Incensed by incense – Jewish idolatry in the mall

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Examples of Hand of Miriam (Hamsa) in Israel (Photo: Bluewind/Wikimedia Commons)

I was among the first to enter the mall just after 10:00 a.m. last week, and probably the last thing I expected was to have a blast of incense smoke splattered on my face as I walked into a popular women’s clothing store. Not even realizing what hit me, I looked for the salesperson in order to inquire about a particular item, but as the wafting stench of the incense made its way into my nostrils, I looked over and saw an actual lit stick on one of the racks.

Completely feeling asphyxiated, I complained and said that would not be able to remain in the store with that horrible odor. The woman explained that it was her custom, each morning, to light incense in order to rid the store of “bad energy.” She assured me that no one had ever complained about it, but, just then, another shopper in the store turned around and said, “I don’t like it either.” Forced to put it out, she appeared shocked that anyone would object to what she believed was a totally reasonable and justifiable act.

As a Jew who dismisses superstitious belief and practice, I cannot find any scriptural reference where incense is used to ward off evil.  

While incense was, indeed, used in the temple, it, later, was regarded more as a symbol of prayer as stated in Psalm 141:2: May my prayer be set before you like incense. The original use of incense was an act of holiness before God since it was found in the area of the Holy of Holies, but once the veil was removed, following the death of Yeshua, it was no longer necessary or desirable to continue the practice as access to God was possible through the atoning work of the Messiah.

With the passing of time, incense has been more associated with mysticism and eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Today, it is even being used among “neo-pagans and Wiccans in an attempt to release power and invoke spells.” (www.gotquestions.org)

Either way, as a Messianic Jewish believer whose Biblical beliefs are constantly being called into question by those who look upon faith in Yeshua as not being authentic Judaism, I find it absurd that many of those scoffers do incorporate so much man-made superstition and sorcery into what is considered to be “authentic” present-day Judaism.

It is not rare to walk into Israeli shops, for example, and notice a large picture of Baba Sali, a revered 19th century Moroccan rabbi and kabbalist (Jewish mysticism) adorned on their wall. For those who put stock in him, they believe that his prayers worked miracles.  Another commonplace figure hanging in many stores is the late Chief Sephardic rabbi, Ovadia Yosef whose word was considered sacred by those who viewed him as Judaism’s answer to the pope.

These images are often accompanied by a large selection of “Hamsas,” which is the form of a hand – believed to be the hand of God as well as the image of an all-seeing eye, also believed to be the eye of God with the power to ward off evil spirits. Another very popular symbol, which is used to keep calamity at a distance, is the thin scarlet thread worn on the wrist of both men and women. In Hebrew it’s called the “choot ha shani.” Faith in this piece of thread is so great, that it is often placed on babies along with a miniature book of Psalms which is traditionally placed under the pillow or mattress of a baby carriage. Of course, the idea was taken from the Old Testament story of Rahab, the Canaanite prostitute living in Jericho whose family was spared from destruction once she hung the scarlet cord on her window. It is commonly held that the red symbol was akin to the blood which was placed on the doorposts of the children of Israel as the Angel of Death passed over the land of Egypt killing the firstborn of those whose homes were not covered with the blood.

So while the symbol is definitely rooted in the scriptures, almost no one who does use it, during these modern times, knows the significance of the real story or why it protected Rahab and her family more than 4,000 years ago. Part of the reason is that most Jews, these days, do not read the Hebrew Scriptures. While Tanach (Old Testament) is a required course in all Israeli schools, it’s more taught as a historical and cultural subject rather than an in-depth look at the meaning, significance and application of God’s Word, as believers approach Biblical study.

Therefore, it’s no wonder that foreign and idolatrous symbols as well as practices have made their way into Judaism, distorting real faith and reliance on the One, true God who has promised to protect us from all evil – Psalm 121: 7, 8 “The Lord will protect you from all evil; He will keep your soul. The Lord will guard your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forever.”

To fail to put one’s total trust in the God of Israel with full belief that He is enough, is to truly and categorically transfer His sovereignty and power to an impotent and ineffectual image, amulet or piece of string. How is this any different to the type of idolatry which was responsible for our exile as a people?  

While it’s true that the prophet Ezekiel foretold that we would be returned to our land, still in our sinful state, he also said that we would be purified as clean water is poured on us, cleansing us from our filthiness and from all of our idols (Ezekiel 36:25).  

With all of the evil and filth that has invaded our world, it feels like a really good time to call out anything that removes God from His rightful place – the Sovereign Lord, Creator of Heaven and Earth. Perhaps it’s also the perfect time to return to God on His terms and not as a confused people whose reliance and trust is placed on objects or other fallible human beings.  

Yes, I am incensed by any salesperson who uses their public store as a source of distorted faith practices which is foisted on the people of Israel who desperately need to recognize and return to their God. They should know that He never abandoned them and will yet reveal His plan for redemption and peace with Him through the atoning work which was already accomplished once and for all.  Idolatry simply has no place among the Jewish people nor is it part and parcel of the pure faith which was given to us through the written Word of God.