Monday, July 23, 2012
By Steven Plaut
Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
Why then has not the health of the daughter of my people been restored?
--- Jeremiah 8: 22
The Biblical Land of Israel was blessed with many things, but
nothing compared with the ancient liquid gold. It was an oil that was
commercially perhaps the most valuable natural resource of the
country. Ounce for ounce it was more valuable than gold. It is
called Tseri in the Bible, sometimes also Nataf or Kataf – although
these were evidently names for the plant and not the oil it produced,
usually translated as "balm." It is thought to have been a special
species of a persimmon bush that only grew in the Land of Israel,
although evidently not the sort that produces edible fruit. (The
common persimmon is not native to Israel, although now grows on farms
there.) The oil of Tseri was extracted by scratching the stems and
collecting the sap that seeped out.
The following is based largely on a special news feature that ran
July 20, 2012 in Makor Rishon in Hebrew. I am paraphrasing a lot from
that piece, and the contents below are NOT my own original research.
The fragrance of the Tseri was so intoxicating that it was the only
substance to merit its own special blessing. In the Talmud (Tractate
Brachot 43b) Rabbi Yehuda proposes a special blessing to be said when
someone smells Tseri, blessing The Creator of the Oil of our Land."
Leaves of the plant were used to prepare the Temple's incense. (The
oil itself was not, because the incense powder had to be dry.) There
are reports that the women of Jericho never used perfume because the
fragrance of the plant was so powerful that it would stick to them
when they simply walked about the streets (well, in the case of Rachav
in the Book of Joshua, perhaps when she WALKED the streets!). Goats
roaming near Jericho were said to break out into uncontrollable
sneezing when they got near the plant.
It was so valuable a commodity that part of the ambition of the
Romans in suppressing the Jewish revolts was to seize the groves of
Tseri. Josephus describes it as the most valuable of the products of
the land. The Roman historian Pliny claims that the Jews attempted to
deter the Romans from military aggression by burning these groves so
as to deny Roman access to the treasure. They evidently failed.
After suppressing the revolt, the Romans made a fortune in harvesting
the Tseri, and a branch of it is supposed to have been shown on the
famous (or infamous) Arch of Titus in Rome, although evidently no
longer visible today. The Latin scientific name for it is usually
given as Septuagint Rhetine and it may be similar to Balsamodendron
Opobalsamum (photos here:
In Biblical literature, Tseri is translated as "Balm," (some
translations in English call it mastic), often referred to as the Balm
of Gilad or Gilead. (Gilad is the territory east of the Jordan river,
the lower Golan Heights, which was an area of relative lawlessness in
the later Biblical era. The Prophet Elijah and the Judges Yair and
Yiftach came from there.) It is an area in which the Tseri evidently
thrived. The English word Balsam is derived from Balm, and evidently
is a corruption of Baal Shemen, or the master of the oil. "Balsam"
may also come from the words for "simply perfume." The word
"embalming" comes from "balm" and may refer to an early use of the
oil. The classical historians Pliny and Strabo make reference to it
growing in the Gilad region. It evidently also grew around Jericho.
Moslems believe that it was originally brought there by the Queen of
Sheba as a gift for Solomon. Some archeological remains have been
found pointing to a Tseri industry in Ein Gedi near the Dead Sea (see
There are references to Tseri throughout the Bible. The caravan
of Ishmaelites who transported Joseph to Egypt were merchants of balm.
When Jacob learned that his long-lost son Joseph, presumed dead, was
in fact alive and in charge of Egypt, he sent a convoy of gifts that
included balm. Jeremiah makes several references to it and it is
mentioned in Kings and Ezekiel. It is mentioned several times in the
Song of Songs. I think the New Testament mentions it also. Cleopatra
is said to have grown some for her personal use in Egypt, and later
that spot became a place of pilgrimage for Christians who believed
Jesus, Mary and Joseph lived in the grove.
At some point, probably in the late Roman or Byzantine eras, the
plant for the Tseri disappeared form the Land of Israel.
In 1988, some ceramic features were discovered near Qumran (site
of the Dead Sea Scrolls) by American archeologist Wendell Jones
(sometimes thought to be the role model for Indiana Jones), and one
contained an oil with a strong fragrance. Some believe it was Tseri.
Meanwhile, while the plant from which the Tseri was taken was
extinct in Israel, it was thought to be growing wild in certain remote
parts of Saudi Arabia. Several Israeli botanists were able to obtain
some saplings of these smuggled out of Saudi Arabia but were unable to
get them to grow. Similarly, there was no luck with saplings from
Ethiopia. In the end, actual seeds from the plant were obtained from
a German botanist who had obtained them in East Africa. Some seeds
were also obtained from a lab in England, the origins of which are not
known. The main researcher and the man promoting the re-establishment
of Tseri production in Israel is Prof. Zohar Amar, from the Department
of Land of Israel Studies and Archeology at Bar Ilan University. (see
his bio here: http://lisa.biu.ac.il/en/node/1467 and
And he succeeded. Small groves of Tseri are now growing in special
areas of Ein Gedi, the very same areas in which they may have grown in
Biblical and Roman times.
When it becomes commercially viable, you can count on the BDS
"Boycott Israel" anti-Semites organizing a boycott of the oil stolen
from the Palestinians. And should the Messiah show up, there are
ALREADY enough plants growing in Ein Gedi to prepare the Temple's