Calamus, Sweet

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CALAMUS, SWEET , a spice referred to in the Bible under three names: keneh bosem ("scented cane"), kaneh ha-tov ("goodly cane"), and simply kaneh ("cane"). The last term also means reed, but in the context it is clear that the reference is to a spice, since the prophet rebukes the people for not devoting some of their wealth to offer frankincense and kaneh (Isa. 43:24). Ezekiel (27:19) includes kaneh among the spices which Tyre traded with Arabia. It is included among the precious spices in the Song of Songs (4:14); "scented cane" is one of the spices from which the aromatic oil in the tabernacle was prepared (Ex. 30:23). Jeremiah (6:20) points out that kaneh ha-tov was brought "from a far country." This appears in Akkadian as "qanū tabu," where it means an aromatic cane, and tib has the same meaning in Arabic. ("Goodly oil" too is used for aromatic oil.) The Septuagint distinguished between "goodly cane," which it identified with cinnamon, and "cane" or "scented cane," identified with sweet calamus. There is no doubt, however, that the last identification fits all the names. The name kaneh means something hollow and an aromatic reed, of which there are many species, is intended.

Apparently, it is the Indian plant Cymbopogon martini which accords with the statement that it came "from a far country." A similar aromatic species growing in Babylon is called in the Talmud ḥilfa de-yama ("the sea reed") since it grows in swamps (Ber. 43b; et al.). Theophrastus (Historia plantarum, 9:7, 1) points out that it grows in dried up swamps near Lebanon, a probable reference to the Ḥuleh region. Nowadays this plant does not grow in Israel or the adjacent countries. Some identify "the goodly cane" with sugar cane; but this is not aromatic, nor do the scriptural descriptions fit it, since sugar cane did not reach Ereẓ Israel before the talmudic era. The Halakhot Gedolot (Venice ed., 7:3) deals at length with sugar and the laws pertaining to it.


Loew, Flora, 2 (1924), 107–19, 278; J. Feliks, Olam ha-Ẓome'aḥ ha-Mikra'i (19682), 268.

[Jehuda Feliks]