BALSAM , spice designated in the Bible by various names: בּׁשֶׂם (bosem), בֶּשֶׂם (besem), צֳרִי (ẓori), נָטָף (nataf), and, in rabbinic literature, קָטָף (kataf), בַּלְסָם (balsam), אַפּוֹבַּלְסַמוֹן (appobalsamon), אֲפַרְסְמוֹן (afarsemon), afarsemon occuring most frequently in the Talmud and Midrash and designating the perfume extracted from the sap of the Commiphora opobalsamum. It was the only tropical, and the most expensive, spice grown in Ereẓ Israel. According to Josephus (Ant., 8:174–5), balsam was originally brought to Ereẓ Israel by the Queen of Sheba as one of the gifts included in the "hundred and twenty talents of gold, and of spices very great store, and precious stones; there came no more such abundance of bosem" (i Kings 10:10). Generally, in the Bible, bosem signifies spices of all kinds. Yet in the Song of Songs, in the verses "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. At present the tree grows wild in the valley of Mecca where it is called beshem. Many strains of this species are found, some in Somalia and Yemen. As a perfume it is hardly used today. It serves in the Orient as a healing agent for wounds and as an antidote to snakebite and the sting of scorpions. Apparently, the ẓori of the Bible also signifies some remedy compounded of balsam sap and other ingredients. The "balm (ẓori) of Gilead" is mentioned as having healing properties. Nataf was one of the elements constituting the incense burned in the Tabernacle (Ex. 30:34) and is identified as ẓori in an early baraita dating back to the Second Temple (Ker. 6a). The word in another context designates balsam oil (Shab. 25b–26a), and this identification appears to be correct (see also *Storax). Balsam oil was highly regarded in rabbinic literature and by Greek and Roman writers. Among the latter, Theophrastus, Strabo, Diodorus, and Pliny the Younger lavished high praise on the balsam grown in orchards near the Dead Sea. Pliny's remarks are especially enlightening. In their struggle against the Romans, the Jews strove desperately to destroy the balsam orchards and prevent them from falling into the hands of the enemy. The Romans, however, captured them and, in his triumphal march in Rome, Titus displayed balsam trees brought from Judea. The orchards in Jericho and En-Gedi henceforth provided the Romans with an important source of revenue (Historia Naturalis, 12:25). Admiration was expressed in the Talmud for the balsam "of Rabbi (Judah ha-Nasi's) household and the household of the emperor." It was the best and most expensive spice of ancient times, and accordingly Rav, the Babylonian amora, composed for it a special blessing: "Who creates the oil of our land" (Ber. 43a). The perfume has a pungent odor and the Midrash cites it as one of the enticements of the sinful daughters of Zion: "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" (Lam. R. 4:18). Tradition has it that, after King Josiah hid away the "holy oil" with which the kings of Judah were anointed, balsam oil was used in its stead (Ker. 5b). In the messianic era, the righteous will "bathe in 13 rivers of balsam" (tj, Av. Zar. 3:1, 42c). Remains of the terraces in the hills of En-Gedi, where balsam trees once grew, can still be seen. Excavations in the vicinity have uncovered a workshop complete with its ovens and its vessels. From his investigations in the Arabian Peninsula, the German botanist Schweinfurth has reconstructed the process of balsam production. The bark of the tree was split and the sap soaked up in cotton wool. The sap was then squeezed into oil which absorbed the pungent odor. The tree is a thorn bush with trifoliate leaves, and belongs to the genus Commiphora which includes several species, among them myrrh.
Pauly-Wissowa, 4 (1896), 2836–39; O. Warburg, Pflanzenwelt, 2 (1916), 282ff.; Loew, Flora, 1 (1926), 299–304; J. Feliks, Olam ha-Ẓome'aḥ ha-Mikra'i (19682), 246–8, 256–8. add. bibliography: J. Feliks, Plants and Animals of the Mishna (1983), 139.
bal·sam / ˈbôlsəm/ • n. 1. an aromatic resinous substance, such as balm, exuded by various trees and shrubs and used as a base for certain fragrances and medical preparations. ∎ a tree or shrub that yields balsam. 2. a herbaceous plant (genus Impatiens, family Balsaminaceae) cultivated for its flowers, which are typically pink or purple and carried high on the stem. DERIVATIVES: bal·sam·ic / bôlˈsamik/ adj.