Stash of Original Temple Incense Found

March 18, 2019

6 min read

A cache of nearly 600 kilos of what is believed to be ketoret (incense used in the Temple service) was discovered by a team of Bnei Noach (Noahides) in 1992. Could its discovery be connected to the reestablishment of the Third Temple and the Messianic era?

To learn more, Israel365 News spoke to one of the members of the original archeology team about the find. Born just a year before the founding of the modern State of Israel, God called Indiana resident Larry Borntrager’s attention to Israel in October 1973, during the Yom Kippur War.

A decade later, with his intention firmly set on doing “whatever possible for Israel,” he and his wife came to Israel. Astoundingly, on that first trip, Borntrager was invited to join an archaeological dig for the ashes of the red heifer. The birth of a prospective red heifer, essential for the Temple Service, is a significant event today.

This is the ritual law that Hashem has commanded: Instruct B’nei Yisrael to bring you a red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid. Numbers 19:2

On that dig, he met the well-known Noahide Vendyl Jones, a Texas preacher turned Biblical archaeologist. Borntrager told Israel365 News that his Indiana farming background proved helpful to Jones’ work.

Zahava Cohen, Jones’ wife at the time of the Temple incense find, had an understanding of ancient Hebrew and had done her own translation of the Copper Scroll, which is believed to point to Temple artifacts buried in Qumran, close to the Dead Sea. According to Borntrager, in 1992, Zahava, “suspected there was another cave and [so] we were looking for an opening based on [certain passages in] the Copper Scroll.”

A team-member fell into a hole, so others, “went up and started cleaning out the hole, which led to the front of a cave. As we started excavating the cave from the outside, there were repeating layers of various types of stones. Every cubit, there was a row of stones and then rubble. It kept happening.”

An anonymous expert source explained, “This type of phenomena occurs when buckets of dirt and debris are intentionally thrown over a particular area. The dirt stops immediately, small pebbles roll a few feet and large stones considerably further, creating repeating layers of the different types of material. It’s an  indication that the mound of earth in front of the cave was an intentional covering designed to hide the cave.”

“My son Tony and I were filling buckets. Tony noticed something of a different color behind the stone,” Borntrager related.

A tin filled with ketoret (incense). (Courtesy)

“We found something looking like coffee grounds, but didn’t have any smell.” As the material sat in the hot sun, it released a smell that Borntager said was like cinnamon. Ultimately, the team recovered 600 kilograms (over 1300 pounds) of the mysterious substance.

“When we found it, Vendyl had no idea what it was,” Borntrager noted. The team took a sample of the cache to scientists at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rechovot where, after mass spectrometry testing, Professor Marvin Antleman asserted that the material was very likely Temple incense.

Later, paleobotanist Dr. Terry Hutter conducted further tests on the reddish powder, identifying 11 ingredients known from rabbinic tradition to be part of the Temple incense formula. His results were published in 1994. According to one anonymous source, “His analysis was so complete, we literally know from that analysis how to reverse engineer it.”

Although Jewish law prohibits personal or ritual use of the Temple incense, a small amount was burned under rabbinic guidance for the purpose of testing whether it was still viable after 2,000 years.

Borntrager further confirmed that, in the cave where the 600 kilo stash was located, the team also found, “Sodom salt from the Dead Sea, off to the side on a ledge, and other ingredients that were not mixed in until the ketoret was burned.”

Jones took a sample of the powder to authorities in Israel, who summarily dismissed his claim that it was Temple incense. At that time, the authorities believed it to be ordinary red dirt found in all the caves.

Borntrager reported that, in response, Jones, who was known to have a sharp tongue, said, “If that’s the case, I’ll just take it home and put it in my garden.” Eventually, he weighed and packed the entire stash. “We had cardboard boxes that they harvest grapes in. That was all we had to pack it in.”

It’s important to note that, while there is ample evidence to support the theory that this find is, indeed, Temple incense that was precisely blended according to the formula preserved in Jewish sources, the sample is not universally accepted as ketoret. Efforts to turn the material over to the Temple Institute, who are not on record as accepting it as authentic Temple incense, have failed.

Analysis of the purported ketoret has been commercially useful for Jewish farmers interested in replanting ancient spices in Israel. Speaking of one such venture in Kibbutz Almog near Jericho, Borntrager said,  “Some of the Jewish farmers don’t look at it as a Torah-based thing they’re doing. It fits in to what I think is Hashem’s (God’s) plan for the future.”

In other words, God is using these Jewish farmers who are working to reestablish the ancient spice plants in ways they aren’t fully aware of.

Borntrager quoted Rabbi Avraham Sutton who taught that it’s “not surprising that the first thing that was found [from the Temple period] was something related to smell, because the first thing [people noticed when] coming to the Temple was the aroma.”

Borntrager also spoke about the possible significance of the fact that it was people from the Nations, and not Jews, who located this Temple artifact. “Amos talks about how the non-Jews will be involved in finding these things,” he explained.

In that day, I will set up again the fallen booth of David: I will mend its breaches and set up its ruins anew. I will build it firm as in the days of old,
So that they shall possess the rest of Edom And all the nations once attached to My name —declares Hashem who will bring this to pass. Amos 9:11-12

“Jews have to depend on non-Jews interested in doing something for Israel. Our part is to elevate Israel and for Bnei Israel (the Jewish people) to be the Light to the Nations. That’s the whole reason for understanding who we are,” Borntrager explained.

End Times expert Rabbi Pinchas Winston spoke to Israel365 News at length about the spiritual significance of the Temple incense and its connection to the upcoming holiday of Purim.

“Purim is all about the ketoret. Eleven spices correspond to the sefirah (Godly attribute) of da’at (knowledge), the eleventh sefirah. It is no coincidence that the ketoret has 11 spices. Thus, the ketoret is connected to da’at.

“Furthermore, one must surrender his da’at to God, acknowledging that Divine logic overrides human logic. When Adam HaRishon (the primordial human) ate from the Aitz HaDa’at Tov v’Ra (Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil), he did exactly the opposite.

Lighting the fire on the Altar for the Third Temple for the first time (Photo Adam Eliyahu Berkowitz)

“Therefore, just as we must ‘offer up’ our da’at to God, the ketoret was offered up to God on the golden altar inside the Sanctuary. The ketoret is therefore an important symbol of man’s ability to unify with his Creator.

“In Aramaic, the language of the Zohar (foundational text of Jewish mysticism), ‘ketoret,’ like the Hebrew root ‘kesher,’ means connection, referring to the connection to God that the ketoret facilitates. It has the power to elevate and bind a person to his or her spiritual root.

“In fact, the incredible aroma of the ketoret was especially conducive to teshuvah (repentance),” Rabbi Winston taught.

Might the existence of a stash of Temple incense have special significance for the Messianic era?
“Geula (redemption) is a function of da’at. Perhaps the finding of it signifies that we’re about to restore it,” Rabbi Winston conjectured.

Borntrager shared his personal reflections about why it’s important for people to know that a stash of what might be original Temple incense has been found and is waiting patiently for its moment of restoration. “The prayer for the recipe of the incense is repeated every day. When I hand it to some of my Jewish friends, it’s amazing to watch their responses. When I see a Jewish person’s face light up, I see something very strong.

“People should know that it’s there,” he asserted.

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