What does “virus” really mean? A pandemic etymology

The etymology of virus has gone viral

According to the Internet god of all things virtually true, the word virus comes from the Latin root meaning “snake’s venom.”

From “The Fig Tree”

This viral etymology is repeated in one form or another on all the major sites about words –  wiktionary, dictionary, wordorigins, merriam-webster, etymonline, oxfordlearnersdictionaries. 

They’re all cribbing from the mother of all English dictionaries, the Oxford English Dictionary.

Virus: [L(atin) ‘slimy liquid, poison…] 1. venom such as emitted by a poisonous animal.”

It makes perfect sense as far as it goes. Viruses are sorta poison-spewing evil little animalcules, right? But all these free online sources are, like most thieves, lazy and simply repeat each other’s smash and grab larceny of the OED. No one owns words, but discovering their origins and sources is hard work. See “The Professor and the Madman” (2019). It’s free on Netflix. Thieves like free, right?

If we dig a little deeper – perform a more serious archeology on virus using the OED as our guide – we uncover in its sinuous history a message for our current coronavirus pandemic.

Virus and virtue

The second definition of virus in the OED is “path,” also deriving from the Latin. What’s the connection? It’s probably not the toxicity of snakes but a deeper shared origin having to do with their shape. A snake is shaped like a curvy path.

Sure enough,  if we wend our way next door to virus‘s neighbor word virtue, we see another clue: the original root of ‘virtue’ is vir, a Latin root for ‘man’. In ancient Rome, virtus meant courage on the field of battle. Virtue was inherently virile, masculine. Julius Caesar in Book I of The Gallic Wars, his macho historical narrative, advises that we should

Rely more on virtue than on artifice and stratagem.

But if you’re a logomaniac like me, you’re not content with a mere 2000-year-old source. You want to dig deeper beneath the Roman ruins to find the oldest possible origin. Where did that word come from? Why do those three letters come to mean something as elemental as ‘maleness’? [1]

So strip away yet another layer and you discover vir comes from an even earlier root, probably Hindo-Sanskrit or early Greek, for stick, twig, or rod. That’s the fundamental root connection: rod is a phallus or vice versa, and thus manly virtues like virility carry genital freight. The Latin word virga preserve this root: it also means rod. I will leave it to your imagination how it penetrated to the concept of virginity.

At the very root of language?

What etymologists fantasize about is traveling back in time to eavesdrop on the first burbling articulation by the first genius hominid who first invented the word they’re studying. Maybe – and this is a real fantasy – vir was the very first word, there at the aboriginal creation of language, of wording itself, where sounds came to represent and signify external things instead of only verbalizing hominid reactions to transitory events or warnings or coded warblings or states of existence.

So imagine with me a linguistic Adam and Eve alone in their grove. Fueled by the urgency of desire, a sound erupts from one or the other of them and she (or he) points at what they both want,

“Vir!” he (or she) said, nodding at it, and they look down and they smile in a flash of telepathy, for it was obvious that they agree this was a capital way to indicate that thing.

“Vir,” the other repeats, and “vir,” they would coo to each other from now henceforth, forever after referring to it in the kind of fond secret vocabulary that couples everywhere invent, pillow talk.

But somehow the secret gets out and catches on. Someone eavesdropped, the snake perhaps, and it spread, this viral app of pointing with sound, especially this happy signifying meme. Folks apply the sound pointer nimbly to other things like stick and rod, and eventually, surely by the time of the Latins, to snake. We’ve made the same slangy sling of meaning. Shlong comes from the German word for “snake,” to take only one of hundreds of examples.

The essence of virus 

Language isn’t a computer code but a stew. Dictionaries shouldn’t be lists of algorithms any more than cookbooks are chemistry manuals. As the pot of culture simmers, convenience, contingency, inspiration, necessity and even humor throw in new ingredients and flavors. A good chef would never follow a recipe slavishly.

Dictionaries, however, are by definition definitive, making pronouncements on fluid meanings as if they’re fixed. We can see how the conflation between venom and virus creeps in. It’s not really an error, but a cluster of images and metaphors that crowd and seep – I might say infect – each other. A snake emits venom like the penis spews semen. A vir is the source of fluid essence, it is seminal. This is how we get to virus.

Snake down the path to yet another neighboring word in the Oxford English Dictionary, virtue, and the hidden route to virus appears.

OED’s very first definition of “virtue” is

the power or operative influence inherent in a supernatural god or being

Virtual means “to be possessed of the power to influence, to have the potential to affect.” Caesar’s exemplary man influences us to manliness by his valor. Divinity influences us to virtue metaphysically.

From here it is now one more small step to that other kind of invisible influenza, organic virus and virulence. The very word flu is a contraction of influenza. We now know that a microscopic pocket of weaponized genetic material causes flu pandemic. It sits astride the limbo between living and not, helping all-too-many souls to cross it, ubiquitous but invisible like G-d Himself. Through most of history, to most humans, it must have seemed metaphysical.

Pandemic as transcendental flu

Millions of words have already been written about the terrible virtues of this virus, how nature or the divine is exerting its superior influence over human affairs through the invisible Covid-19 flu pandemic, correcting our hubris, changing civilization in the blink of an eye, forcing us to inspect and re-evaluate assumptions about work, play, family, love, even self. Even if you cannot be persuaded that this – or anything else – has metaphysical origins, you have to admit the coronavirus pandemic is doing a good imitation of what a metaphysical being would do: making us consider the meaning of virtue as if we had indeed lost our path.

NOTE:  This is an extension of the etymology of virtual  that I wrote a few years ago: Almost Really Real: How the word “virtual” deconstructed itself and what its curious etymology tells us about the future of virtual reality and truthiness


A couple of small questions about science and religion: Is a Cosmic Consciousness Involved Every Time an Egg is Fertilized? Can science and religion fertilize each other?

“A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton,” – Charles Darwin on God
 “We should not immediately refute any idea which comes to contradict anything in the Torah, but rather we should build the palace of Torah above it.” – Rav Avraham Yitzchok Kook, the first chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Palestine

Moment of fertilazation
“Moment of fertilization,” from 123rf.com

The fertilization tango

When does human life begin? Are there divine implications in the process? Before you make up your mind, how much do you know about what really happens when an egg is fertilized? It’s almost beyond belief in its complexity and mystery. When we delve it, right down to the part that gets mysterious, it invokes a metaphysical explanation.

Continue reading “A couple of small questions about science and religion: Is a Cosmic Consciousness Involved Every Time an Egg is Fertilized? Can science and religion fertilize each other?”

The Two Floods, Double Rainbows, and the Cosmic Limitations of Engineering

On double rainbows in Noah

A few years ago, my daughter showed me a viral video of a stoned guy blissing out on a double rainbow in Yosemite. “It’s … it’s a double rainbow!” He moans. “Oh my G-d, oh my G-d,” he repeats over and over, “It’s so bright.  Ohhhh, it’s so beautiful!” He breaks down in full-on sobbing, crying in a seizure of ecstasy. “What does it mean?” he asks, his mind blown.

I’m not sure, dude. But one thing you missed in your rapture is a curious phenomenon: look carefully and you can see that the colors of the second rainbow invert the usual order: VIBGYOR.

Double Rainbow
“Double Rainbow” by SlimJones123

As early as 1520 or so, the Jewish sage Sforno[i] noted that even by his time, the double rainbow was already a cliché.

“Scientists have already tired of trying to explain why the various colors of the second rainbow appear in the opposite order of the colors in the original rainbow.”[ii]

Nonetheless, he uses it to explain the rainbow following Noah’s flood. Since the ordinary rainbow already existed at the time of Creation, Sforno reasons, the actual rainbow displayed after the Flood must be this second rainbow, a much rarer and more startling sight (as our ecstatic friend saw in Yosemite). The reverse order of the colors are a warning:

 “When this rainbow appears it is high time to call people to order and to warn them of impending natural calamities unless they change their ways.”[iii]

Sforno’s insight made me think of another secret duality in Noah: there’s really not one but two floods in this weekly reading. I believe they’re connected. Continue reading “The Two Floods, Double Rainbows, and the Cosmic Limitations of Engineering”

Pinchas: A five-act play about Jewish legacy

Dedicated for SHABBAT PINCHAS 2779 to my father-in-law, Philip Oliver Richardson, Z”L”

At first glance, Pinchas, like so many other weekly portions of the Torah, looks like a set of disparate pieces, thrown together with no particular logic. Some are boilerplate, others cinematically compelling. G-d rewards a zealot for a terrible act of violence and launches a war, but instead of taking us to the battle scene (the next week picks it up in Matot-Massei), a long, repetitive census interrupts the action. Five daughters provoke a revision in law and Moses dramatically transfers his power to Joshua, but a boring account of sacrifices deflate the end.

On closer inspection, though, Pinchas is a wonderfully coherent five-act play. Its hero isn’t a person but an idea, a revolutionary new concept of how a nation will transfer its legacy from one generation to another. In fact, at the risk of mixing metaphors, once we untangle (and then put back together) the threads, layers, cross-references, and perspectives on Israel’s legacy,  a complex shimmering 3D tapestry – a hologram[1] in which every part resonates with every other and every jot signifies the whole – comes into view. Continue reading “Pinchas: A five-act play about Jewish legacy”

“The Mystery of Mysteries” Part 1: The stubbornness of the mule problem in Darwinian science and Jewish cosmology.

This is Part 1 of a three-part series about the mule, the hybrid problem in science, and ways in which Darwinism and the Jewish Bible illuminate each other. You can find the other parts here:

“Evolutionary theory coincides with the lofty doctrines of Kabbalah more than any other philosophical doctrine.” – R. Avraham I. Kook (1921)1
“[We may bring proof] from natural scientists for it is permissible to learn from them, for God’s spirit speaks through them. ” – R. Israel Lifschitz (1842)2
” [Man cannot] search too far or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works; divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavour an endless progress or proficience in both.” – Francis Bacon, Advancement of Learning, (1605) quoted as an epigraph to Darwin’s Origin of the Species
““The modern synthesis is remarkably good at modeling the survival of the fittest, but not good at modeling the arrival of the fittest.”3

Torah and Darwin share a mule problem. Continue reading ““The Mystery of Mysteries” Part 1: The stubbornness of the mule problem in Darwinian science and Jewish cosmology.”

The Quantum Theology of Cheese

Abrtaham + 3 Angels eeckhout 1656
Abraham and the Three Angels”  Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (1656)
“[Abraham] then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree.”
– Genesis 18:8

Consider the miracle and mystery of cheese. You take milk. You combine it with the sloughed-off lining of the stomach of a calf called rennet. Store it away and in a few days or weeks and voila! We got cheese!

Neolithic tribes worshiped cheese. Since then, cheese has been intimately entwined with civilization. But for Jews, cheese poses a special problem. The Torah forbids Jews to cook the meat of the kid with the milk of the mother, possibly because of its intrinsic cruelty. In the mystical tradition, milk represents mother’s nurturing and it comes from sheep and cows and goats, animals we domesticate and nurture. Meat requires spilling blood. It is predatory and reminds us of our bestial natures. Milk, then, needs to be protected from meat. They should never touch, and when they have to interact, Jews erect barriers in time and space to separate them. Over the centuries, this has evolved into an elaborate system of kosher rules separating all meat foods from anything that has touched milk. So while serving our body’s need for sustenance by eating milk and meat, kosher laws remind us of the sources of our food. We discipline our cognizance and actions in eating them at separate times off of separate dishes and cooking them in separate pots. Kosher eating is mindful eating.

With all this invested in the barrier between the two realms, then how is it possible that cheese, made with lining from a cow’s stomach, somehow gets an exemption?  The sages of the Talmud give us what seems like a technical reason, but as Aeschylus said, “Wrong should not get by on a technicality.” If we look closely though, we’ll see that the technicality anticipates discoveries only recently made by science. The details of their apparent foreknowledge suggests that the Torah is a channel for knowing things that are only slowly revealed over the millenia by science. To put it more simply, though as a rational modern I resist this conclusion, it seems science is catching up to wisdom revealed thousands of years ago to the Jews. To see that this is more than just a coincidence and the Talmud’s technicalities reveal a true understanding of the science of cheese, we’ll have to dip into we’ve learned more recently about the science behind the magic of cheese. Continue reading “The Quantum Theology of Cheese”

Telepathy: A personal note

These demure humming boxes contained the densest working out, the highest tide of everything that collective ingenuity had yet learned to pull off. It housed the race’s deepest taboo dream, the thing humanity was trying to turn itself into.

Richard Price, Plowing the Dark

Here are the four questions that the concept of telepathy helps me answer:

1. Where we are: Our desire for telepathy tells us what we are turning ourselves into: truly intersubjective beings, transmitting pure thought, sensation, and experience to each other instantaneously, without mediation or translation. Artificial intelligence, virtual reality, creating artificial humans, finding alien life, colonizing other planets. Telepathy. These are the science fiction dreams that actually seem to propel billion or trillion dollar worldwide industries. But all of them seem to lie just out of reach, beckoning us. We’re always so close. We’re always not quite there, like Zeno’s Paradox, closing the gap but never reaching our target. Seeing all communication as telepathy tells us something about what it means to be human, maybe a little about what it means to be a living thing at all. My dog is barking, the bees are dancing, the trees are reading each other’s chemical minds. To be alive seems to be to aspire to telepathy.

Jellyfish at the Monterey Aquarium, 2006

2. What happened? If we use the dream of telepathy as a lens to look back, it helps us understand our history. Older communications technologies – the alphabet, printing press, radio, TV, and the Internet, were revolutions in telepathy, coming with increasing speed through the centuries and now decades, driving us to this ideal: getting experience and thought to pass from mind to mind. Each came with new hopes, new ways of interacting and defining ourselves, and new gods.

3. What comes next? This trajectory helps us map what will come next: Technologically Mediated Telepathy (TMT), or  brain-to-brain experiences through the computer, aided by AI.

4. How to really read: This is minor but it is dear to my heart as an old literature professor: Telepathy implies a way of reading. Reading telepathically means really trying to find out what the author is thinking and intending before finding confirmation of my own bias or theory in the text. They should teach it in every literature class: how to read beyond ideology. Reading is an act of intimacy between the author and me. It comes with a certain responsibility that accompanies all acts of conjugation. I submit to entering and being possessed by another’s mind. When a writer sits down to write in good faith, even the most profane, they are writing a form of liturgy. And I should try to read faithfully, in good faith, like a prayer, beyond prejudice. Every time we try to make ourselves understood or try to understand another, there is a divine hope.


About Me:

I’m the author of The Soft Machine: Cybernetic Fiction (Methuen/Routledge), Rope Dances (short stories, The Fiction Collective); A Short Guide to Writing About Science, (HarperCollins & Pearson) and other books, as well as reviews, essays, blogs, fiction, plays, and articles. For 21 years, I was a professor of literature and media at William & Mary and then at Rensselaer. I am also the former CEO, co-founder and executive of several e-learning companies and programs at universities, non-profits and the private sector.

Inspired by the launch of the World Wide Web with the Mosaic browser, I originally explored versions of this material during a sabbatical year as a Fulbright scholar at the Technion in Israel (1993-94). I indulgently took it up with a doctoral class in literature at Rensselaer in 1994. I am indebted to them for their skepticism and indulgence of these “porushian studies,” as they mockingly called my rants, and with good reason. Though wisdom be eternal, cleverness is fleeting, and probably narcissistic.

I published a short version of the larger project appeared here in Mots Pluriels, an Australian journal. Some of it showed up in bits and pieces in numerous dense publications (e.g. “Hacking the Brainstem: Postmodern Metaphysics and Stephenson’s Snow Crash” in Configurations, a Johns Hopkins University journal.) I am most recently grateful to Jason Silva who both resurrected my work and my interest in it by meeting me in San Francisco and then mentioning it in one of his ecstatic video posts “The Urge to Merge.”

I thank my many Talmud teachers and classmates past and present, who often served as the first, suffering audiences, saved me from much foolishness, and have immeasurably enriched my life and thinking. I am especially grateful to my wife, Sally, for her deep and abiding forbearance, to my children, and to my granddaughters for gazing into my eyes for long minutes, even as babies, with questions I can’t answer.

I am inviting you to get lost in this labyrinth, dear telepath, and if you have the time, like a fellow spider in this web, drop me a sticky line at dporush@yahoo.com.

Almost Really Real: How the word “virtual” deconstructed itself and what its curious etymology tells us about the future of virtual reality and truthiness   

Chasing virtual reality, what we used to call cyberspace, has spawned a multi-trillion dollar worldwide industry, which makes it a pretty sexy phrase, right? But do we really know what we mean when we use it? In normal conversation today, when we say something is virtually true we’re saying something like,

“It’s just about almost perfectly completely and for all intents and purposes as effectively true as truth … but not essentially, really true.” 

And when we call it virtual reality, we mean a technology meant to fool you into thinking you’re experiencing something you’re not. We’re saying it is “almost really” real, or virtually real – a beautiful oxymoron, and more or less accurate, depending on how cool your hookup gear and the simulations inside are. 

Since we’ve made a trillion-dollar bet on it, wouldn’t it be valuable to know what we mean when we use it? What deep human urge does it promise to fulfill? What itch is it scratching? Perhaps, armed with that deeper understanding, we may even be able to predict where it’s going. I think we can do that by looking at the curious history of the word virtual itself.  Continue reading “Almost Really Real: How the word “virtual” deconstructed itself and what its curious etymology tells us about the future of virtual reality and truthiness   “

Entanglement, Chesed, and the Quantum Theology of Incense

Screen Shot 2016-03-06 at 10.06.38 PM

Every Sabbath, Jews recite a curious prayer, a recipe taken from the Talmud (Kereisos 6b) for a kind of incense that was used in the Temple. It required eleven ingredients in specific measures, including “galbanum,” a terpentine-smelling extract of gum plants, and “Carshina lye,” which is toxic. It sounds altogether foul (although if you knew the ingredients of the most expensive perfumes out of Paris, you’d turn up your nose, too). Furthermore, the mixture was so sacred, if a priest violated the formula by one jot, he could be put to death. In fact, one of the most mysterious passages in the Bible is the only recorded instance of the punishment: Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu, (Lev 10:1-2), get it wrong, even though their intention seemed to be zealous, and G-d takes their souls by fire instead of the incense.

Why is incense such a closely guarded bit of esoterica that it accounts for one of the most confounding events in Scripture and we recite its formula 3000 years later, even in the absence of the Temple, for fear we’ll forget it? What is so precious and dangerous that it has to be guarded by the threat of capital punishment? Does it harbor some key to the nature of the connection between the physical and metaphysical?

The esoteric formula is insistently technical, earthy, materialistic and sensory but it has spiritual consequences. Together the eleven substances produce a divine smell, the incense is the last most mystical offering of all, and the spreading of smoky incense comes at the climax of the service.

This extreme contrast between technicality and spirituality begs for closer inspection. Is there more than materialistic, sensory explanations for the stagecraft of incense? Why is it such a closely guarded bit of esoterica? Is it possible the ritual harbors some key to the nature of the connection between the physical and metaphysical that is so precious and dangerous it is guarded by the threat of capital punishment, we recite the formula 3000 years later even in the absence of the Temple for fear we’ll forget it, and it accounts for one of the most confounding events in Scripture?

Kabbalists connect ketores to the kabbalistic aspect (sefira) of G-d called chesed, usually translated as “kindness,” but meaning much more. [1] The ketores produces a transformative scent. It influences all who smell it. Of all the senses, and of all the kinds of worship – singing, praying, hearing – smell lingers and suffuses. It creates and alters the ecology of a room. Sharing a scent in the air binds people together and it’s the most memorable. The kabbalistic analogy is clear: like acts of kindness, ketores emanates and spreads throughout the congregation and out into the world in unforeseen ways. It binds humanity together and elevates them, entangling their consciousness with each other and the metaphysical. In what follows, I will suggest the incense experience is related to newly-discovered aspects of nature, specifically quantum entanglement, and this relationship not merely metaphorically, but in substantive physics. Ok, that’s weird. Let me try to explain.

Quantum Biology Breaches the Walls Between Reality and Consciousness

For the last century, most physicists treated the troubling and enigmatic implications of quantum mechanics as something to be banished to the realms of philosophy and metaphysics. Physics still largely quarantines the absurdity of subatomic shenanigans from the observable macroscopic world we live in by claiming the two realities are unconnected. The world we experience continues to behave in an orderly, Newtonian, commonsensical fashion. Things don’t change each other by magic. Stuff can’t be in two places at once and no where at all. And most important, reality is there whether someone’s looking at it or not. But quantum mechanics put the nose of the camel of consciousness into the tent of scientific cosmology: a conscious observer had to watch events in order to make them real.

In the last decades, this quarantine has become increasingly difficult to maintain. Experiments in the 1960s through 1980s s that two objects separated by any conceivable  connection, even at other ends of the universe, are entangled and somehow affect each other instantaneously. Science itself has stormed its own articles of faith with experimental results that show consciousness, human or at least intelligent consciousness, is implicated in making reality. Until recently, the last of these walls, between the macroscopic and the sub-atomic, held. What happened down there didn’t affect what happened up here in real reality.   Still, physics had a whole armory of ways to wall off these disturbing phenomena from commonsense reality. saying that when the quantum world interacted with a macroscopic phenomenon, that macroscopic entity “observed” the probabilistic quantum, collapsing it into a stable realism. Its formal name is “Decoherence.”

But in the last ten years, quantum biology has shown that behaviors in our familiar world of nature are directly connected to and reliant on quantum processes. The orientation of migrating birds. The operation of genes. Photosynthesis. The comfortable quarantine that has kept our sense of reality simple and free from philosophy and metaphysics has now collapsed. And that collapse is utter and complete. It can’t be confined, because it is now likely to be shown that the whole universe interacts at all levels with quantum weirdness.

Entanglement suggests the cosmos is interactive

One of those quantum phenomena that is impossible to ignore at the macroscopic level is entanglement: spooky coordination between the behavior of objects that have no material, physical or any other possible connection either invisible or theoretical. Even objects – photons – that are traveling apart at the speed of light or are separated by vast distances instantaneously coordinate their reality. When one is tickled, its entangled twin across the universe laughs.

Perhaps we can get comfortable with the way this betrays our commonsense notions of reality for photons, because they are weird little buggers to begin with, both wave and particle, expressions of a probability formula that ineluctably shows they don’t even really exist in any proper sense of the word until they are observed.  But entanglement isn’t confined to photons and other sub-atomic particles. As two physicists explain in a recent book:

“We talk in terms of twin-state photons because that situation is readily described and subject to experiment. In principle, however, any two objects that have ever interacted are forever entangled. The behavior of one instantaneously influences the other. An entanglement exists even if the interaction is through each of the objects having interacted with a third object. In principle, our world has a universal connectedness.
“Quantum entanglement for large objects [like chairs or people] is generally too complex to notice. But not always.”

Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner, QUANTUM ENIGMA: PHYSICS ENCOUNTERS CONSCIOUSNESS (Oxford UP, 2006)

This wasn’t written by tripped-out tree-hugging hippies, but by two well-respected tenured physicists at UC  (admittedly, it is Santa Cruz, but nonetheless…). They chronicle how orthodox physics has suppressed these enigmatic but unavoidable conclusions of quantum mechanics. And the most disturbing of these enigmas is the relationship between human consciousness and the spookiness of the quantum level. Once things, including human things, interact with quantum weirdness they are entangled with it. And, by the way, everything in the universe interacts.

These aren’t just mystic metaphors  They are the serious and real consequences of quantum physics. They troubled Einstein and generations of physicists since, but experimental evidence shows they are incontrovertible.

The science that studies how quantum mechanics breaches the wall of classical biology is called quantum biology.  Birds navigate using quantum processing in their nervous system. In order for photosynthesis to convert sunlight into plant food at 90% + efficiency, it uses quantum mechanics. Enzymatic reactions transform one organic substance into another, like milk into cheese via rennet, or juice into wine via yeast, or flour and water into bread, also via yeast. Those enzymes also require quantum mechanics to achieve the speed of reactions needed to perform this magic. Many cultures recognize the transformation of these three foods as magical, spiritual, metaphysical, and even worship or at least pay tribute to them through rituals of sanctification. But Judaism hints at the complex intertwining of metaphysics of their physics (or organic chemistry), if we read it through the lens of the traditions and rituals attached to cheese, wine, and bread.

Another event that relies on quantum biology, and all the metaphysical implication it brings, is smell. [2]

I always wondered why ketores is recited after the end of the Musaf amidah. It seems like such an odd and specific intrusion in the climax of the service. But connecting the incense with chesed brings it all together. When we recite these technical instructions for making the incense as a prayer, we are reminded of the elaborate instructions for building the mishkan, the Sanctuary of the Temple, from which these verses are taken. We both remember and look forward to rebuilding it.

Ketores is designed to create the most beautiful, pungent, memorable, unique, and transporting scent, wafted on smoke to fill the Temple. We’re supposed to remember that Divine smell – or rehearse the rabbis’ memory of it  –  and also remember their pain at its loss. As Proust knew, no sense evokes memory more than smell. We are supposed to long for that smell as we long for the Temple, with the curious admixture of ache and inspiration, in the hope of the time when we can smell that smell again in the rebuilt Temple. This is an ultimate nostalgia, nostos algia, pain for home.

Metaphysics in the physics (and chemistry) of incense

The recipe for ketores specified in the Talmud, specifically the part of the formula that will produce an emanating smell is an enzymatic reaction produced by lye, which relies on quantum mechanics. Lye, which is highly alkaline, catalyses and binds all the other ingredients into an active, dynamic new compound that transcends the sum of its parts. The prayer about it specifies that urine could be substituted for lye to produce the same outcome, but it is undignified for use in the Temple. Chemically if not ritually, urine makes sense: it would introduce the same highly alkaline catalysis, depending on the diet of the donor. (At the risk of boring you, lye is produced by a membrane cell chloralkali process, which is itself also a quantum biological process.)

When we learn that ketores means chesed because it spreads out and connects all of us in unseen and ineffable ways, it is not just metaphorical. It is literally true at the level of physics.

The Quantum G- Hypothesis

From the viewpoint of orthodox science, the ultimate heretical implication of quantum mechanics is what we could call the “Quantum G-Hypothesis.”


The universe is sustained by an unimaginably dynamic and omniscient Universal Consciousness.

It (or properly, Who) observes every one of the infinite number of infinitesimal quantum events occurring everywhere in every sub-nanosecond.

This continuous observation by a Universal Consciousness enables reality to unfold. 

The Quantum G-Hypothesis actually does away with some fairly absurd and, so far, unprovable assertions. The Many Worlds Hypothesis, String Theory, A Universal Robot Consciousness; Decoherence; Random Collapses of the Wavefunction, and some other gyrations too technical to delve here. They seem more like contortions designed to preserve logic in the face of experimental and mathematical proofs that show logic’s limitations. These still dominate the way orthodox physics is taught today. I predict they will be short-lived. 

On the other hand, embracing the G-theory explains scientific mysteries without introducing any idea inconsistent with science. It explains the “Unreasonable Efficacy of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences,” as Eugene Wigner described it in his 1960 paper. It explains the otherwise unreasonably, inexplicable, and statistically far-fetched coincidence of constants in the universe that have enabled life to arise: Planck’s Constant, the strength of electromagnetic, gravity, and weak forces, among others. It solves philosophical problems, too. It explains how Free Will and Determinism can both exist without contradiction. And it explains how consciousness arises from matter.

At the same time, this vision – or scent – of a Quantum-Mechanical, Reality-Unfolding, All-Observing God moves in the opposite direction, from science to an appreciation of spiritual matters. It gives us a pretty good understanding of what Jewish mystics see in God: an Unfolding Ever-Present Consciousness observing every infinitesimal event in the universe, even at the ineffable and impossibly infinite quantum level.

Finally, it explains the inner meaning of incense. The ritual appears to be a symbol of the entire enterprise of the mishkan and Temple, to provide a place on Earth for G-d to abide. The sacrifices were offered in order to negotiate the boundary and open a portal between Earth and Heaven summoning G-d Himself to make a personal house call. The organic chemistry and quantum biology of incense suggest it was exemplary of, an avatar and instantiation of, an entangled process that goes on everywhere all the time in the universe between Divine attention and  ur experience of material reality.



[1] This blog was inspired by a Shabbat drash (2016), by R. Yitzchok Feldman of Emek Beracha in Palo Alto in which he expounded on the mitzvah of the incense used in the Temple.

[2] See Quantum mechanics may explain how humans smell,” PhysOrg (Nov 2007) 
Tim Folger, “How Quantum Mechanics Lets Us See, Smell and Touch,” Discover (Oct 23, 2018)