Of Puppies and Perfume

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

As we enter April, budding trees and flowers make the air redolent of spring. The appreciation of fragrance is of course nothing new to Jewish tradition. Nowhere is that fact more readily on display than in the descriptions of the incense offerings. In Exodus (chapter 30, especially verses 34-38), we learn that the incense offering was to include “nataf” (stacte, a gum or resin whose identity is still disputed); “shehelet” (onycha, another unidentified fragrant ingredient); “helbenah” (galbanum, an aromatic resin); and “levonah” (frankincense—you guessed it, a fragrant gum resin). Knowledge of these various ingredients in the Biblical world was clearly great, and greater still the heady smells produced by their combustion.temple micrography

Here, for example, is a close-up of the burning of incense from a 17th-century manuscript of the Temple mount, in Dutch micrography of the text of I Kings (RBR Broadsides 1).

If the Biblical account of the Temple ritual is intricate, then the Talmudic elaboration of that ritual is, shall we say, Byzantine. In a significant passage from the Talmud (Keritot 6a), the Rabbis increase the number of fragrant substances to eleven: stacte, onycha, galbanum, frankincense, myrrh, cassia, spikenard, saffron, costus, aromatic bark, and cinnamon. To these are added other ingredients: a special type of lye, Cypriot wine (for steeping the onycha), and sea salt, all of which are meant to enhance the aromas of the incense, as well as a particular herb that makes the smoke rise appropriately.

What’s more, this Talmudic passage is used as an elaboration at the end of the hymn “En Kelohenu” on Sabbath and festivals, after the line “You are He before whom our ancestors burned incense.”

The Klau Library has a wonderful manuscript which I playfully refer to as our Dog Mahzor. It is an Ashkenazi Mahzor (Ms. 436) made either in Northern Italy or Germany in the late 15th or early 16th century. In it we find a number of fine illuminations and illustrations, several of which display canine motifs. For example, here we see capering canines in the large initial “You” of the prayer “You have chosen us” (Atah behartanu):

Or here, a pup pops up surreptitiously at the bottom of a page:

However, when we turn in this manuscript to the “En kelohenu,” underneath the Talmudic passage in which Cypriot wine (yen kafrisin) is mentioned we find these two bibulous buddies:

Presumably once the onycha was steeped, there was wine left over. So why let a good thing go to waste? Clearly the illustrator of this manuscript had a whimsical sensibility. Among the many reasons I love these manuscripts are the little enlivening moments of humanity such as this that appear unexpectedly. They offer the reader a chance to stop and smell the roses, however figuratively, and to take our myrrh and mirth in equal measures.

From the desk of Jordan Finkin, Klau Library, Rare Book and Manuscript Librarian


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