Between the Judean desert and the Dead Sea, at the lowest and one of the most arid spots on earth, is a tropical oasis with flowing streams and great canyons, beautiful waterfalls and clear pools. This is Ein-Gedi, famous for its beauty and for the huge, delicious dates that grow there. In ancient times, however, Ein-Gedi was most famous for the persimmon — the perfume extracted from the balsam plant. [1]

The balsam plant is a spice known in biblical and Talmudic literature by various names. The term afarsemon (persimmon) which appears frequently in the Talmud and Midrash, designates the perfume extracted from the resin of the balsam plant (a thorn bush with trifoliate leaves, belonging to the genus Commiphora opobaalsamum.) When the bark of the lower part of the balsam trunk was split, the resin which oozed out was soaked up in cotton wool, and then squeezed into oil which absorbed the pungent odor.[2] A lthough rarely used any longer as a perfume, the plant is still used in the Orient as a healing agent for wounds and as an antidote to snakebites and scorpion stings.

In the Bible the plant is referred to as bosem. Although bosem signifies spices and perfumes of all kinds in the Bible, in the verses from Song of Songs, “I have gathered my myrrh with my bosem” (5:1) and “the beds of bosem” (5:13. 6:2), the reference is to balsam alone. (In modern Hebrew bosem is the word for perfume)

High praise was lavished on balsam oil in rabbinic literature as well as by Greek and Roman writers. Natural historian Pliny relates that in their struggle against the Romans, the Jews tried to uproot the balsam orchards, to prevent their falling into Roman hands. The Romans, however, captured them, and Titus, in his triumphal march in Rome, displayed the balsam branches he had brought from Judea. The orchards in Ein-Gedi (and Jericho) henceforth provided the Romans with an important source of revenue.[3] (It is related that Mark

Anthony, wishing to prove his love and generosity to his mistress Cleopatra, presented her with the orchards of Ein-Gedi and the Jericho Valley.)

The balsam is described in the Talmud as the best and most expensive spice of ancient times. The Babylonian amora, (scholar) Rav composed a special blessing for balsam oil: “Blessed art You..... who creates the oil of our land.”[4]

The Midrash describes its pungent odor as one of the methods used by “sinful daughters of Zion” to entice lovers: “She would place the balsam between her heel and her shoe and when she saw a band of young men, she pressed upon it so that the perfume seeped through them like snake poison.”[5] The rabbis also taught that in messianic times, the righteous will “bathe in thirteen rivers of balsam.[6]

One can still observe remains of the terraces in the hills of Ein-Gedi, where balsam trees once grew, and visit excavations of a workshop complete with its ovens and vessels. Strains of the balsam tree may still be found today in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Somalia.

[1] The most ancient remnants discovered in Ein-Gedi date back to 4000 BCE. At that time, a temple was built there on top of a cliff facing the Dead Sea, far away from any known settlement. The Hasmonean kings developed Ein-Gedi extensively, turning it into a central city and the king’s home. After the Romans squashed the Jewish rebellion, the settlement was rebuilt and once again thrived. In the Byzantine period the Jews who resided there built a grand synagogue which operated between the fourth and sixth centuries CE. During the Roman-Byzantine period Ein-Gedi was described as a very large Jewish village, famous for its fine dates and rare spices. [back]
[2] The German botanist Schweinfurth conducted investigations in the Arabian Peninsula, where he succeeded in reconstructing the process of balsam production. [back]
[3] Historia Naturalis 12:25. [back]
[4] BT Berakhot 43a. [back]
[5] Lam. R. 4:18. [back]
[6] JT, Av. Ar. 3:1, 42c). [back]



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