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An Incense Maker's Strike in the 2nd Temple

An Incense Maker's Strike in the Second Temple

The Talmud, in Yoma 38a-b presents an aggadic account of a strike by the incense makers in the Second Temple. [The translated passage appears in boldface and our comments in standard characters.]

Mishna: These are to be condemned: The House of Garmu did not want to teach the art of making the showbreads; the House of Avtinas did not want to teach the art of making the incense . . . .

Gemara: The House of Avtinas did not teach [others] the art of making the incense: The Sages taught:

  1. The House of Avtinas were experts in the art of making the incense, yet they did not want to teach it [to others]. Why not? The midrash does not yet reveal.
  2. The sages sent to Alexandria in Egypt for experts [to replace them].
  3. They (the Alexandrians) knew how to mix the incense like they (the House of Avtinas) did, but not how to make the smoke rise like they did.
  4. The incense of [the House of Avtinas] would rise straight like a stick, and that of [the Alexandrians] scattered to and fro.
  5. When the sages heard this they said, "All that G-d created is for His glory, as it says, 'He fashioned all for His sake.'" What did this verse teach them?
  6. The House of Avtinas returned to their place.
  7. The sages sent for them and they did not come. Here is the strike!
  8. They doubled their salary and they came. Their strike accomplished its goal. Note -- On the one hand the sages were forced to bow to their wishes; this passage is quoted by the halakhic literature to prove the legitimacy of strikes. They did not, though, as the mishna indicates, approve of it from a moral standpoint.
  9. Every day they would take twelve maneh and on that day they took twenty-four.
  10. Rabbi Yehuda says: Every day they would take twenty-four and on that day forty-eight.
  11. The sages asked them, "Why did you see fit not to teach [others your expertise]?
  12. They answered: "Our father's house was aware that this Temple was going to be destroyed and they said, 'Lest someone improper learn [how to prepare the incense] and take it and use it in the service of idol worship.'" Nevertheless, says the Maharsha, the sages still disapproved. This was just the excuse they gave, not the real reason.
  13. Concerning this they should be remembered favorably -- A bride never went out of their house perfumed. Furthermore, when a woman married into the family she had to agree not to wear perfume, so noone would say that she is using the incense as perfume. This fulfills the verse, "You should be clean in the eyes of G-d and man." They were very careful not to get any tangible benefit from the incense; but, as Rabbi Yishmael says in the next line, their whole status and honor was connected with their special know-how.
  14. Rabbi Yishmael said, "Once I was walking on the way and I met one of their descendants and I told him, 'Your ancestors wanted to increase their own honor and detract from the honor of Heaven; now, Heaven's honor remains intact and their honor is gone.'" Watch how step by step the aggada moves away from the condemnation of the mishna. First, in line 13, they are praised for not benefiting from the incense. Next, we only meet descendents of the family whose ancestors are condemned.
  15. Rabbi Akiva said: Once Rabbi Yishmael son of Luga mentioned to me, "Once, I and one of their descendants went out to gather grasses. I saw that he cried and laughed.
  16. I asked him, 'Why did you cry?' He said, 'I remembered the honor of my family.'
  17. 'And why did you laugh?' He said to me, 'For the Holy One, blessed be He, will return it to us.' Here, there is a further move -- their honor will be restored in the future.
  18. "And what caused you to remember all this?' He said to me, 'I saw the ma'aleh ashan (substance that causes the smoke to rise) before me.'
  19. "Show it to me,' I said. "We have all sworn not to show it to any man.'"
  20. Rabbi Yochanan son of Nuri said: Once I found one elderly man with a scroll of the spices of the incense in his hand.
  21. I asked him where he was from and he answered, 'from the House of Avtinas.'
  22. I asked him what was in his hand and he answered, "a scroll of the spices of the incense."
  23. "Show it to me." He said to me, 'As long as our family was around we would not hand it over to any man. Now, here it is; be careful with it."
  24. When I went and related this to Rabbi Akiva he said to me, "Now it is forbidden to speak disfavorably about them." The House of Avtinas, through this elder, has finally righted the wrong of generations.
  25. Based on this Ben Azai said,
  26. "They will call you by name and seat you in your own place. This, as Rashi explains, refers to the House of Avtinas inevitably does what they have been destined to. The sages learn that this is what must be done and restore the House of Avtinas to their position.
  27. From your own they will give you, and no man touches that which is prepared for someone else. The House of Avtinas was worried for generations of losing their status and livelihood. Ben Azai teaches a basic lesson about Divine Providence; jealousy has no theological base. There is no need to worry that another's success will infringe on mine.
  28. No kingdom touches another even by a hair's breadth. The same is true for positions of leadership.

All of the characters in the story develop. The sages learn that everyone, despite their moral faults, has a way of bringing about G-d's glory. The House of Avtinas eventually learn that their expertise is only their's for G-d's honor and not their own. Our talents are G-d given, as is our livelihood. Their is no reason to worry that other's success will affect our own.

Translation and comments: R. Eliezer Kwass

Reader response: from Mark Jay Kaplan -- Strike in the Second Temple

2000 Darche Noam