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  • Rabbi Edward Friedman

Thoughts on Ein Keloheinu and the Incense Offerings

Perhaps one of the easiest prayers to teach children is the repetitive song near the end of the Shabbat and Festival services, Ein Keloheinu. There are five stanzas that speak of four terms for God, Elohim, Adonai, Melech, and Moshia, God, Lord, Sovereign, and Savior, each with the suffix indicating “our.” Each of the four phrases in the first stanza begin with the word ein, there is none. Ein Keloheinu, Ein Kadoneinu, Ein K'malkinu, Ein K'moshieinu. There is none like our God, there is none like our Lord, there is none like our Sovereign, there is none like our Savior. (The k- prefix is short for k'mo, like.) In the second stanza each phrase begins with Mi, who is like our God, who is like our Lord, etc. The third stanza begins Nodeh, we give thanks to our God, and so forth. In stanza number four the first word is Baruch, blessed be our God, blessed be our Lord.... And in the fifth stanza we address God in the second person and say Ata Hu Eloheinu, You are our God, You are our Lord, You are our Sovereign, You are our Savior.

A final line breaks the pattern and begins, Ata Hu shehiktiru avoteinu l'fanecha et k'toret hasamim. Picking up on Ata Hu, it says You are the one before whom our ancestors offered the fragrant incense. (In Sephardic prayerbooks this line is preceded by another verse, “You will deliver us. You will arise and have mercy on Zion, for it is time to be gracious to her, for the time has come.” Then comes the line about incense.) The incense reference is to a twice daily ritual in the ancient Temple of offering a unique compound of ingredients on the incense altar within the confines of the Temple. In traditional prayerbooks, this final line of Ein Keloheinu is followed by a passage from the Talmud describing the ingredients used in formulating this incense compound. This passage is known as Pitum Haketoret, the compounding of incense. It in turn is followed by a citation from the Mishnah of Tamid, listing the Psalms that were sung each day of the week by the Levites in the Temple. At the end of that passage we find two closing aggadic, that is non-legal, passages also taken from the Talmud. When all of this is finished, the mourners traditionally rise and recite the Kaddish D'rabbanan, the Rabbinic Kaddish.

The Ashkenazic tradition limits this passage to Shabbat and Holidays and it is said only following the Musaf amidah, though in fact, the incense offering in the Temple preceded the musaf sacrifice. Sephardic Jews, however, read this passage every day and repeat it at minchah, the afternoon service, as well. Our practice at TBI, in our “traditional” minyan is to skip from the end of Ein Keloheinu and go directly to Aleinu which follows. This is the practice in many other congregations I have served or visited as weli, Orthodox as well as Conservative. Conservative prayerbooks, as is the case with the early morning passages about sacrifices, omit most of this collection following Ein Keloheinu and keep only the final aggadic passage, Amar Rabbi Elazar. These siddurim mention that in some congregations the mourners recite the Kaddish d'Rabbanan following it. In Reform and Reconstructionist prayerbooks even the additional line at the end of Ein Keloheinu linking it to Pitum HaKetoret is dropped.

This week's prayer study is devoted to a closer look at this entire unit of prayer. The poetic piece Ein Keloheinu appears already in the 9th century Siddur of Rav Amram Gaon however it is not included in the later Siddur of Rav Saadia Gaon. Though it seems rather simplistic, our various commentators have read into it various insights. Originally the Mi Keiloheinu line, Who is like our God?, came first followed by a response, Ein Keiloheinu, there is none like our God. Rav Amram also has the baruch and nodeh verses reversed in this earliest version. The stanzas were changed to our current order by the time of Rashi in the 11th century, to present us with the first three stanzas beginning with the letters alef, mem, and nun, spelling Amen and followed by the next two stanzas which begin with Baruch and Ata, Blessed are You. This seems a fitting conclusion to our worship, following the Musaf Amidah.

With a bit of fiddling with the numbers, Rashi and others come up with the notion that on Shabbat and Festivals, when the Amidah has only seven blessings instead of nineteen and it is difficult to reach the desired number mentioned in the Talmud of 100 blessings to be recited each day, we might count Ein Keloheinu as the equivalent of 12 blessings, giving us a total of nineteen when added to the seven blessings of the Amidah, at least for the morning service. It may be that this calculation led to the Ashkenazic practice of limiting this prayer to Shabbat and Festivals only since these additional blessings were not needed on weekdays..

Another insight by a later commentator is an attempt to see the four terms for divinity as a progression of understanding of God's nature through the course of the Torah. In the beginning of Genesis, we are introduced to Elohim, God who creates the heavens and the earth. The sages claim it was not until Abraham that we addressed God as Adonai, the Lord, (see Genesis 15). In Exodus, at the crossing of the sea, God becomes Melech, Sovereign, as well (Adonay yimloch l'olam vaed, The Lord shall reign forever and ever). Finally at the end of “Deuteronomy, God is also our Savior when it speaks of “Am nosha badonay, A nation saved by the Lord.” Thus we praise God in all of these terms.

Following the teachings of the 16th century Kabbalist, Isaac Luria known as the Ari, mystics who speak of four divine worlds beyond our own world, connect the five stanzas here with that notion of a God praised throughout all four celestial worlds through which the Divine emanations flow and ultimately down to earth as well.

Pitum Haketoret is the passage that follow Ein Keloheinu, speaking of the ingredients compounded into the incense used for a twice daily offering. The recital of this passage, like the tradition early in the service of reading about korbanot, Temple sacrifices, is intended to take the place of the actual ritual and by reading about it, to in some sense fulfill this obligation that we no longer can perform in the absence of the Temple. The Psalmist (Psalm 141) compares the words of prayer ascending to God to the incense offering, hence our recalling of that offering as we come to the conclusion of our prayers. “Adonai, I have been calling You – hurry to me! Give ear to my voice when I call to You! May my prayer be prepared like incense before You, the raising of my hands like the evening offering.” Tradition tells us that the fragrance of the ketoret offered in Jerusalem was so powerful it could be smelled even in Jericho.

The Pitum Haketoret is a selection taken from the Talmudic tractate of Keritot. The passage begins by enumerating the eleven items included in the formulation of the ketoret and their quantity. Don't try this at home, please, even if you can identify these eleven strange items, since the Torah warns that one may not use this incense for any secular purpose under penalty of death. Our passage ends with an additional warning from Rabbi Nathan that leaving out any ingredient also made one subject to the death penalty. Because of this warning, some people are very careful to read this passage from the siddur and not depend on memory lest they omit one item and incur punishment. There are even counting rituals to make sure all eleven are included. The footnote in our Artscroll volume points out that one of the items, Galbanum, has a rather foul odor, “yet it is included in the mixture to teach that even non-observant people should be welcome to participate in the service of God.” Not a very warm welcome if one associates them with a foul odor, I'd say. Out of fear of omitting any of the ingredients as one reads this passage, some people have the custom of simply skipping it altogether. In the Sephardic tradition, since incense was offered twice a day, this passage reappears following the afternoon Amidah as well.

The third selection in this portion of the service comes from the Mishnah of Tamid, the tractacte that records the order of the service surrounding the daily offering of the Tamid, the regular daily sacrifice burnt entirely on the altar every morning and afternoon. The selection simply lists the opening lines of the seven Psalms recited by the Levites, one designated for each day of the week. Since the Temple was destroyed, every day, even in the absence of the Levitical chorus, we continue reciting these Psalms to this day, preceded by the statement, “Today is such and such day of the Shabbat week on which the Levites used to say [the following Psalm.}” By using the word Shabbat to refer to a week rather than Shavua, the normal term, we fulfill each day the commandment to “Remember the Sabbath day to make it holy.” Commentators associate the Psalm for each day with the acts of creation described for that day in Genesis chapter one. The final Psalm read on Shabbat is Psalm 92, designated as a Psalm, a song for the Sabbath day. In past essays I have previously discussed Psalm 24 sung on Sunday and Psalm 93 on Friday, as well as Psalm 92 for Shabbat. I wrote of all three where they appear in other contexts in the siddur as well as in this role. In a future essay I plan to deal with the remaining four Psalms for Monday through Thursday.

The last section of this portion of the service contains two selections that are used to conclude tractates of the Talmud. As mentioned, they are classified as aggadah, non-legal passages taught by the rabbis. The two previous passages would be considered as halachah. After teaching legal material, the sages would conclude their study sessions with words of aggadah and they in turn would be followed by the Kaddish d'rabbanan, the rabbinic Kaddish. The first passage here is taken from the tractate of Megillah and taught in the name of the Academy of Elijah, Tanna D'vei Eliyahu. “Any one who studies the laws, the halachot, every day, is assured of a place in the world to come.” The prooftext they bring from the book of the prophet Habakkuk, one of the twelve minor prophets, is “Halichot olam hu.” which translates as “the ways of the world are his.” The rabbinic twist is “Do not read halichot, the ways, but read it as halachot, the laws.” Thus one who is steeped in the halachot, studies them and practices them and is assured that the [future] world is his. This is one form of rabbinic midrash, to play on words that are similar and use this formula of “don't read x, but read y instead.” We'll see it used again in the final selection in our passage.

This last section of aggadah is the conclusion of the tractate of Berachot which deals with the laws of prayer. This passage remains in the Conservative prayerbook right after the Ein Keloheinu. It begins with a quotation from Rabbi Elazar in the name of Rabbi Chanina: Talmidei Chachamim, the students of the wise, that is scholars, increase peace in the world. This idea is supported by a verse from Isaiah, “When all your children (banayich) are taught of the Lord, great will be the peace of your children.” Here the rabbis teach, “Don't read banayich, your children, but bonayich, your builders.” This interpretation is not intended to correct the text of Scripture, but simply to extract an additional meaning from the verse. Some see the word “bonayich” as related to “binah” understanding, thus when your children are taught of the Lord they will attain great understanding or, using the first explanation, they will become the builders of the next generation..

The passage then cites a series of verses from Psalms that speak of peace, of shalom. “There will be great peace for those who love Your Torah and there is no stumbling block for them.” “Let there be peace within your walls and serenity in your palaces.” “For the sake of my brethren and friends, I shall speak peace in your midst. For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek goodness for you.” The final verse is familiar from the 29th Psalm that we sing in Kabbalat Shabbat and also when we return the Torah scrolls to the ark, “Adonay oz l'amo yitein, adonay y'voreich et amo bashalom, May the Lord grant strength to His people; may the Lord bless His people with peace” This is a perfect benediction to end the service, but as we know from the popular saying, “Jews say goodbye and never leave.” The end of the service is never truly the end. We keep on adding additional prayers through the centuries.

The Kaddish d'rabbanan that follows includes an additional paragraph to the regular Mourner's Kaddish, a prayer on behalf of the “teachers, their disciples, and all of their disciples and upon all those who engage in the study of Torah who are in this place or anywhere else.” We wish them “abundant peace, grace, kindness, and compassion, long life, ample sustenance, and salvation from their Father in Heaven.” As usual, the Kaddish ends with a prayer for peace. “May He who makes peace on high, grant peace to us and to all Israel, and let us say: Amen.”

The service is indeed winding down, but as we have seen in earlier columns, we still have several more prayers to add before we get to make Kiddush and have lunch. However, focusing on this prayer unit on its own, whether or not we include the whole passage on the incense offering and the Levitical psalms, it does provide an appropriate chorus of praise to God following the official prayers of the day and links our prayers to the ancient rituals of our ancestors who by burning incense, created a fragrant offering to God. Our prayer is that our worship may also find acceptance on high as if we performed the Temple rituals and that our words may ascend like the ketoret of old before the Divine Throne. Our heartfelt prayer appears in the final words of the passage that speak again and again of Shalom, not merely peace from conflict, but wholeness, completeness, fulfillment in all that we do.
















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