Prologue: It seems to appear late in the game.
Parshas Terumah seems to catalogue all of the Keilim that were needed in the Mishkan and how Hashem wanted them constructed. Parshas Tetzaveh seemingly chronicles the clothing of the Kohanim. However, at the end of Tetzaveh, we are taught about one major Kli that was left out – the golden Mizbeiach. Why wait until the end of the Parsha to include the Ketores Mizbeiach? Why not mention it together with the others?
The Meshech Chochma suggests that there is a uniqueness to this Mizbeiach and to the Keotres service that was performed with it. While the lack of a menorah would delay the lighting of the Ner Tamid and without the hulchan there would be no Lechem HaPAnim and without the other Mizbeiach there could be no Korbanos, the rules with the Mizbach HaKetores were different. The Talmud specifically (Zevachim 59b) notes that if this Kli were to be destroyed, we would be able to bring the Ketores in its place.
Rav Shmuel Brazil Shlita suggests that there is a uniqueness to the Ketores above other Korbanos. Ketores represents the Jewish people as a whole. Even the sinners are represented in the Ketores and if they are ignored, the Ketores is invalidated. This, he adds , is proof that even after sin, we as a nation still possess Godliness and the potential for reform. Thus, while other Keilim can be destroyed and then, their service disrupted – Ketores represents the indestructible combined Jewish spirit.
The Pitum HaKetores Segulah
The Midrash Tanchuma (Tetzaveh 15) notes that Hashem appreciates the Ketores offering more than all the other offerings we bring. The reason is that other korbanos serve a purpose for us (to atone fo sin, express thanksgiving etc.) but Ketores merely serves as a conduit for our joy. Thus, the mere bringing of the twice-daily ketores was a special segulah in the time off the Beis HaMikdash.
What about today when there is no Beis HaMikdash? Have we lost the opportunity to benefit from the special merit of the Ketores? The Talmud (Taanis 27;Megillah 31b) suggests that Avraham Aveinu was promised that even when there is no Beis HaMikdash, all korbanos can be accepted by Hashem by reciting them instead of offering them – a concept called “U’Nishalma Parim Sifaseinu.” Elsewhere, the Midrash (Midrash Socher Tov, 141) adds that the offering of Ketores is achieved today through the recitation of the Parsha.
The segulah for Ketores is multi-fold: The Zohar (Vayechi) explains that if there is a plague in a town, the community should get together in the Shul and recite Pitum HaKetores with intensity in order to stop the plague. This is similar to the way Aharon HaKohein stopped the plague by holding a burning Ketores pan between the Meisim and the living.
The Kol Bo (41) notes that saying Pitum HaKetores brings wealth to a person. This is consistent with the Gemara (Yoma 26a) which notes that the opportunity to offer Ketores was bestowed on a Kohein once in his life in order to share the wealth. The Noda B’Yehuda (Kama, O.C. 10) adds that the reason we say Ein K’Elokeinu before the recitation of Ketores as opposed to before other Korbanos is so that one who offers this segulah for wealth recognize that the goal of wealth and the source of it is Hashem. In fact, there is a well established custom (Chida’s Machzik Beracha O.C. 48:2) to recite the Ketores after Havdalah as one prepares for the upcoming work week so it will be blessed.
It has become popular to have a Parshas HaKetores written on parchment in order to recite the Ketores. This practice is based on the Sefer Seder HaYom (p. 15) and is quoted by the Chavos Yair (Mekor Chaim, 132). It should be noted that Rav Ovadiah Yosef ztl. (Yabia Omer IX:Y.D. 23) was opposed to the practice of writing parchments for this purpose as the Beis Yosef was opposed to writing random Pesukim on random parchments. He adds that if one wants to read the Parsha on a Klaf written by an Ashkenazi (not bound to the Psak of the Beis Yosef) then it would be ok since the Ashkenazi would be relying on the Psak of the Rif in this matter.
Rema (O.C. 132:2) cautions Ashkenazim to be extra careful to recite the Parsha of the Ketores from a Siddur lest he forget a letter which could have disastrous effects (See Kerisos 6a). This is why Ashkenazim do not recite Ketores every day as they are always rushing to work and might skip some of the steps (See Rav Yaakov Emden’s Siddur).
It should be noted that the Mishna Berurah (132:17) does not accept this explanation and strongly urges people to recite Pitum HaKetores daily and carefully.