Pidyon Kaparot Now

Reciting Pitum HaKetores


In this weeks parasha we find Aharon HaKohen running “between the living and the dead” (Bamidbar 17:13) with the a censerful of incense [Ketores] after a plague broke out. This action stopped the plague in its tracks.

Today, some recite psukim that speak of the Ketores twice in the morning (at the beginning and at the end of Shacharis) and once in the afternoon. What function does this part of the prayer play – is it in place of the Ketores in the Beis Hamikdash as “Uneshalma parim sefateinu — and our lips shall replace the [sacrificial] bulls” (Hoshea 14:3)? Or does it, perhaps, serve another purpose? And why do some recite it twice in the morning if in the Beis Hamikdash it was only offered once in the morning and once in the afternoon? And what is the significance of the special prayers recited before Pitum HaKetores at the end of Shacharis?

Aharon HaKohen used the Ketores to stop the plague. Does reciting the relevant psukim from the Torah carry the same power? Is reciting the psukim enough to stop the plague or are additional actions required? What is the correct intention one should have when reciting the psukim – to affect the desired results, or as a prayer?  Why do Ashkenazim in Chutz Lo’oretz recite it only on Shabbos? And how should it be read – can one recite it by heart, or should it be recited only from the siddur? Some have the custom to read Pitum HaKetores from parchment. Is this practice endorsed by halacha or not, and why? Do women recite Pitum HaKetores? Of this and more in this article.

Stopping the Plague

In this week’s parasha we learn about a terrible plague that broke out after the Korach Dispute, and the mechanism Aharon employed in order to stop it: “Moshes said to Aharon, ‘Take the censer and put fire from the altar top into it and put incense. Then take it quickly to the congregation and atone for them, for wrath has gone forth from the Lord, and the plague has begun’” (Bamidbar 17:11). The Torah describes how effective this action was: “He stood between the dead and the living, and the plague ceased” (Bamidbar 17:13). The Gemara (Shabbos 89a) adds details to the story: When Moshe Rabbenu ascended to the Heaven to receive the Torah, all the angels gave him presents. The Angel of Death presented him with the secret connection between the Ketores and the plague.

The Zohar (Midrash Hane’elam, Vayera 100b) tells the following story: Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair was walking along when he met Eliyahu Hanavi. Rabbi Pinchas asked him for a secret with which he could assist people. Eliyahu Hanavi told him that in order to annul an evil decree, when heavenly persecutions speak evil about humanity, people should mention the sacrifices with all their heart. This will cause Hashem to remember them on a positive way. In addition, when there is a plague in the world, an announcement goes out in Heaven – “If the sons of the Creator gather in synagogues and recite Parashas HaKetores with fervor and intensity, the plague will not harm B’nei Yisroel.” The Zohar then continues and describes how Rav Acha succeeded in stopping a plague by utilizing Eliyahu Hanavi’s advice (see this week’s editorial column).

This Zohar teaches us that not only offering the actual Ketores stops a plague, but even reciting the relevant psukim with proper intention can affect the same result.

Pitum HaKetores

The Zohar (Parashas Vayakhel 218b-219a) writes that the Satan has no control over one who recites Parashas HaKetores every day and he is protected from all forms of witchcraft, bad events, evil thoughts, death, and all other harm. It is important to note that saying the words is not enough – having proper intention is paramount.

Rabbi Shimon said: if people knew how precious the Ketores is to Hashem they would crown themselves with each and every word like crowns of gold. And one who is careful to look inside the passage every day and concentrate on it is guaranteed a portion in this world and in the next; death will be removed from him and from the entire world; he will be saved from all the judgements of this world; from the Sitra Achra, and from Gehenom.

If one sees strict justice and judgement seems to be pursuing him, he needs the help of the Ketores and to repent before Hashem. Therefore, he should recite Pitum HaKetores twice, every morning and afternoon, and he will be saved.

The Midrash (Tanchuma, Tetzave, 15) writes: “The Holy One, blessed be He, said: From all the sacrifices that you offer Me, none are as desirable as Ketores. You know that all the sacrifices exist to meet the needs of Yisroel. How does that happen? The sin-offering is brought because of sin and guilt; the burnt offering is brought because of one’s thoughts; the peace-offerings are brought to atone for violations of a positive commandment, and incense is brought — not because of sin or transgression or guilt — but only out of sheer joy. Hence, “Ointment and incense rejoice the heart.” Ketores is precious to the Holy One, blessed be He… No sacrifices in the entire world were praised as highly as those of the Nesiim (the leaders of the various tribes in the desert). Why? Because they offered Ketores prior to making their sacrifices.”

Similarly, Rabbenu Bachye comments on the pasuk (Vayikra 9:23) “When they (Moshe and Aharon) came out (from the Ohel Mo’aid), they blessed the people”: Since the Ketores causes prayers to be accepted, after offering the Ketores they prayed for the people and blessed them. And similarly, after the Kohen Gadol would offer the Ketores in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur he would pray for the Jewish people’s success because it was the opportune time for prayers to be accepted. Dovid Hamelech writes in Tehilim: “My prayer shall be established like incense before You” (141:2) – he asks his prayers should be accepted willingly just as the Ketores, the most beloved and desired sacrifice, is to Hashem.

Siddur Yeshuos Yisrael writes that when one has a specific request from Hashem, he should mention it after the final word of the pesukim of Parashas Haketores “ledorosiechem”, before beginning “Tanu Rabonon”. This request should be mentioned in Lashon Hakodesh, and will surely be fulfilled because saying the entire passage with concentration and without skipping words generates an eis ratzon, and opportune time for prayers to be accepted.

Intention and Comprehension

The Shesilei Ziesim (a Yemenite sage who lived nearly 300 years ago) writes that all the benefits of the Ketores are accessible only when recited and fully comprehended. The Zohar too, when mentioning recitation of the Ketores adds a caveat: it must be recited with “full intention and willingness of heart”. The Mishna Brura writes (48:1) that one who knows how to learn should learn the applicable passages in the Gemara that speak of the Ketores in order to understand what he says every day. This way, his recitation will gain the power to stand in place of the actual Ketores. The same is true for the other sacrifices: when the Gemara writes that one who engages in the Parasha of the Ola sacrifice is considered to have offered it in the Mikdash it means that he was understanding what he says and was not just reciting the words.

Parashas HaKetores Before Prayers

The Shulchan Aruch (Oech Chayim 1:9) records the custom to recite Parashas HaKetores before prayers. However, in detailing the order of the prayers in siman 48 he only mentions reciting Parasha HaTamid before prayers, not the Ketores. Many poskim (Shulchan Aruch Harav, Mishna Brura, Aruch Hashulchan and others) add in siman 48 that Parashas HaKetores should also be recited before prayers.

The Zohar (Vayakhel 219b) writes that the Ketores is offered in the Mikdash before the Tamid sacrifice, therefore it should be recited before prayers — before the praises and song, because they only have power to ascend and connect after the Ketores atones for the sins of the Jewish people. Then, praises and song and prayer can be accepted.

The Mishna Brura (1:12) writes that a Talmid Chacham whose time is short should rather learn Torah than recite all the prayers printed in the siddur before Shacharis. Therefore, there are talmidei chachomim who refrain from reciting all the Korabnos, reciting only the Korban Tamid which is obligatory. The Piskei Teshuvos (Orech Chayim 48) writes that the Mishna Brura is only referring to other passages in the siddur, but Parashas HaKetores and Eizehu Mekoman are obligatory and must be recited. Only a latecomer to shul can skip these passages in order to pray with a minyan. It goes without saying that one who shortens his prayers for reasons other than Torah study should certainly recite all the prayers, especially Parashas HaKetores.

Pitum HaKetores After Shacharis

The Rama (Orech Chaim 132:2) writes that Pitum HaKetores should be recited after Shacharis. He adds, though, that it must be recited slowly – just as a kohen who offers it hastily and omits one of the ingredients is punishable by death, so too one who fails to mention one of the words in the passage brings harm upon himself. Therefore, some do not recite it on weekdays when people are rushing out to work, only on Shabbos and Yom Tov, when they have time to recite it at a calm, leisurely pace.

The Beis Yosef (Orech Chayim, 132) doubts the prohibition and that any harm results from reciting a partial Pitum HaKetores. He writes that the death penalty for a kohen who serves incomplete Ketores is either due to a specific prohibition on the matter, or refers only to Yom Kippur, when offering the Ketores in the Holy of Holies. Entering the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur without kosher Ketores incurs a death penalty for entering improperly, not for the incomplete Ketores.

The Chochmas Shlomo and other Achronim (Orech Chaim 132) explain that the difference in opinion stems from the difference in understanding the status of one who recites Parashas HaKetores – while some view him as comparable to a kohen offering Ketores in the Beis Hamikdash, others see him as if he gave ketores to the kohen.

Following the opinions that see him as a kohen offering Ketores in the Mikdash, reciting Parashas HaKetores requires one to do so standing up just as the kohen when offering Ketores. But according to the opinions that see reciting the Ketores as bringing Ketores to the kohanim to offer it, one who omits one of the ingredients is not considered to have offered unkosher Ketores and he need not recite it standing up. This also explains why a non-kohen can recite Parashas HaKetores.

Twice in the Morning

The Shulchan Aruch writes that some recite Parashas HaKetroes before Shacharis, and the Rama writes it should be recited after Shacharis, at least on Shabbos and Yom Tov. Why should do some say it both before and after Shacharis if Ketores is only offered once every morning in the Beis Hamikdash?

The Birkei Yosef (Orech Chaim 132:6) explains that reciting it before the Shacharis and Mincha prayers is in place of the Ketores offered in the Mikdash. After Shacharis we recite it for a different reason-so our prayers ascend unobstructed, and as protection for the day.

Similarly, the Mishna Brura (footnote 14) asks why it is said on Shabbos after the Mussaf prayer: while it is disputed if Ketores is offered before or after the Tamid sacrifice, none are of the opinion that it is offered after Mussaf sacrifices. He answers that we wish to end services with Torah study. Therefore, after the prayers we add the halachos of offering the Ketores. He adds that according to Kabala, we end the services with the halachos of Ketores in order to banish all heavenly prosecutors who might wish to prevent our prayers form ascending to Heaven and being accepted before Hashem. The Mishna Brura adds that according to the Shela it should be recited twice – once before prayers (in place of the actual Ketores) and once afterwards (for the above-mentioned reasons).

Pitum HaKetores at Mincha

The Rama (132:2) writes that Pitum HaKetores should be recited after Mincha. The Ari (Sha’ar Hakavanos, Drushei Tefilas Shachar, Drush III) writes that it should not be recited after Mincha and Maariv. The Magen Avraham (132:3) and Mishna Brura follow the Machatzis Hashekel’s opinion that there is no dispute here – the Rama indicates that Pitum HaKetores should be recited twice daily. Once in the morning and a second time, either before or after Mincha. The Ari here only refers to reciting it after sunset – Pitum HaKetores should not be recited after sunset since the Ketores is not offered in the Beis Hamikdash at night.

Nevertheless, some Mekubalim warn not to say Pitum HaKetores after Mincha even if it is still daytime.

Reciting Pitum HaKetroes for its Added Value

The Chida (Machzik Bracha, Orech Chayim 132:6) warns people not to recite Pitum HaKetores in order to earn its benefits. One should only learn from the benefits how beloved Ketores is to Hashem — it brings endless mercy, kindness, and plenty to the world. In reciting it, one should only have intention to bring Hashem pleasure.

Ein K’Elokeinu Before Pitum Haketores

The Noda B’Yehuda explains why the verses of Ein K’Elokeinu are recited before Pitum HaKetores. He explains that since the Ketores causes one to become rich, as mentioned in the Gemara (Yoma 26a), one who becomes rich may be misled to believe that his wealth originated in himself. Therefore, we remind ourselves in Ein K’Elokeinu that our riches did not come as a result of our hard work or wisdom, and not even in merit of the Ketores – only G-d is the source of all wealth and blessing.

The Ben Ish Chai (Od Yosef Chai, Mikeitz, 7) explains why after reciting the various korbanos we say a short prayer asking that the recitation be accepted as if we had offered the sacrifice, while after Ketores no such prayer is recited. Since omitting one component of the Ketores is punishable by death, we are concerned that one may omit one component and then ask that the recitation to come in place of the offering. As a result, it will be considered as an inappropriate offering and cause harm in place of blessing. Therefore, we don’t mention anything to equate the recitation with the actual offering, and only in our hearts do we express our desire for the prayers to be accepted as actual Ketores. The hearts’ intentions are known only to Hashem Himself, and He is not particular if we omitted one component or not, as the pasuk says: “…And his banner [ודגלו] over me was love.” (Shir Hashirim 2:4). The word ודגלו can also be read ודילוגו – and His skipping over. Hashem in His infinite mercy fills in all our gaps. Therefore, before reciting Pitum HaKetores, the sages prefaced the passage with the words “You are Hashem our G-d before Whom our forefathers offered Ketores as it is written in Your Torah” making it seem like a recounting of bygone days. This indicates that Parashas Haketores is not in place of the actual offering, saving one who mistakenly omitted one of the ingredients from danger. However, Hashem, Who knows we intend this recitation in place of the actual Ketores, accepts it, and if one of the ingredients is missing Hashem fills it in and does not punish the person.

Not By Heart

The Rama (Orech Chayim 132:2) writes one should be careful to recite Pitum HaKetores from the siddur and not by heart so as not to skip a single word. However, the Pri Chadash (Orech Chayim 132:2) writes that people customarily recite it by heart because they are not concerned of the danger resulting from skipping a word by mistake. The Kaf Hachayim (17:18) writes that however, one who recites it quickly by heart will gain nothing from saying it. The Mishna Brura writes that people who recite it only on Shabbos should be careful to read it out of the siddur and not by heart because the exact wording is not so familiar to them. Aruch Hashulchan writes (Orech Chayim 133:4) that this is the reason for the custom to tick off the 11 Ketores components on one’s fingers – to make sure not one is left out.

On Parchment

The Makor Chayim (authored by the Chavos Yair, Orech Chaim 132) quotes the Seder Hayom saying there is great benefit to be had in terms of financial and general success from reading the text of Pitum HaKetores from parchment, with the text written by hand in Ksav Ashuris (Sefer Torah font). This text should be read twice daily. The Kaf Hachaim (Orech Chayim 132:23) writes that reciting Pitum HaKetores from Ksav Ashuris is propitious for wealth and success in all one’s endeavors.

However, the Shulchan Aruch writes (Yore Deah 283:2) that one should refrain from writing random parshiyos on parchment. Rav Ovadya Yosef ruled accordingly (Yabia Omer IX, Yore Deah 23): l’chatchila one should not write only Parashas HaKetroes on a piece of parchment. However ex post facto, reading from the parchment is permitted, as one can rely upon authorities such as the Bach (Yore Deah 283); Taz (ibid, footnote 1); Shach (footnote 3); Aruch Hashulchan (911), and others who opine that today it is permitted.

Rav Moshe Sternbuch (Teshuvos V’Hanhagos, IV chapter 18) writes that one can l’chatchila rely upon the lenient opinions and write this parasha on parchment. He adds that since the accepted format includes the entire Breita and it is clearly written as part of the Torah, it is permitted.

Women and Pitum HaKetores

According to Rav Ovadya Yosef (Yalkut Yosef, Dinim L’Isha v’Labat, chapter 13) women are not obligated to recite Pitum HeKetores, even according to the opinions that view it as obligatory for men. This is because while women are obligated to pray because they, too, need Hashem’s mercy, their obligation does not include the aspect of “Uneshlma parim sfaseinu – and bulls shall be exchanged by our lips” in terms of completing the work in the Mikdash. The Piskei Teshuva (132:10) writes that the accepted custom is for women to recite Pitum HaKetores. Rav Shlomo Zaman Auerbach, in instructions for the correct prayer format for young ladies in high school included the Parashos of Tamid and Ketores before Shacharis (heard from his daughter-in-law), but did not mention Pitum HaKetores after Shacharis.


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