Photo Credit: Wikimedia
Commiphora gileadensis, identified by some as the ancient balm of Gilead, in the Botanical gardens of Kibutz Ein-Gedi.

Balsam refers to a special sweet-smelling oil that was once associated with the Holy Land. The exact plant that this name refers to is not known nowadays, although some identify it as Commiphora gileadensis, a shrub native to the Holy Land; but in ancient times, it was well known and a big deal. In the Hebrew language, there are several different words associated with balsam oil, including but not limited to panag, tzari, nataf, ketaf, balsam, and afarsemon.

The word panag appears only once in the Bible, when the prophet Ezekiel lists the various commodities sold by merchants from the Holy Land: “wheat from minit, panag, honey, oil and tzari” (Ezekiel 27:17). Because neither the word panag nor its pey-nun-gimmel root appear anywhere else in the Bible, its meaning is not so readily understood.


The book Yossiphon relates that the city of Jericho was also called Ir HaReyach, “The City of Scent” on account of the balsam trees that grew there and produced the sweet-smelling balsam oil. That work explicitly states that balsam oil is also known as panag oil. In multiple places, Rashi (to Ezekiel 27:17, II Kings 20:13, Isaiah 39:2, Brachot 43a) cites Yossiphon’s explanation of panag, presumably endorsing it. It is also cited by the French exegetes Rabbi Yosef Kara, Rabbi Eliezer of Beaugency (to Ezekiel 27:17), and Rabbi David Kimchi (to Ezekiel there and Sefer HaShorashim).

Modern scholars agree that Yossiphon was probably written in Italy during the tenth century as a Hebrew adaptation and abridgement of the works of the Jewish-Roman historian Flavius Josephus (37-100 CE). Josephus himself mentions Jericho in connection to balsam trees (see his Antiquities of the Jews Book IV, ch. 6 and Book XIV ch. 4, War of the Jews Book I, ch. 6 and ch. 18) – but does not say anything about panag in Ezekiel referring to balsam oil.

In their respective commentaries to Ezekiel, Rabbi Moshe Tedeschi Ashkenazi (1821-1898) and Rabbi Shmuel David Luzzatto (1800-1865) assert that the word panag is actually related to the word pinuk (“indulgence”) via the interchangeability of gimmel and kuf. Ironically, given their opposition to Kabbalah, their claim can actually be corroborated by the Zohar (Bereishit 47b, 235b, 245b-246b) which likewise connects panag with tafnukim. Similarly, Shoresh Yesha connects panag with oneg, which means “pleasure.” In his work Tzimchei HaMikra, however, Dr. Zohar Amar of Bar Ilan University summarizes a litany of other explanations of panag found among the commentators. These alternate definitions include cassia, wax (making panag a synonym with donag), honeycomb, edible grass, rice, millet, some sort of pastry or baked good, a type of wheat, or a place name (in context, it would refer to wheat from that place).

The word tzari – also pronounced tzori (Ezekiel 27:17) and tzri (Genesis 37:25) – appears six times in the Bible and refers to some sort of scented potion used for medicinal purposes. Most famously, tzari appears in the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud Kritut 6a, Jerusalem Talmud Yoma 4:5) as the first ingredient listed in the ketoret, the incense recipe used in the Mishkan and then in the Temple.

When Maimonides (Laws of Klei HaMikdash 2:4) translates the ingredients for the ketoret into Arabic, he renders tzari as al-balasan (i.e., “balsam”), but the Biblical term for this ingredient is actually nataf (Exodus 30:34), literally meaning “the thing that drips.” This fits the description of balsam oil, because that so-called oil is really just the water-based sap that “drips” out from the balsam tree. Indeed, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel comments that tzari refers to something that is notef (“drips”) from the ketaf tree (his comment is appended to the ketoret recipe). When the word ketaf appears in the Mishna (Sheviit 7:6), Maimonides’ commentary there explains it as a balsam tree. Targum Onkelos (Exodus 37:25, 43:11) translates tzari as ketaf, and also translates nataf (30:34) as ketaf. It’s no wonder then that Rabbi Saadia Gaon and Rabbi Avraham Maimuni (there) translate nataf into Arabic as al-balasan.

Radak notes that if tzari means “balsam oil,” then it is unlikely that panag also means “balsam oil” because both tzari and panag are listed separately by Ezekiel. According to Rabbi Yosef Teomim-Frankel (1727-1792) in Iggros Pri Megadim (Letter #2), this point lends support to those who define tzari as something other than “balsam oil” (like Rashi, for instance, who explains it as “theriaca”).

When Jacob sent his sons with a tribute for the Egyptian viceroy, he told them to bring some tzari with them among the other items (Genesis 43:11). The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah §91:11) identifies tzari as balsam. Like the English word balsam, this Rabbinic Hebrew word is derived from the Greek balsamon and the Latin balsamum. The Oxford English Dictionary adds that the English words balm (“aromatic resinous substance”) and balmy (“mildly fragrant”) are also etymologically derived from those terms.

The most common word for “balsam oil” in the rabbinic literature is afarsemon/afarsema. Although it never appears in the Mishna, this Rabbinic Hebrew word appears with some frequency in the Talmud. For example, the Talmud relates that Jewish kings who were not anointed with the formal shemen hamishcha (“anointing oil”) prescribed by the Torah (Exodus 30:20-33) were instead anointed with afarsemon oil (Babylonian Talmud Horayot 11b-12a, Kritut 5b, and Jerusalem Talmud Shekalim 6:1, Sotah 8:3).

The term afarsemon appears in the Talmud in many other contexts as well: in discussing a special blessing on balsam oil (Brachot 43a); in being described as a high flammable material (Shabbat 26a); in relating how the promiscuous Daughters of Zion used the fragrant balsam oil to entice men to sin (Shabbat 62b, Yoma 9b); in detailing how balsam oil was used for medical purposes (Shabbat 140a, Avodah Zarah 30a); in telling the story of Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat being shown in a dream that Hashem wants to give him thirteen rivers of balsam oil as his reward in the World to Come (Taanit 25a, see also Jerusalem Talmud Avodah Zarah 3:1); and more. The word afarsemon also appears several times in the Midrash as well (Bereishit Rabbah §30:8, 61:2, Vayikra Rabbah §16:1, Eichah Rabbah §4:18).

Rashi (to Amos 6:6) writes that afarsemon is considered the foremost type of oil. In some cases, when the Bible references a non-specific oil, it is understood to refer specifically to afarsemon (see Bava Batra 80b and Rosh Hashana 23a in explaining Isaiah 41:19; Rashi to Proverbs 27:9).

Scholars maintain that while the Rabbinic Hebrew word balsam seems to have been borrowed directly from Greek, the Talmudic Hebrew word afarsemon was borrowed from Old Persian, which borrowed it from Greek. If you ignore the aleph at the beginning of afarsemon (which is often added to foreign words adopted into Hebrew), and switch the bet for a pey (which are interchangeable), and the reish for a lammed (which are also interchangeable), then you can see how afarsemon evolved from the same etymon as balsam. Alternatively, it is also possible that afarsemon came to Persian directly from the Hebrew bosem (exchanging the bet for pey, and adding an additional reish which is known to happen in other words). Rabbi Yosef Teomim-Frankel sees the word afarsemon as rooted in the Hebrew term pirsum/mefursam (“publicized,” “well-known”) because balsam oil’s good smell made it well-known throughout the ancient world.

In Modern Hebrew, afarsemon refers to the persimmon fruit. That usage is a Modern Hebrew neologism that does not reflect the original meaning of the word. In fact, persimmons were not even known in ancient times, as they were first discovered in North America. The very word persimmon in English actually derives from the Native American Algonquin language, which referred to those orange fruits as pasimenan (“dried fruit”).


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Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein writes The Jewish Press's "Fascinating Explorations in Lashon Hakodesh" column.