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

How and why the Bavli reworked the tale and turned the Sadducee into an inglorious martyr

Dr. Yonatan Feintuch 

Abstract: 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 (incense) 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 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 (Leviticus 16:12-13):

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
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.

Entering the Holy of Holies and the Debate about the Ketoret
A well-known contentious debate between the Pharisees and the Sadducees/Boethusians1 (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 possibility4 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 which 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…

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.

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…

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?

אמרו לא הספיק לגמור את הדבר עד שמת ומוטל באשפה והיו תולעים יוצא)ו(י]ן מחוטמו ובאין לתוך פיו. ויש אומ’ ביציאתו נגף.

דתני ר’ חייא כמין קול נשמע בעזרה שבא מלאך וחבטו על פניו ונכנסו אחיו הכהנים ומצאו ככף רגל עגל בין כתפיו…

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?

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].

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?

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?

ולא הספיק לגמור את הדבר עד שיצתה נשמתו באחד.

…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?

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?

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 story17 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 bYoma, 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 bYoma 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.

  1. The Boethusians were a group related in some way to the better known Second Temple sect known as the Sadducees. For scholarly views about the two groups and relationship between them see, e.g., Yaakov Sussman, ‘The History of the Halakha and the Dead Sea Scrolls: Preliminary Talmudic Observations on Miqsat Ma‘ase Torah (4QMMT)’ (Hebrew), Tarbiz 59 (1990), pp. 48-55, and in the footnotes.
  2.  According to MS Vatican 66. Translations of rabbinic texts here and below are mine (texts from the Bavli were translated with the aid of the Soncino Talmud). Biblical sources are translated according to the New JPS Tanakh translation.
  3. According to the tannaitic recording of this debate (Sifra, ibid; Tosefta Kippurim 1:8) it stems from diverse interpretations of the verses in the description of the Yom Kippur sacrificial service in Leviticus 16. The order of the actions in verses 12-13 (cited above) supports the Pharisaic opinion, while the Sadducees base their opinion on the opening verse of the description of the service (16:2): “…for in the cloud I shall appear over the ark-cover (kapporet).” However, this verse is somewhat ambiguous (see: Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (The Anchor Bible), New York 1991, pp. 1014-1015). Furthermore, the Pharisees as well were inconsistent with regard to following the simple order of all the actions related in the biblical account (see, e.g., Israel Knohl and Shlomo Naeh, ‘Millu’im ve-Kippurim’, Tarbiz 62 (1993), p. 29). Thus, commentators are at odds about the precise point of conflict: was the disagreement between the Pharisees and Sadducees over textual interpretation, or did the differences in interpretation stem from an underlying conflict of views with regard to priestly conduct or the Yom Kippur service? If the latter is true, what, precisely, was this underlying issue?
  4. This interpretation is one of many possibilities previously suggested by commentators and scholars, see previous note, and below, note 7.
  5. See, e.g., Milgrom,  ibid, p. 1029
  6. See, e.g., Milgrom,  ibid, p. 1029. According to this explanation, the incense is a means of atonement, as it functions in Numbers 17:11.
  7.  See Yehuda Brandes, ‘Ketoret’, in: U-ve-Yom Tzom Kippur Yehatemun (ed. Amnon Bazak), Alon Shevut, 2005 , pp. 91-109, and Cf. Knohl and Naeh (above, n. 3); Milgrom, ibid; Cf. also Louis Finkelstein, The Pharisees: The Sociological Background of Their Faith³, Philadelphia 1966, pp. 654-660.
  8. The obvious question of the precise meaning of ‘seeing’ God’s presence in the Holy of Holies (as it appears also in the story about the High Priest  R. Ishmael b. Elisha in bBer 7a; see below, n. 23), merits a separate discussion, and cannot be discussed in the present context.
  9. MS Kaufmann.
  10. Tosefta Kippurim 1:8 (ed. Lieberman, p. 222-223). The version in the Yerushalmi (yYoma 1:5, 39a) is similar, albeit not identical. For the sake of brevity I will not relate to it here. A comprehensive analysis of the various versions may be found in my article: ‘The Story of the Sadducee and the Incense in Bavli Yoma – Text and Interpretation,’ Sidra 29 (2014), 79-94 (Hebrew)
  11. Translated according to the Munich 6 MS.
  12. The worms coming out of his nose are reminiscent, unsurprisingly, of a midrashic description of the death of Nadav and Avihu, who’s tragic death is mentioned at the beginning of the Leviticus 16, see Sifra, Shemini, parasha a.
  13. Translation based on the Genizah Fragment Oxford, Bodl. heb. b. 1 (2673) (see below, n. 16). I completed words that are partially unclear in the Genizah Fragment in accordance with MS Oxford 366. 
  14. R. Akiva is in fact confronted twice: once by his disciples, who ask him: “Rabbi, this far”? And secondly, earlier in the passage in the Bavli another clash is recorded with Papos ben Yehuda. Pappos asks: “aren’t you afraid of this nation”, which reminds us of the Sadducee’s father’s words that they obey the Pharisees.
  15. bMeg 24b.
  16. Several scholars have dismissed this link as secondary, on the grounds of the abovementioned sentence’s presumed appearance solely in Ashkenazic manuscripts, and absence from others. According to these scholars, the R. Akiva story probably borrowed these phrases from the Sadducee story, not vice-versa. However, I argued elsewhere that the ‘Ashkenazic’ text is supported by early eastern Genizah fragments. For a comprehensive discussion of this see the article referred to above, n. 10. For a different approach Cf. Paul Mandel, ‘Was Rabbi Aqiva a martyr?: Palestinian and Babylonian influences in the development of a legend’, in: Rabbinic Traditions between Palestine and Babylonia (ed. R. Nikolsky and T. Ilan), Leiden, 2014, pp. 306-353.
  17. As it appears in most of the manuscripts and in the genizah fragments.
  18. Thus, ‘it’ refers to the ‘Shema’.
  19. Or, alternatively, the Avodah as a whole.
  20. Theoretically, one could argue that the authors/redactors of the R. Akiva story may have borrowed motifs from the Sadducee story, although the thought of designing the story of R. Akiva’s martyrdom in light of the story of a Sadducee who defied the rabbis on Yom Kippur and received a divine death penalty appears to me to be highly counterintuitive. For a more comprehensive discussion of this issue see the article referred to above, n.10
  21. See previous note.
  22. See, e.g., Sussman, ‘History of the Halakha’,  p. 50 n. 168.
  23.  This approach is evident in another well-known story, which appears only in the Bavli, of the encounter of R. Ishmael b. Elisha in the Holy of Holies (bBerakhot 7a): “It was taught: R. Ishmael b. Elisha says: I once entered into the Holy of Holies to offer incense, and saw Akathriel Yah the Lord of Hosts, seated upon a high and exalted throne. He said to me: Ishmael, My son, bless Me! I said before him: May it be Thy will that Thy mercy may suppress Thy anger and Thy mercy may prevail over Thy other attributes, so that Thou mayest deal with Thy children according to the attribute of mercy and mayest, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice! And He nodded to me with His head” (translation based on MS Paris 671); and see above, n. 8.
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