The Ancient Healing Plant the Balm of Gilead in Judea and the Bible
The Balm of Gilead is one of the precious ingredients in our Origin Oil Pack.
The Bible refers to the transport and trade of balm (tzori) in the time of the Patriarchs, about 1850–1550 BCE. Joseph was sold by his brothers to a caravan of Ishmaelites carrying balm and other spices down to Egypt (Genesis 37:25).
Balm of Gilead was one of the several components of the special incense that was used twice daily in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Rabbi Shimon Ben-Gamliel said that the balm of Gilead is the resin that exudes from the trees of kataf (ph; Yoma 41:74 Jerusalem Talmud). The identiﬁcation of the balm of Gilead with the Hebrew names Apharsemon, kataf, nataf, and tzori Gilead can be traced to several sages, including Shimon Ben-Gamliel, Rambam (Maimonides), Saadia Gaon, and the modern biblical botanist Yehuda Feliks. The identiﬁcation of these Hebrew names with the botanical classiﬁcation of Forsskal and Linnaeus was done by Zohary (1982).
Facilities for the manufacture of perfumed oils, presumably balm of Gilead cultivated at the site, were discovered in the Dead Sea oasis of Ein Gedi at Tel Goren, dating to the late seventh and early sixth centuries BCE. The excavators believed that during the reigns of King Josiah and his successors, the oasis was a royal estate, and kings were anointed with apharsemon from the time of Josiah’s reign (Mazar et al. 1966). The existence of gatherers of apharsemon at the time of the destruction of the First Temple is recorded in the Book of Jeremiah (52:16), where it is stated that Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard, left the poorest Jews to be vinedressers (kormim). In the Talmud, Rabbi Joseph says that the kormim were actually gatherers of the balm of Gilead from Ein Gedi to Ramah (Tractate Shabbath 26, 71 Talmud).
Commiphora gileadensis is the Latin name of the balm of Gilead plant that the Queen of Sheba brought to King Solomon (Chronicles II 9:9) and that was domesticated in the Dead Sea Basin.
As discussed by Ben-Yehoshua and Rosen (2009), it appears that the balm of Gilead that grew in Judea was a new variant or cultivar, much improved over its original ancestor. We believe that this ancestor, C. gileadensis opobalsamum, from Yemen, had been naturalized in Judea and became the balm of Gilead after over 1,000 years of cultivation around the Dead Sea by a special guild of farmers who aimed at achieving the best yield of the speciﬁc products they had derived from this plant: incense, perfume, and speciﬁc medicinal drugs.
These Commiphora plants introduced from the Arabian desert were domesticated and con-tinuously improved over about 1,000 years in the Dead Sea Basin, to become the true balm of Gilead. This plant was a unique cultivar, not found in other places, as already suggested by several Greek and Roman experts in this subject (Ben-Yehoshua and Rosen 2009). Although the ancient balm of Gilead may be an improved cultivar of the tree identiﬁed by Forsskal, we suggest that all these plants—those identiﬁed by Forsskal in Yemen as well as the ancient plants grown in Judea—be referred to as balm of Gilead.
Relevant contradicting opinion in this respect was given by Groom (1981). He said that the ‘‘Balm of Gilead of classical times was a very different product than the Arabian tree, that had quite different qualities, and that the Commiphora grew only in southern Arabia, Somaliland, and parts of Ethiopia.’’ However, Groom ignored the gift of various spice plants from the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon that introduced the balm of Gilead to Judea. Although the timing of her visit to the Kingdom of Israel is controversial, the rationale for the visit of a queen of a kingdom that sells spices to a country that has just established a new temple, which needs large quantities of spices for routine rituals, cannot be disputed.
The ancient product was a special fragrant resin that exuded from the branches after cutting and was processed into various products: incense, perfume, and different medical drugs. This resin was the most expensive agricultural product, with a price twice its weight in gold during the Middle Ages and twice its weight in silver during the Roman period. Documents show that the balm of Gilead plants were guarded in order to prevent theft. (photo)
Pliny describes just how expensive this rare spice was in classical times: ‘‘In no commodity are there practiced more palpable frauds than in the marketing of this resin, for a sextarius (equaling about 20 ﬂuid ounces or half a liter) of balm of Gilead which is sold by the ﬁscal authorities at 300 dinars (denarii), is sold again for a thousand, so vast is the proﬁt to be derived from increasing this liquid by sophistication. The price of xylobalsam is six dinars per pound’’ (Book 12, Chapter 34). In other words, a sextarius of balm of Gilead sold at the source for the equivalent of nearly the yearly wages of one laborer in the early Roman period and later sold for over three times that amount. Even the wood cuttings of the plant (xylobalsam) were coveted and sold for the price of six days’ wages. Oil of Balm of Gilead was considered to be the most valuable oil used for medicinal purposes. Strabo refers to it as a remedy for headaches, cataracts, and dimness of sight (Jones 1924). Pliny lists 15 different ailments that could be cured with balm of Gilead oil (Book 12, Chapter 54).
Its other unique feature was the fact that it was cultivated around the Dead Sea Basin in Judea, and not grown wild, unlike the other spices derived from myrrh and olibanum. This new plant producing balm of Gilead may be considered as a Judean-developed substitute for the classical spices, myrrh and frankincense, which were expensive imports from Sheba. Regardless of the cost of these spices, the Children of Israel were commanded in the Bible to use these spices and many others (e.g., Exodus 30, 34; Leviticus 2, 1 and 24, 7). Thus, the gift of the spice plants by the Queen of Sheba gave King Solomon the opportunity to try growing his own spices. This ability became especially important with his establishment of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, replacing the old and much more humble tabernacle located at Shilo. The ritual ceremonies and animal sacriﬁces in the temple demanded a much larger supply of deodorant, incense, and preservatives of animal meat from rapid spoil-age (Ben-Yehoshua and Rosen 2009). It made sense for Solomon to grow these plants, rather than import their products, and to establish their cultivation around the Dead Sea Basin in a climate as similar as possible to their original one.
Frankincense, Myrrh, and Balm of Gilead: Ancient Spices of Southern Arabia and Judea Shimshon Ben-Yehoshua