An established fast day, like the Temple incense, serves as an atonement for the people of Israel, and the Gemara teaches that if the incense is missing a single ingredient – even the unpleasant smelling helbina – it is invalid. This is the source for the tradition to open Kol Nidrei – the Yom Kippur prayer service – with a specific request to include sinners among the members of the prayer community.
As we learned on yesterday’s daf (=page), the preparation of the Temple anointing oil was a specialized responsibility and it was prohibited to prepare for mundane purposes. According to Rabbi Yohanan, although the ingredients for the oil are spelled out in the Torah (see Shemot 30:22-23), nevertheless there were others – eleven in total – that were taught to Moshe directly. The Gemara discusses how this was derived, and why it was necessary to spell some of the ingredients out clearly in the Torah. With regard to helbina, the Gemara explains that since it had an unpleasant smell, if the Torah had not specifically included it, we would have thought that it would be inappropriate to include.
Helbina is a resin that is prepared from plants from the ferula genus of the Apiaceae family, and, in particular from ferula galbaniflua, which grows in Syria and in its northern regions. This resin is often used for medicinal purposes. It has an unpleasant smell, but still is a central ingredient in preparing the Temple incense as well as the anointing oil. When mixed with other, sweet smelling plants, the helbina serves to highlight certain other smells, or creates a pleasant odor as part of the mixture.
The Gemara continues:
Said Rav Hana bar Bizna in the name of Rabbi Shimon Hasida a fast in which none of the sinners of Israel participate is no fast; for behold the odor of helbina is unpleasant and yet it was included among the spices for the incense. Abayyesays: ‘We learn this from the text: And hath founded his vault upon the earth (Amos 4:6).