The Tale of the Sadducee who Incorrectly Prepared the Yom Kippur Ketoret

What is the significance of the contentious debate between the Pharisees and the Sadducees on where the Ketoret (incense) should be burnt? The Talmud tells the story of a Sadduccean High Priest who prepared the Yom Kippur ketoret according to the Sadducean rite and died a gruesome death. Comparing the Talmud’s version of this story with parallels elsewhere in rabbinic literature illuminates the Talmud’s understanding of the meaning of this vital Yom Kippur Avodah (ritual).


The Ark, Bible Encyclopedia of Archimandrite Nicephorus (1892). Wikimedia

Entering the Holy of Holies and the Debate about the Ketoret

The highlight of the Yom Kippur Service in the Temple was the once-a-year entry of the High Priest into the Holy of Holies. The High Priest is instructed by the Torah to bring incense on the first of a series of entries on that day:

 ויקרא טז:יב -יג  וְלָקַח מְלֹא הַמַּחְתָּה גַּחֲלֵי אֵשׁ מֵעַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, מִלִּפְנֵי יְהוָה, וּמְלֹא חָפְנָיו, קְטֹרֶת סַמִּים דַּקָּה; וְהֵבִיא, מִבֵּית לַפָּרֹכֶת. וְנָתַן אֶת הַקְּטֹרֶת עַל הָאֵשׁ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה; וְכִסָּה עֲנַן הַקְּטֹרֶת, אֶת הַכַּפֹּרֶת אֲשֶׁר עַל הָעֵדוּת וְלֹא יָמוּת.
Leviticus 16:12-13 And he shall take a panful of glowing coals scooped from the altar before the Lord, and two handfuls of finely ground aromatic incense, and bring this behind the curtain. And he shall put the incense on the fire before the Lord, so that the cloud from the incense screens the cover that is over [the Ark of] the Pact, lest he die.

A well-known contentious debate between the Pharisees and the Sadducees/Boethusians[1] (henceforth: Sadducees, for the sake of brevity) concerns the precise timing of the placing of the incense on the burning ember by the High Priest (Sifra, Aharei Mot, Parasha b):[2]

…ונתן את הקטרת על האש לפני ה’ – שלא יתקן מבחוץ ויכניס, שהרי הצדוקין אומרין יתקן מבחוץ ויכניס…
‘And he shall place the incense on the fire before the Lord’ – that he shouldn’t fix (the incense) outside and bring it in, since the Sadducees say he should fix (it) outside and bring it in…

According to the Sifra, the Sadducees ruled that the incense was placed on the ember prior to entering the holy chamber, thus the entrance itself was already accompanied by a cloud of smoke rising from the burning incense. Conversely, the Pharisees held that the incense was only burnt once the priest entered.

The Meaning of the Debate

What was this Second Temple debate all about? This question is a matter of some scholarly controversy and does not have an absolute answer.[3] I will offer here one possibility[4] which relates fundamentally to the nature of the divine encounter that took place when the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies.

The Sadducees required that the priest raise the cloud of incense before entering the Holy of Holies. The incense thus functioned, quite literally, as a smokescreen;[5] the Ark and the heavenly presence upon it were to be shielded from his eyes, according to the Sadducees, at all moments. Conversely, according to the Pharisees, the incense had a completely different function. It was not meant as a screen. Some interpreted it as “a means of propitiating God.”[6]

A different view that I would like to embrace, was that the cloud of incense was the very means for God’s revelation of His presence upon the Ark. This interpretation could read verse 16:2 thus: “For by the means of the cloud I will reveal myself on the Ark cover (kapporet).”[7] Thus, the Ark would be visible to the High Priest, at least at the moment of entry.[8]

A description of an oath that, according to the Mishnah, the High Priest had to take preserves a memory of the emotional charge this debate engendered (Mishnah Yoma 1:5):[9]

…ואו’ לו, אישי כהן גדול, אנו שלוחי בית דין, ואתה שלוחינו ושלוח בית דין, משביעים אנו עליך במי ששכין את שמו בבית הזה, שלא תשנה דבר מכל מה שאמרנו לך. והוא פורש ובוכה, והן פורשין ובוכין.
…And they would say to him: My master, High Priest, we are the representatives of the beit din, and you are our representative and the representative of the beit din. We make you swear, by He Who caused His name to dwell in this house, that you will not change a thing from all that we have told you. He would retire and cry, and they would retire and cry.

The Story of the Sadducee and the Incense

A climactic point in the literary history of this debate is found in a short story that appears in several rabbinic sources and tells of a Sadducee High Priest who ostentatiously disobeys the Pharisaic ruling by producing the “cloud of smoke” before entering the Holy of Holies. The earliest extant version of this story appears in the Tosefta (a compilation of tannaitic material). A comparison with a later version that appears in the Babylonian Talmud (Bavli) highlights some surprising elements that are missing from the earlier versions and offers a window into the views of the Bavli redactors on this issue.

The early tannaitic version of the story in the Tosefta reads:[10]

שכבר היה מעשה בביתסי אחד שהקטיר עד שהוא בחוץ, ויצאה ענן הקטרת והרתיע את כל הבית…
There was already a case of a certain Boethusian who burnt (the incense) while he was still outside, and the cloud of the incense emerged and shook the whole building…
כשיצא אמ’ לאביו, כל ימיכם הייתם דורשין ולא הייתם עושין עד שעמדתי ועשיתי אני.  אמ’ לו, אע”פ שאנו דורשין ואין אנו עושין שומעין אנו לדברי חכמים תמהני עליך אם תאריך ימים. לא שהא שלשה ימים עד שנתנוהו בקברו.
When he emerged he said to his father: all your days you would expound (scripture) but you wouldn’t execute (it), until I arose and executed (it).He said to him: Even though we expound we do not execute (it), we obey the words of the Rabbis. I wonder if you shall live long? Not three days passed and they placed him in his grave.

The version in the Bavli differs in form, style, and content (Bavli Yoma 19b):[11]

תנו רבנן מעשה בצדוקי אחד שתקן מבחוץ והכניס פגע בו אביו אמר לו בני אף על פי שצדוקין אנו שומעין אנו לפרושין. אמ’ לו כל ימי הייתי מצטער על מקרא זה: “כי בענן אראה על הכפרת”  עכשו שבא לידי לא אקיימנו?
Our Rabbis taught: There was a case of a Sadducee who arranged the incense outside, and then brought it inside. His father met him and said to him: My son, although we are Sadducees, we obey of the Pharisees. He replied: All my days I have been troubled over this verse: “For I appear in the cloud over the ark-cover”. Now that I have the opportunity shall I not fulfil it?
אמרו לא הספיק לגמור את הדבר עד שמת ומוטל באשפה והיו תולעים יוצא)ו(י]ן מחוטמו ובאין לתוך פיו. ויש אומ’ ביציאתו נגף.
It is reported that he did not have the chance to complete it (ha-davar) until he died and was thrown on the dung heap, and worms came forth from his nose and were entering his mouth. Some say: He was smitten as he came out [of the Holy of Holies].
דתני ר’ חייא כמין קול נשמע בעזרה שבא מלאך וחבטו על פניו ונכנסו אחיו הכהנים ומצאו ככף רגל עגל בין כתפיו…
For R. Hiyya taught: Some sort of a noise was heard in the Temple Court, for an angel had come and struck him down on his face (/to the ground), and his brethren the priests came in and they found the trace as of a calf’s foot on his shoulder…

Contrasting the Two versions of the Story

One striking difference between the versions relates to the priest’s death. The Bavli, in contrast with the Tosefta, reads that the priest is killed instantaneously, thus creating a tighter link between the priest’s action and his punishment. The immediacy of the death is also reminiscent of God’s wrath against Nadav and Avihu who brought a “strange” incense offering (Leviticus 10:1-7) and thus creates a stronger effect, emphasizing the improperness of the priest’s conduct. It also adds, in the version quoted here, that his decaying body is cast in a pile of garbage,[12] emphasizing the disgrace of the priest in his death, while the Tosefta describes him being placed in his grave.

Similarities between the Stories of R. Akiva’s and the Sadducee’s Death

Another element that is unique to the Bavli story is noteworthy. Surprisingly, the Bavli version of the story contains a sentence that closely parallels another Bavli story – that of R. Akiva’s death in bBer 61b:[13]

…כשהוציאו לר’ עקיבא להריגה זמן קרית שמע היתה והיו מסרקין את בשרו במסרק  של ברזל, והיה מקבל עליו מלכות שמים באהבה. אמרו לו תלמידיו ר’ עד כאן?
…When R. Akiva was taken out for execution, it was the hour for the recital of the ‘Shema’, and they were combing his flesh with an iron comb, and he was accepting upon himself the kingship of heaven with love. His disciples said to him: Our teacher, even to this point?
אמ’ להן כל ימי הייתי מצטער על פסוק זה בכל נפשך אפילו נוטל את נפשך ואמרתי מתי יבוא לידי ואקיימנה, עכשיו בא לידי ולא אקיימנה?
He said to them: All my days I have been troubled over this verse, ‘with all thy soul’, [which I interpret,] ‘even if He takes thy soul’, and I said: When shall I have the opportunity of fulfilling this? Now that I have the opportunity shall I not fulfill it?
ולא הספיק לגמור את הדבר עד שיצתה נשמתו באחד.
And he did not have a chance to complete it (ha-davar) until his soul left his body while reciting the word ‘Ehad’.

Several general thematic points of affinity between the two stories may be pointed out:

1. Both stories portray the main protagonist defying a certain authority by performing what he viewed as a religious obligation, and then dying an ugly death.

2. Each of these main protagonists (the Sadducee, R. Akiva) is confronted by another character (the father, the disciples) who questions his actions.[14]

These affinities are buttressed in the Bavli by the striking use of the formula: “All my days I have been troubled over this verse”. In the Bavli, this formula appears only in these two stories and in one more location[15] hence its appearance in both the abovementioned stories creates a significant link between them.[16]

When did the Sadducee Die?

Another striking literary connection between the two stories appears in the description of the death of the main protagonist in each story. The R. Akiva story[17] says: “he did not have a chance to complete it until his soul left his body while reciting the word ‘Ehad’”. Similarly, the Bavli’s version of the Sadducee story reads: “he did not have a chance to complete it until he died”.

This last sentence fits smoothly only in the R. Akiva story, where he was engaged in reciting the Shema, and his soul leaves his body as he is reciting the last word.[18] In the Sadducee story, by contrast, this sentence is confusing, and its reference is not clear. It is presumably referring to the burning of the incense before entering the chamber,[19] however, this cannot be the case since we are told that after he emerges from the Holy of Holies he meets his father and has a conversation with him. On the other hand, if “davar” were referring to the conversation with the father, we would expect the plural “devarim”. Thus, the continuity in the R. Akiva story is impaired by this sentence.  This further supports the idea that the authors/redactors of the Sadducee story were borrowing verbal motifs from the R. Akiva story.[20]

The Meaning of the Bavli’s Version of the Sadducee Story: Comparing Martyrs

What then should we make of the Babylonian storytellers’ likely use of motifs from the R. Akiva story in their reworking of the story of the Sadducee [21] This reworking may be emphasizing the high stakes of the issue under discussion for both parties by indicating that the Sadducee was prepared to forfeit his life in an ‘act of martyrdom’ in order to execute his community’s tradition. However, in light of the exceptionally negative attitude that is expressed in the Bavli version of this story toward the Sadducee, which is heightened by contrast to earlier versions, it appears to me that the comparison that the Babylonian redactors meant to draw between the Sadducee and R. Akiva is an ironic one: R. Akiva’s martyrdom, defying the Romans over the essentials of studying and observing Torah, and suffering a terrible yet honorable death by Roman hands, is reduced, in the story in b. Yoma, to a young, arrogant, priest defying the Rabbis, and suffering a shaming death inflicted on him by divine judgment. This ironic presentation of the priest appears to remove from him any dignity with which the original story may have awarded him.

To this we may add also that the ending of the stories also presents a contrast: in the R. Akiva story the angels protest his terrible fate, while in the b. Yoma story it is an angel that strikes him dead

The Bavli’s Hostile Attitude towards the Sadducees

What could have motivated the Babylonian redactors to design their version of the story in a manner that enhances the negative light in which the Sadducee priest is presented? Many connect this to the Bavli’s highly negative attitude toward the Sadducees.[22] That may be true but I believe an additional factor is at work here as well: this story reflects the importance that the Bavli attributed to the idea underlying the pharisaic/rabbinic perception of the Yom Kippur service.

Emphasizing God’s Closeness on Yom Kippur

As mentioned previously, one way of understanding the Sadduceean-Pharasaic debate concerns the overall meaning of the Yom Kippur avodah, and the incense ritual in particular.  The Bavli redactors may have been interested in further endorsing the pharisaic view of the encounter between the priest who represents Israel and God on the day of forgiveness – an encounter of re-unification, intimate closeness, a removal of barriers – by rejecting the idea that the function of the incense is to create a barrier, a veil that prevents a direct encounter between the Jewish people’s representative and God.[23] The Bavli enhances the criticism of the Sadducee’s creating just such a barrier, both by emphasizing the immediacy and the disgracefulness of his death and by creating the ironic comparison to R. Akiva.

Indeed, the irony in the story isn’t confined to this comparison. In the Bavli, God’s instant wrath, which is usually directed in the Torah at those who come too close, is ironically directed in a very similar manner toward those who would not come close enough. The design of the story in the Bavli thus embraces the interpretation that the function of the incense was not to create a barrier, but rather to enable a direct encounter between the priest and both the Ark and the presence that descends upon it.

כי ביום הזה יכפר עליכם לטהר אתכם מכל חטאתיכם לפני ה’ תטהרו



Dr. Yonatan Feintuch teaches Talmud and Rabbinics at Bar Ilan University and Herzog College, and specializes in talmudic narratives. He holds a PhD in Talmud from Bar Ilan University.