On Balsam PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
Perfume from the balsam shrub (commiphora opobalsamum Foureau) made Ein Gedi and Jericho famous throughout the ancient world. Its effect was fabulous. The Rabbinical Midrash to the Book of Lamentations, for example, tells how the "sinful daughters of Zion" would use balsam: "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." (Lamentations Rabbah 4:18).

Pliny the Elder mentions the enormous prices balsam fetched in the ancient world. During the first Jewish revolt against Rome, he wrote in his Natural History, the Jews attempted to destroy the balsam plantations in Jericho, rather than let them fall into Roman hands. Battles raged over every shrub. The Romans won the day, and Titus displayed some balsam shrubs in his triumphal procession in Rome (Pliny 12: 111-113).

The word balsam, used in Greek and Latin texts, derives from the Hebrew bosem. The latter meant any fragrant spice at first, but its use became narrowed to the powerful perfume, "the most expensive of local products," according to Josephus' (War (4:469). In translations of the Song of Songs, bosem is sometimes rendered as "perfume," but the context indicates that a particular plant is meant. The New American Standard Bible translates the word accurately here:

I have come into my garden, my sister, my bride;
 I have gathered my myrrh along with my balsam." (Song 5:1)

"His cheeks are like a bed of balsam,
          Banks of sweet-scented herbs;
          His lips are lilies
          Dripping with liquid myrrh." (Song 5:13) 

The shrub is not native to the land and no longer exists here. It originated, and is still to be found, in southern Arabia and east Africa. Like the acacia, jujube, Sodom apple, moringa, and more, it migrated in antiquity up the Syro-African rift valley, brought perhaps not in the usual way - in the bowels of  birds - but rather as a gift to Solomon by the Queen of Sheba. (So Josephus wrote in Antiquities VIII, vi, 6.)