תכון תפלתי קטורת לפניך
The Medrash states that of all the offerings, the קטורת, the incense is the most beloved before G-d. Says the Medrash,
Know, that even once the Mishkan was completed with all its vessels, [and] he [Aharon] had brought up all the offerings, set out the altar, the table and the candelabra and all—the Divine Presence did not descend till they brought the incense.
What is so special about the incense? What is its essence which makes it the most beloved of all the offerings to G-d in the Mikdash?
The Zohar writes,
There is nothing in this world that has the ability to prevent death as does the incense, which is the connecting force of judgment and mercy as a satisfying aroma in one’s nose.
We see from these words that the essence of the קטורת is that it bridges between the Attribute of דין, Strict Judgment, and רחמים, Mercy. The Ramban alludes to this Zohar when he writes,
This is the “secret” that was given over to Moshe Rabbeinu by the Angel of Death: that the burning of incense can stop a Divinely inflicted plague, for incense relates to the Attribute of Strict Justice, as it is stated, “they shall place incense before Your Presence [באפך], the meaning of אפך here being related to the word אף in the verse “My anger [אפי] will flare.
The Arizal writes
ישימו קטרת באפך “They shall bring incense before Your Presence” [lit. ‘put incense in Your nostrils]. The first letters of these words form the word יבק which is the combination of the Names הוי' and אלקים [they have the same numerical value]. This is the secret of the incense; it sweetens the attribute of judgment.
The most supreme measures of mercy stem from the Attribute of Justice, as is explained in סדור הגר"א that this is the secret of the passuk "בגבורות ישע ימינו" with the omnipotent salvations of His right arm. The right hand always represents mercy, as our Sages advise לעולם תהא שמאל דוחה וימין מקרבת the left hand should push them away, but the right hand should draw them close. The passuk is telling us that the mercy of the right hand stems from גבורות, the Attribute of Justice. This is also the reason אנשי כנסת הגדולה the men of the Great Assembly, instituted that we say מכלכל חיים בחסד He sustains the living with kindness in גבורות, the blessing in Shemoneh Esrei dealing with G-d’s might. This is the power of the incense, namely, its ability to bring out the mercy from the judgment. Accordingly we can understand the words of the Zohar,
At the time of the afternoon prayer which is when the Attribute of Judgement has dominion, King David concentrated on the verse “Let my prayer stand as incense before you; the lifting of my hands as an afternoon offering.”
With the power of the incense, G-d’s attribute of judgment is placated
The Gemara tells us,
When Moshe ascended to the Heavenly heights to receive the Torah… every one of the angels befriended Moshe and gave him something, as it says “you ascended to the heights, you captured a captive, you took gifts because of man.” … The Angel of Death also gave him something, as it is said: ויאמר משה אל אהרן קח את המחתה ותן עליה אש מעל המזבח ושים קטרת “Moshe said to Aharon, ‘take the fire-pan and put on it fire from upon the Altar and place incense…’ He [Aharon] placed the incense and atoned for the people.” And it says, “He stood between the dead and the living… and the plague was checked.” If the Angel of Death had not told Moshe this secret, how would he have known?
How does the Gemara know that it was the Angel of Death who revealed this secret to Moshe? Perhaps Moshe got it through Divine inspiration? Or perhaps one of the other angels told him this? Perhaps G-d Himself told him? The Arizal asks this question and answers,
Since the eleven spices in the incense are the life force of the Angel of Death, it will not be given away without his consent, and therefore it has to be that he himself gave this secret to Moshe. G-d will not give away the life force of any being without consent.
The secret is that G-d in His wisdom established it thus that He does not shortchange any living creature. Because the incense completely negates the life force of the Angel of Death, G-d will not reveal its secret unless the Angel of Death so desires. Hence, The Angel of Death himself had to have given it to Moshe.
On the holiest and most awesome of days, the Day of Atonement for Bnei Yisrael, the High Priest goes into the Holy of Holies with the incense and atones for the Jewish people. The Gemara tells us that
It was taught in a Baraisa: R’ Yishmael ben Elisha said: one time I entered inside the Holy of Holies to burn incense, and I saw Achateriel Kah Hashem Tzevakos sitting on a high and lofty throne and [G-d] said to me- Yishmael, my son, bless me. I said to Him: may it be your will that your mercy conquer Your anger, and that Your mercy overcome Your sterner attributes, and that You behave toward Your children with the Attribute of Mercy, and that for their sake You go beyond the boundary of judgment. Upon my concluding this blessing He nodded to me with His head [demonstrating His approval].
Rav Yaakov Emdin writes that this dialogue took place when he was bringing the incense of Yom Kippur, as is done only once a year. R’ Yishmael was the High Priest, and he was one of the Ten Martyrs. The Ben Ish Chai adds
With this incense he [R’ Yishmael] bound the Shechina with the Jewish people and achieved Oneness between G-d and the Jewish people Through this he ascended from "the world of action" to "the world of formation," and he was worthy of doing this… so he stood in "the world of formation" burning incenseלפני ולפנים in the Holy of Holies [literally, inside the inside, the innermost] which is equivalent to the worlds of “creation” and “emanation,” for “creation” is considered לפני “inner” in comparison to “formation,” and “emanation” is even more לפנים “inner”; therefore it is written לפני ולפנים.
Thus we see that the קטרת has the ability to unite the Attributes of Judgment and Mercy, to unite worlds, till it enters the Holy of Holies where it is able to atone for the Jewish people and invoke G-d’s mercy on them.
Nowadays, with the Mikdash in ruins because of our sins, saying the portion dealing with the incense is considered as if the incense were brought on the Altar. As the Igra D’Pirka writes,
If one says the portion of the incense with concentration after saying Tehilla L’Dovid, he has the power to weaken the Prosecuting Angel and nullify his existence, and even if the Prosecuting Angel has a death sentence to carry out on him or someone from his family, that decree is nullified by the power of [saying the portion of] the incense.
Rav Chaim Falaggi writes that it’s a special omen to write the portion of the incense on parchment in biblical script and read it from the parchment. The Ben Ish Chai adds that it’s a good omen to count on one’s fingers the components of the incense which the Priest brought, and this is considered as if he himself brought the incense with his own hands.
The Zohar writes
R’ Shimon said we must examine this passuk. There were two altars, one for sacrifices and one for incense, the former in the courtyard and the latter inside. Why is the altar for the incense, which is inside, called a Mizbeach, an altar, if one does not bring zevachim, sacrifices, on it? Is a Mizbeach (מזבח) not called so because of the zevachim (זבחים) brought on it? Rather, the reason this altar is called a Mizbeach is because it annuls and subjugates evil thus preventing it from coming to power and prosecuting. It is therefore called a mizbeach [i.e., the evil forces are “sacrificed” on it]. When the negative forces would see the smoke of the incense ascend, they would capitulate and run away and would not be able to come near the Mishkan. No one participated in this joy, except for G-d alone, and because [the incense] is so beloved to Him, the altar [for it] is located inside. For this altar is the one which contains all the blessings, and it is therefore hidden from sight.
It is written by Aharon, “He stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was checked.” He subjugated the Angel of Death so that he could not enact judgment [i.e. kill the wrongdoers]. This sign was given to us, that anywhere we say the portion of the incense with proper concentration and a willingness of the heart, death has no dominion there, no harm will come to anyone, and no nation will dominate there.
Come and see what is written, מזבח מקטר קטרת “an altar on which to bring incense up in smoke.” If it says Mizbeach, why is it called מקטר קטרת, an altar to bring incense up in smoke? Because from this place they took the power to tie [and bind the negative forces] just like Aharon did, and furthermore, the Mizbeach is intended for binding [with the Shechina], to come together in holiness through that incense. This is why it is called מקטר קטרת, as the Targum translates, that it’s forbidden to bring the incense offering in any other place, except for the fry-pan brought on Yom Kippur.
Come and see how anyone who is being pursued by the Attribute of Judgment is in need of this incense and needs to repent before his Maker. The incense helps to eliminate all harsh judgment if a person mentions the portion of the incense twice a day, morning and evening, as it says “upon it shall Aharon bring the spice incense up in smoke every morning” and it says “in the afternoon he shall bring it up in smoke.” This is what keeps the world in existence [even when the Beis HaMikdash isn’t standing] as it says “continual incense before Hashem, for your generations.” This gives existence to the lower and upper worlds. In a place where they do not say the portion of the incense the judgments of the upper worlds dwell, death is rampant, and other nations gain dominion over the land, as it says “continual incense before Hashem.” It is continually before Hashem, more beloved than all other forms of worship and deeds in the world. Even though prayer is the most supreme of all the positive commandments, the incense is dear and beloved before G-d. Come and see the difference between prayer and incense: prayer was only instituted in place of the sacrifices that Bnei Yisrael would bring, but all these sacrifices are not as important as the incense. Furthermore, prayer was instituted to fix whatever needs fixing. Whereas incense does much more than that; it not only repairs damages but also binds [the Shechina with Bnei Yisrael], achieves oneness [between G-d and Bnei Yisrael] and illuminates [Bnei Yisrael] more than anything else. How does the incense do this? It removes the impurity, purifies the Sanctuary, [and through this] it illuminates, repairs, and unites [G-d with Bnei Yisrael]. Therefore one must preface prayer with the incense daily, as the offering which G-d so desires.
Thus we see from the words of the Zohar that with the power of the קטורת the prosecuting angel is slaughtered upon the altar.
May it be Your will that Your mercy conquer Your anger, and that Your mercy overcome Your sterner attributes, and that You behave toward Your children with the Attribute of Mercy, and that for their sake You go beyond the boundary of judgment.
אבני זכרון לבני ישראל
Remembrance stones for Bnei Yisrael
The precious stones in the breastplate of the High Priest and the Ephod were all stones of remembrance, but they each served a different purpose. The stones on the Ephod had the names of the twelve tribes written on them as it says "ושמת את שתי האבנים על כתפות האפוד אבני זכרון לבני ישראל ונשא אהרן את שמות בני ישראל בחשן המשפט על שתי כתפיו לזכרון... על לבו לפני ה' תמיד" You shall place both stones on the shoulder straps of the Ephod, remembrance stones for Bnei Yisrael. Aharon shall carry their names before Hashem on both his shoulders as a remembrance.... on Aharon’s heart as a constant remembrance before Hashem.
Aharon and his children the Kohanim, have a double obligation—to serve G-d, and to serve the Jewish people. They must serve as emissaries of Bnei Yisrael, pray on their behalf and atone for them. As the Gemara tells us, one who murdered by accident only leaves the city of refuge when the High Priest dies, because the High Priest assumes responsibility for this murderer now sitting in the city of refuge because it was his duty to pray that no one from Bnei Yisrael die. Even if the murder occurred before the High Priest was appointed to his position, he is still responsible because he should have prayed that the murderer would have been cleared of his crime. They are also agents of G-d and therefore they must teach and rebuke the people and make them repent as it says "כי שפתי כהן ישמרו דעת ותורה יבקשו מפיהו" for the lips of the Kohen should safeguard knowledge, and people should seek teaching from his mouth. We also find in the Gemara
If there is anyone among his brethren the Kohanim who has something that must be corrected, the Kohen Gadol is aware of it and prevails upon him to repent.
The stones of the Ephod were placed on Aharon’s shoulders, and they are a remembrance for Bnei Yisrael, to remind them to subjugate their hearts to their Father Above. The stones of the breastplate were placed on Aharon’s heart and they are a remembrance before G-d. These stones were placed on Aharon’s heart to be a remembrance of Bnei Yisrael before G-d, to awaken the mercy of Heaven.
We can also explain somewhat differently: the stones worn on the shoulder straps of the Ephod were situated such that they were visible from above, atop the shoulders, to remind G-d of Bnei Yisrael and awaken the Heavenly mercy upon them. The stones in the breastplate were placed on Aharon’s heart, in a place that is only visible from the front, as a reminder to Bnei Yisrael to repent and return to G-d.
 מדרש תנחומא תצוה פרשה ט"ו
 ח"ג רכ"ד ע"א
 שמות ל': א'
 ליקוטי תורה דברים ל"ג: י'
 סדור הגר"א אשרי ובא לציון
 סוטה מ"ז ע"א
 ח"א ר"ל א'
 שבת פ"ט ע"א
 ליקוטי תורה פרשת תצוה
 ברכות דף ז' ע"א
 הגהות שם
 בן יהוידע שם
 אגרא דפרקא אות ל"ו
 כף החיים סי' י"ז אות י"ח
 שנה ראשונה מקץ אות ח'
 שמות כ"ח י"ב, כ"ט
 ברכות י"א ע"א
 מלאכי ב': ז'
 יומא י"ח ע"א