Persimmon: The Talmud of the Plant

The biblical Persimmon is one of the symbols of the Land of Judah in ancient times. During the Roman-Byzantine period, the Persimmon , or balm of Judea, was considered to be the most famous and expensive scent plant in the world. The Persimmon is a deciduous tree that grows to a height of about three meters and emits a perfumed scent from the resin found in all its parts. The Persimmon is grown in warm desert oases. In the ancient land of Israel, the tree grew around the Dead Sea, in the areas of Ein Gedi and Jericho. Today the tree is found in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, Egypt, and the deserts of Saudi Arabia.

The Persimmon has a scaly stem, and its branches are split and tangled. The leaves are glossy green, small and have an elliptical shape, like drops. The tree blooms in the spring and is covered with leaves until autumn. In winter, the leaves of the Persimmon fall. The tree is a bisexual plant and is characterized by a white bloom that changes for twenty-four hours to a red color. These color changes attract insects of various kinds for pollination and fertilization. The fruits are small, elliptical in shape and have white stripes that form four lobes with only one seed. The Persimmon secretes a fragrant liquid, unlike other incense plants, such as Myrrh and Olibanum that secrete solid resin. It seems that beyond its special scent is its rarity, the difficulty of collecting the resin and its volatile properties. All of these that have made it highly sought after.
In the Bible the first mentioning of its presence and trade in the Land of Israel, is in the book of Genesis, when a caravan of Ishmaelites was coming from Gilead, and their camels were carrying spices and balm, going down to Egypt and buy Joseph from his brothers. Twenty-two years later, Yaakov Tzri sent a balm to Josef the ruler in the land of Egypt. Nataf is associated with the balm. Balm is considered to be the king of all scents used for the preparation of the incense in the Tent of the Convocation. During the visit of the Queen of Sheba to the Land of Israel, she brings with her precious gifts to King Solomon, including Persimmon scent about which it was said, “… there was no such scent”. Persimmon oil was used to anoint the kings of Israel after the anointing oil was shelved by Josiah Ben of Amon king of Judah. [1]
When the Roman Empire ruled in the Land of Israel, the area of the Jericho Valley and Ein Gedi was a major growing area of Persimmon groves. A stubborn battle took place between the soldiers of the Roman legions and the Jews over every tree in the Persimmon groves, with the aim of not being destroyed by the Jews. The Jews did not want the scent tree to fall into the hands of the Romans, but the struggle was to no avail.
Unlike today, the balm tree had an important place in the fields of medicine and pharmacy in ancient times. The prophet Jeremiah warns the people of the kingdom of Israel against the continuation of the spiritual depression and its disastrous consequences. In his prophecy he points out that the Balm of Gilead will not help to heal the pains of annihilation and destruction when the destroyer will rise from Babylon. In the Babylonian Talmud, the Persimmon was used as an ingredient in a medicinal drink called ‘Alonit’ which was used to cool the body after a stay in the bathhouse. The Balm was used as a material for the preservation of the face of Ishmael the High Priest, one of the ten royal martyrs, killed by the Romans. Asaph the Physician (Assaf Harofeh) noted the virtues of the Persimmon in the treatment of internal organs, spleen, lungs, tuberculosis and as an antidote to venom. Rabbi Shabbethai Donnolo brewed a medical honey jam from the Persimmon . Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon included the ‘balsan’ in the kings’ drink, the ‘great atripel’, for strengthening internal organs and delay aging. He noted its effectiveness in counteracting scorpion and snake venom, and in treating shortness of breath. Rabbi Yehuda the Chassid noted the danger of eating the fruits due to their toxicity. Rabbi Natan Ben Yoel Falkira and Rabbi Chaim Vital emphasized its medical efficacy in the treatment of epilepsy and in preserving the flesh of the deceased. Rabbi Avraham Portlauna the Physician (Rabbi Avraham Harofeh) noted the way in which the originality of oil is tested when milk is cultured. The Jerusalem physician of the 17th century, Rabbi Raphael Mordechai Malki, praised the Persimmon oil as a choice in medical materials for healing deep cuts. Rabbi Yaakov Tzahalon noted the effectiveness of ‘opobelsmo’ in counteracting the toxicity of poisonous plants and added that the scent of the scent sharpens the mind and senses. Tuvia the physician (Tivia Harofeh) recommended drinking ten drops of Persimmon oil in white wine to prevent infection with the plague, and to arouse sexual passion. In the Kabbalah of Isaac ben Solomon Luria Ashkenazi (Ha’ari) and the Chassidim the balm is an incense savor considered to be equivalent to the counting (Sefirot) of the crown in the Kabbalah, and this is equivalent to the power of will is in the map of the soul. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad Chassidut, explains in a fascinating way what the power of will is in the map of the soul. See Persimmon in detail in the Kabbalah and the Chassidut.

Nowadays, an interesting attempt has been made to restore the biblical Persimmon tree to its natural habitat in Israel. At the Ein Gedi Botanical Garden, the tree has been successfully inhabited and serves as a valuable resource for researchers to understand its great importance in ancient times. At the “Talmud of Plants” orchard at the Mitzpe Hayamim Farm in the Upper Galilee, I was privileged to acclimate some specimens of the Persimmon tree from cuttings, and its geographical location is now the northernmost on the planet.

[1] Chronicles II, 35:3.

Olibanum: The Talmud of the Plant

The Olibanum is a deciduous incense tree that is in danger of global extinction. It belongs to the scent family, which includes sixteen types of trees and shrubs that produce scent resin that drips from the bark of the trunk. Grows 2 to 8 meters high. The Olibanum tree forms a single stem, and sometimes sub-stems develop at its base. The stem bark degenerates and regenerates frequently. The tree has tangled branches and at their ends 6 to 8 pairs of complex leaves, and flowering clusters that develop along the new branches. The flowers are small, bisexual and grape-like when closed, located on a sting. The flowers have five petals, and their color is creamy white, a nectar receptacle in the center of the flower changes its color from yellow to red when its ripe. The center of the cup-like receptacle is surrounded by ten yellow stamens. The fruits are small and form a kind of capsule, and when ripe they contain seeds.

The Olibanum tree begins to produce resin as early as its third year, and the amount of resin reaches its peak after about ten years. To produce the resin, incisions are made in the stem and lower branches, and the resin drains slowly and hardens in the open air. After about two months the resin crystals can be collected. The resin crystals dry naturally and look like yellowish whitish droplets. When the resin is heated, a heavy, sweet odor is carried in the air with a pleasant psychoactive effect, thus evoking a slight feeling of levitation. The distribution of the Olibanum tree in the wild is mainly in arid desert areas in Yemen, southern Oman, Saudi Arabia, and northern Somalia. [1]

The Olibanum is the most distinct incense savor in the ancient world. According to a divine commandment the Olibanum was included in the ingredients of the incense and in sacrifices and offerings. Incense made from Olibanum with added oils was used for almost all sacramental offerings, and was placed on the table of the Showbread. Olibanum was among the plants in the Garden of Fruit and Scents described in Song of Songs, and like many of the incense symbols it was brought to Israel from Sheba in southern Arabia. The prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah  sharply condemned the incense burners who continued to hold on to their sins. The Olibanum was used by ministers and kings as a means of paying taxes, and even by bandits in the Middle East and Arab countries. n exchange for the transfer of Olibanum from city to city the merchants were required to pay a ransom of 668 gold dinars. [2] In the Mishnah  Olibanum was scented on coals and was called ‘Mugmar’ from the Aramaic word ‘gomra’ – charcoal. It was offered for sniffing at the end of a good day meal, hence the phrase “levarech al hamugmar,” to bless on the mugmar [the scent – also the completed]. In the Babylonian Talmud  Olibanum was also mentioned as an incense savor, in the context of its psychoactive effect on those sentenced to execution. It dulled the convict’s senses and eased the horror a little. Scientific studies have found an effect on the brain by resin inhalation in reducing anxiety and depression and creating a pleasant sensation. In medicine, Olibanum resin has been used in a wide range of domains. Asaf Harofeh Described the preparation of Olibanum pills and various resins for curing intestinal diseases. Rabbi Shabbethai Donnolo included Olibanum in a group of medical resins that dissolve in oil melting and additives for medical cosmetics. Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon noted that the use of Olibanum in the temple was due to the good scent in its incense, thus eliminating the odors of the scorched flesh. [3] In medical writings, Maimonides used Olibanum resin to counteract venom toxins and provide short-term relief. Rabbi Natan Ben Yoel Falkira listed a variety of medicinal uses for Olibanum, including: Healing wounds and cuts, healing dental and periodontal diseases. Olibanum resin dissolved in oil with an addition of rose oil was used as a medical ointment to cure a breast tumors. Rabbi Meir Ibn Aldabi noted that smoking Olibanum resin soothes toothache, and Olibanum resin in breast milk as a preparation for healing an ocular disease. Rabbi Chaim Vital indicated medical uses and prescriptions for curing ascites and epilepsy, hemorrhoids, wounds, and cuts. Tuvia Harofeh produces a preparation for healing gums and for healing abscesses in the uterus. In the Kabbalah of Isaac ben Solomon Luria Ashkenazi (Ha’ari) and the Chassidim  Olibanum is considered an incense savor connecting the superconscious desire to the sphere of wisdom, the first of the mental powers in the human consciousness. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad Chassidut, explains in a fascinating way this connecting power in the map of the soul in Kabbalah and Chassidut.

In Israel, several specimen of Olibanum trees grow in Kibbutz Ein Gedi and Kibbutz Almog in the northern area of the Dead Sea. During my visit to Ein Gedi in the winter of 2020, I received, at my request, Olibanum cuttings for the collection of medicinal plants and scents, from my dear friend at the farm, Menny Gal. If the cuttings manage to take root and acclimatize at my “Talmud of Plants” orchard at the Mitzpe Hayamim Farm, they will be the first Olibanum trees in the Upper Galilee. 

[1] Prof. Boswellia Giorgio Venturini Monako Nature Encyclopedia.

[2]  Portlauna, Heroes Signs 81

[3] Rambam, Moreh 3:45.


From the Encyclopedia of the Talmud of Plants, Avraham Dahan Published by the author 2022

Read more – the article “Persimmon in the Land of Israel” To read, click here.
Zohar Amar – Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archeology, Bar Ilan University
David Illuz – Faculty of Life Sciences, Bar Ilan University, Talpiot Academic College, Holon