Ki Sisa: Awesome Balsam
Balsam refers to a special sweet-smelling oil that was once associated with the Holy Land. The exact plant that this 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 this type of oil, namely, panag, tzari, nataf, ketaf, balsam, afarsemon, and opopalsamum. In this essay, we will explore the respective etymologies for these various synonyms and show how even though they might mean the same thing, each word has its own unique story.
The word panag appears only once in the Bible, thus making it a hapax legomenon. In that passage, the prophet Ezekiel lists the various commodities sold by merchants from the Holy Land, “wheat from minit, panag, honey, oil and tzari” (Ezek. 27:17). Because the word panag, and even its root PEY-NUN-GIMMEL, does not appear anywhere else in the Bible, its meaning is not so readily understood.
The book Yossiphon (Book I, ch. 38) 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. Thus, the word panag refers to “balsam.” In multiple places, Rashi (to Ezek. 27:17, II Kgs. 20:13, Isa. 39:2, Brachot 43a) cites Yossiphon’s explanation of panag, presumably endorsing it. This view is also cited by the French exegetes Rabbi Yosef Kara, Rabbi Eliezer of Beaugency (to Ezek. 27:17), and Rabbi David Kimchi (to Ezek. 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). 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. [For more about the connection between the name Jericho and good smells, see “The Names of Jericho” (July 2022).]
Rabbi Moshe Tedeschi Ashkenazi (1821–1898) and Rabbi Shmuel David Luzzatto (1800–1865) in their respective commentaries to Ezekiel assert that the word panag is actually related to the word pinuk (“pleasure/indulgence”), via the interchangeability of GIMMEL and KUF. Ironically, despite their opposition to Kabbbalah, 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 also means “pleasure/delicacy” (presumably because the letters AYIN and PEH are consecutive in the Hebrew Alphabet, so that means they can somehow be interchanged). [For more about the words pinuk andoneg, see “Indulging in Pleasure” (June 2019).]
Dr. Zohar Amar (of Bar Ilan University) in his work Tzimchei HaMikra summarizes a litany of other explanations of panag found in the commentators. These alternate explanations 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 placename (in context, it would refer to wheat from that place). [For more about donag, see “Pick Your Wax” (Dec. 2020).]
The word tzari — also pronounced tzori (Ezek. 27:17) and tzri (Gen. 37:25) — appears six times in the Bible (including Gen. 43:11, Jer. 8:22, 46:11, 51:8) and refers to some sort of scented potion used for medicinal purposes. It is also possible that the feminine personal name Zeruiah (Tzeruyah) — borne by King David’s sister — and the masculine personal name Tzri (I Chron. 25:3) are derived from the word tzari. Most famously, tzari appears in the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud Kritut 6a, Jerusalemic Talmud Yoma 4:5) as the first ingredient listed in the ketoret (“incense”) recipe. From there, the word made its way into the prayer liturgy. 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”).
The Biblical term for this ingredient is actually nataf (Ex. 30:34), which literally means “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 Mishnah (Sheviit 7:6), Maimonides’ commentary there explains it as a balsam tree. Targum Onkelos (Ex. 37:25, 43:11) translates tzari as ketaf, and also translates nataf (Ex. 30:34) as ketaf. It’s no wonder then that Rabbi Saadia Gaon and Rabbi Avraham Maimuni (to Ex. 30:34) translate nataf into Arabic as al-balasan.
[Interestingly, Rashi (to Ex. 39:34, Kritut 6a) understands Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel as explaining the meaning of tzari that was listed earlier in the Talmudic teaching. But Nachmanides (to Ex. 30:34) argues that Maimonides (Laws of Klei HaMikdash 2:4) understood Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel as disagreeing with the original teaching. Because of this, Maimonides apparently held that tzari refers to a piece of the actual balsam tree, not the oil from the balsam tree. However, see Mahari Kurkoos and Kesef Mishnah (there).]
All that said, 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 when enumerating the products by which the Holy Land was renowned. Rabbi Yosef Teomim-Frankel (1727–1792) in Iggros Pri Megadim (letter #2) writes that this point lends support to those who define tzari as something other than “balsam oil” (like Rashi, who explains it as “theriaca”).
When Jacob sent his sons with a tribute for the Egyptian viceroy, he told them, inter alia, to bring some tzari with them (Gen. 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.
It is a widely-accepted contention amongst linguists that the Greek balsamon actually derives from the Hebrew word bosem, or at least from a cognate of bosem in some other Semitic language (e.g., Arabic basham or Aramaic busma), just like many other Greek names for specific plants are of Semitic origin. The Hebrew word bosem/besamim refers to “fragrances/perfumes/spices” that give off pleasant smells. It appears 30 times in the Bible, plus it also appears in the personal names Basemath (Basmat), borne by two of Esau’s wives (Gen. 26:34, 36:3) and one of King Solomon’s daughters (I Kgs. 4:15), and Ibsam/Yivsam (I Chron. 7:2), bone by one of King David’s warriors. This term refers generically to all sorts of sweet-smelling goods, but was seemingly borrowed by the Greeks to refer a specific sweet-smelling product — balsam oil.
Nachmanides (to Ex. 25:6, 30:34) writes that bosem/besamim is not derived from the triliteral root BET-SIN-MEM, but is actually a portmanteau derived from the words bo (“in it”) and sam/samim (“potion/elixir” or in Modern Hebrew “drugs”). Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740–1814) similarly traces bosem/besamim to the root biliteral root SAMECH-MEM, whose core meaning he sees as “placing something in its place” (even though the letter BET is usually considered a radical in Rabbi Pappenheim’s system of roots). This relates to the core meaning of the root because such tonics and potions are commonly stored in specifically-designated places, so they are typically “put” somewhere very deliberately.
Either way, when the rabbis stated that one ought to become besumei on Purim (Megillah 7b), this seems to refer to intoxication and inebriation from drinking wine, with the wine functioning as a sort of elixir used to reach that state. Others, including Rabbi Moshe ben Yekutiel of Rome (in Sefer HaTadir) and Rabbi Yosef of Saragossa (a student of Rabbi Nissim of Gerona) explain that besumei refers specifically to drinking lots of “scented” (bosem) wine.
Interestingly, Marcus Jastrow (1829–1903) notes that an extra LAMMED was added to bosem to produce balsamon, but he does not explain the origin of that extra consonant. Dr. Richard C. Steiner (from Yeshiva University) accounts for this by arguing that the Hebrew/Semitic letter SIN was originally pronounced in a way that resembled an l-sound (or at least was sometimes perceived by Greeks as such), hence the ls string in the word balsamon. Others surmise that in some unknown early Semitic language the word bosem itself had a LAMMED before the SIN.
Before it became widely accepted that the etymology of the Greek balsamon lies in the Hebrew bosem, there were other theories floating around. Rabbi Binyamin Mussafia (1606–1675) in Mussaf Ha’Aruch speculated that the Greek balsamon was derived from the Hebrew term baal shemen (“master of oil”), presumably invoking the interchangeability of SHIN and SIN. However, Dr. Alexander Kohut (1842–1894) in HaAruch HaShaleim dismissed this theory by noting that the Hebrew term baal shemen does not appear anywhere else. Instead, Kohut argues that the Greek balsamon derived from the Hebrew words boles (which means “cutting.” and only appears once in the Bible in Amos 7:14) and shemen (“oil”).
The most common word for “balsam oil” in the rabbinic literature is afarsemon/afarsema. Although it never appears in the Mishnah, 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 hamishchah (“oil of anointing”) prescribed by the Torah (Ex. 30:20–33) were instead anointed with afarsemon oil (Babylonian Talmud Horayot 11b–12a, Kritut 5b, and Jerusalemic Talmud Shekalim 6:1, Sotah 8:3). [Even though the Torah uses the words besamim and bosem when giving the recipe for the shemen hamishchah, that concoction apparently did not call for balsam, but its counterpart used for non-formal anointing did.]
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 perfumy 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 Jerusalemic Talmud Avodah Zarah 3:1), and more. The word afarsemon also appears several times in the Midrash (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 an unspecific "oil," it is understood to refer specifically to afarsemon (see Bava Batra 80b and Rosh HaShanah 23a in explaining Isa. 41:19, Rashi to Prov. 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 PEH (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 PEH, 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”).
Another term for “balsam oil” in Rabbinic Hebrew is opopalsamun. For example, the Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah §39:1) compares Abraham to opopalsamun in a sealed container confined to the corner of a room, which does not give off any smell. But once somebody starts moving that container around, it begins exuding a special smell. In the same way, as long as Abraham remained bottled up in Mesopotamia, he did not “give off” a pleasant smell by positively affecting the world and spreading monotheism. But once Hashem told him to migrate to the Holy Land and begin his travels, he exuded those teachings and disseminated them more widely.In another Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah §27:3), the strong-smelling opopalsamun was used to catch and identify a thief who had been breaking into people’s houses at night. This word opopalsamun is most likely a loanword borrowed from the Greek term opobalsamum (“flowing fragrant”) and is thus also ultimately related to the Greek word balsamon.