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Balm of Gilead

Balm of Gilead is the third tree on the list of Biblical incense trees.

It is also known as the “Afarsemon Tanachi” or the “Biblical Afarsemon”.

This is a problem as another tree shares its name by its similarity in sound. The persimmon which is a late transplant from North America is also known as “afarsemon” but has nothing to do with the Biblical tree.

To avoid confusion I will refer to this tree as Balm of Gilead or Commiphora giladensis.

Commiphora giladensis  is a smalltree, the source of the genuine balm of Gilead around which so many mystical associations have gathered. The Balsam tree has various names Bosem, besem ,Tsori nataf and in rabbinic literature  kataf ,balsam, opobalsam. 
The tree stands from 2 to 3 meters high with curved spreading branches. The bark is of a solid brown color, the leaves are small and dark green with a heavy cuticle.  A mosaic map found in Jordan showing the various trees  and animals around the Dead Sea shows the Balm of Gilead with three or five leaflets.  The flowers are small, white petaled with sepals a reddish in color. There seem to be many species variants, some with flowers primarily pistillate (female) or staminate (male) and others with perfect flowers with three or four petals. 

The fruits are round or oval with a color that deepens as the seed matures. The seeds are solitary and sometimes grooved on one side. It is a tree rumored to be both rare, and difficult to rear. During the times of the Ottoman empire it was so much valued by the Turks that its exportation was prohibited. There were trees in “guarded gardens at Matarie, near Cairo, from the days of Prosper Alpin, who wrote the Dialogue of Balm, and the balsam is valued as a cosmetic by the royal ladies. In the Bible, and in the works of Bruce Theophrastes, Galen, and Dioscorides, it is lauded.”This quote is from:

The name of the tree is supposedly derived from the Hebrew word for perfume “Balm, Baulm or Bawm, contracted from Balsam, may be derived from the Hebrew bot smin “chief of oils,” or bâsâm, “balm,” and besem, “a sweet smell.” It is mentioned ten times in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) as basalm and six times as balm: Song of Solomon 6:2 “My beloved has gone down to his garden, to the beds of basalm to feed his flocks in the garden and gather rose-lilies.” The term Opobalsamum is used by Dioscorides to mean “the flowing from the balsam-tree.” He also said “in general the balsam juice has the strongest effect”.

Pliny the Elder stated “Balsamum will grow nowhere but Judea: and the citron of Assyria refuses to bear fruit in any other country.”

 All this speculation on the part of herbalists is very interesting , but the Hebrew name for this tree is the stated  “afarsemon” and the substance collected from it was called “tzori.”  and also ” bosem”.

Pliny the Elder states that the tree was first brought to Rome by the generals of Vespasian.  It seems to have been an indigenous project for the Jews and was planted by Ein Gedi and Ein Bokek as the first of the incense trees. 

 Later the tree was called Opobalsamum, its dried twigs Xylobalsamum, and its dried fruit Carpal Balsamum.  

Abd-Allatif, a physician of Damascus in the twelfth century, noted that it had two barks, the outer bark reddish-brown and thin, the inner green and thick, and a very strong carrying and aromatic odor. 

A green underbark of course is one of the characteristics of the Commiphora family.

The juice exudes spontaneously during the heat of summer, in resinous drops, the process being helped by incisions in the bark. According to legend and tradition the incisions could only be made with a glass or stone blade.  A thin string from a pin in the incision to a small vessel allows the clear droplets to be bottled,

In ancient times the sap was separated into oil and aromatic water. This was done in great secrecy. The quantity of oil obtained by this process is roughly one-tenth the amount of sap. According to tradition an oil -based perfume is obtained after boiling the leaves and wood with water.

The fruit is grey or purple or red when unripe, and the size of a small pea, with a sweet, agreeable and aromatic taste.

When the fruit is fully ripe it becomes bright orange or deep red in color and falls from the tree. 

Balm of Gilead is actually a rather specialized species of the Commiphora family, being one of the few Commiphora types that is deciduous and so more tolerant of low temperatures than other myrrh types.

A plaintive question is asked in the book of Jeremiah: ” Is there no Balm in Gilead?”. 

Their trading partners are told in Ezekiel 27:17 “Judah and the land of Israel they were your traders with the wheat of Minith, cakes, honey, oil and balm they paid for your merchandise”

 Gilead, an area near the mountains of Menashe was the native range of the strange little tree with its powerfully scented leaves, small red fruits and clear sticky sap (though a closely related species seems to have originated in the hills of Arabia). It is one of the few incense plants that does not have to be burned to get the full benefit of the powerful scent that emanates from leaves, fruits, bark and sap.

Balm of Gilead was worth much more in the market of that day than frankincense and myrrh. It was sometimes given as a medicine in a cup of wine. The liquid from its fruits was put into wine and other alcoholic drinks and considered very healthy, even becoming an official digestive in wealthy households and royal courts.

(The most important reason for adding herbs and spices to alcoholic drinks was for the benefit of their medicinal properties. Wine was considered an excellent vehicle for administering a herbal drug, since it was found to dissolve more of the active principles than a simple water infusion or decoction. Helleborated wine for epilepsy, wine of squills for evacuating ‘evil humours’ and zedeory wine for strengthening the stomach and heart, were all official medicaments in the pharmacopoeias of the seventeenth century.

juice Of eyebright wine, prescribed for ailing sight, the sharp-witted Nicholas Culpeper wrote

: ‘A cup of it in the morning is worth a pair of spectacles. Madder, alkanet, basalm, dragon’s blood and turnsole were most commonly added to improve keeping qualities and aid digestion

 More on Hippocris, (Historic Food, 2001 Day, Ivan..)

In the 19th century, some alcoholic drinks containing myrrh were commercialized:

Becherovka, invented in 1807 by Josef Becher, is an herbal

spirit drink made in the Czech Republic`with 32 herbs including myrrh made it a popular remedy for digestive problems

. Fernet Branca:, Invented

in 1845 (Fratelli Branca Company, Milan), contains 40 different

herbs, including myrrh. This drink is very popular in South and North

America, where it is served neat, with ice, or mixed with other drinks

it is also promoted as a home herbal remedy for indigestion problems

and colic.

This tree was probably the main cultivar in what might well be the first organized agricultural planting of incense trees, an endeavor which predated the establishment of the First Temple in Jerusalem

Frankincense and myrrh, which were not native to the area, were added later to the cultivation sites of balm of Gilead, the original incense tree, long after these orchards were established.

The high trade value of basalm kept these trees in cultivation through the Biblical and Talmudic periods and through the Roman occupation.

In 800 AD after the Moslem invasion the cultivation of this tree ceased and it disappeared from the orchards of the holy land and the international marketplace, lingering as a relict species in isolated areas and shrines until it vanished entirely.

In Matarriya, five miles north from Cairo the tree was cultivated more or less successfully until 1615 when the last of a long line of basalm trees was inundated by the Nile and washed away.

A comprehensive paper was written about the Matarriya plantation by Marcus Millwright in 2011describing the history of the plantation and describing the differences between the cultivated basalm and the trees later brought in from Arabia.  He is of the opinion that the basalm of Judea was a sterile hybrid that did not produce seeds and that the trees brought to refresh the grove in 1500 by Sultan al-Ghawari were the wild stock that the Judean basalm trees had been bred from.

Interestingly enough several of the trees in the Ketura and Ein Gedi plantations are more or less sterile though whether or not they have enhanced properties is unknown.

The revival of the balm of Gilead in modern times has been both puzzling and exciting to agriculturalists. There appear to be several types of this plant, including the wild ancestors of the cultivated species, differing in leaf configuration, scent and flowering habit.  But with the successful hybridization of the two most extreme types in Israel in 2013 it has been proved that the balm of Gilead variations are simply subspecies of the same plant.

Currently the sap of this tree is being evaluated for its anti cancer properties.

 (Reference) Eitan Amiel, Rivka Ofir, Nativ Dudai, Elaine Soloway, Tatiana Rabinsky, and Shimon Rachmilevitch, “β-Caryophyllene, a Compound Isolated from the Biblical Balm of Gilead (Commiphora gileadensis), Is a Selective Apoptosis Inducer for Tumor Cell Lines,” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, vol. 

2012, Article ID 872394, 8 pages, 2012. doi:10.1155/2012/872394

שמשון בן יהושע, רבקה אופיר, שמעון רחמילוביץ, איתן עמיאל, איליין סולווי ונתיה דודאי (2013) חידוש גידול האפרסמון (Commiphora gileadensis L. opobalsamum) בישראל: פעילות אנטי-סרטנית. מחקרי יהודה ושומרון. קובץ כ”ב עורכת מדעית: מרים ביליג. עמ’ 387-389.

The Gilead region is an area currently between Israel and Jordan and the tree is no longer found there as it is much drier now than it was in Biblical times. The tree was cultivated in only three places in the ancient world, one of them at Ein Gedi where the floor of an ancient synagogue warns: “Whoever reveals the secret of the town to the Gentiles–He whose eyes range throughout the whole earth and Who see hidden things. He will set his face on that man and on his seed and uproot him from under the heavens. “

Some scholars argue that this inscription has nothing to do with Baslam but I believe if the secrets of the basalm trees had been revealed that the Romans could have simply killed or taken the people who lived there into servitude, just as they had done with so many other communities

The production of resin, the distilling of perfumes and medicines, the propagation and cultivation of the trees was a set of important trade secrets that protected the Jewish inhabitants of Ein Gedi for centuries from successive waves of conquerors and invaders after failure of the revolt against Rome in 70 AD. 

The fortunate inhabitants of the three centers of Balm of Gilead cultivation were neither killed nor taken into slavery as they were needed to tend the trees and keep up the production of the valuable products.

The floor of the Ein Gedi synagogue is on display at the Rockefeller museum in Jerusalem where the inscription in Aramaic is clearly visible.

A commercial orchard of balm of Gilead trees is being cultivated on rebuilt terraces in Kibbutz Ein Gedi today.

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