem’s infinite compassion for her, causing His thirteen Attributes of Hashem’s Mercy to shine brightly upon her and in her, and to surround her on all sides (Zohar 1:1).

These tears protect the unworthy living from death at the hands of heaven, and resurrect the dead of our people – the spiritually dead as well as the physically dead – into life. This is because the holy incense – when made properly – had the effect of protecting man from death, since the secrets of the holy incense were actually gifted to Moshe by the angel of death himself (when Moshe bested that angel in an argument over whether man should be given the Torah).

This is why some of the ketoret was burned every day, when one arises from his egoistic degree called “sleep” – in which he temporarily loses his sense of the Presence of G-d – into the altruistic degree called “awakened,” in which his sense of G-d’S Presence is restored to him. As we recite in Shacharit, “in the morning, when Aaron cleans the lamps (of the menorah) he is to burn [the ketoret], and in the afternoon when he lights the lamps he is to burn [the ketoret, so that it should cast “Light before Darkness” all through the “night,” until the next morning, when Aaron would clean the lamps again], for a perpetual incense before Hashem throughout your generations.” (That is, even after the Holy Temple below is destroyed, for the Holy Temple is also a spiritual degree.)

The protective properties of the ketoret are also why some of it was returned to the mortar on the day before Yom Kippur, where it was ground “exceptionally fine” (see above) and carried by the Kohen Gadol into the Holy of Holies of the Tent of Appointment in his two fistfulls, before he met with HAVAYAH in the Kadosh Kadoshim (Holy of Holies). The Kohen Gadol burned his two fistfuls there, once a year on Yom Kippur, so tha tthe ketoret formed a dense cloud of protective smoke obscuring the area between him and the location of the Ark, the place where Hashem chose to rest His Presence, between the two cheruvim on top of the cover of the Ark, before the Kohen Gadol. This dense cloud of opaque smoke interposed itself between HAVAYAH and the Kohen Gadol, thereby protecting Aaron And his descendants from the inevitable death that even the purest of them would otherwise have certainly met, due to his close and unmediated proximity to HAVAYA, without benefit of the ketoret (“for no one can see My face and live”), or even worse, due to having brought with him “an alien fire” (egoistic desires) with him into the Kadosh Kadoshim, heaven forbid (see the incident concerning the deaths of Nadav & Avihu, the sons of Aaron HaKohen).

The penalty for the “bringing an alien fire” into the Kadosh Kadoshim is death at the hands of heaven. How did this work? Leaving aside for a moment the deaths of Nadav & Avihu, let us examine what happened n Greek and Roman times, when those selected to fill the office of Kohen Gadol at the Second Temple in Jerusalem literally purchased that office from our oppressors and performed abominations there. Ketoret of not, these unworthy ones perished when they entered the Kadosh Kadoshim to meet with HAVAYAH once a year, every year, year after year, with disappointing (albeit predictable) regularity, on Yom Kippur. This is because they brought “alien fire” into the Kadosh Kadoshim. The dead bodies of these unworthy ones had to be dragged out by the red cord attached to one of their feet, like animals. For the service of such a one is an abomination and does not atone. Such service is tantamount to sacrificing a pig on the Mizbeach (Holy Altar), heaven forbid!

Why does the aravshina (phoenix) cry her tear? Is this not ENOUGH? The Holy Temple is destroyed by our sins. The Kohen Gadol no longer performs the Yom Kippur Service, to atone for us. The smoke of the ketoret is no longer burned in its handfuls, rising to mingle with the sweet smoke of our fire-offerings, the odor of our repentance.

What have we left to interpose between us and the Holy One, Blessed is He, when we stand before Him on Yom Kippur? What smoke have we to interpose itself between us and the death sentence which we may truly deserve to receive at His hand on that day?

We have only the smoke raised by the merits of our holy Patriarchs, the smoke of our two burnt Temples, and the smoke from countless torched shtetls across Europe.

We have only this holy smoke, and we mingle it with the holy smoke of those who were burned at the stake during the Inquisition, rather than to betray their faith, and the holy smoke of our six million slain ancestors, which STILL blackens the hands and the chimneys of their murderers.

Have we not raised smoke enough for You, O G-d???

About the Author
Jewish Mystic.