Most of us, when we think of the trees of the Land of Israel, are likely to summon up images of olive or fig trees, dates, pomegranates, and other examples of fruit-bearing trees that are mentioned and extolled in the Bible.
However, to judge from the works of ancient Greek and Roman authors, the most important tree to grow on Judean soil was not a fruit tree at all, but the balsam tree, which produced a renowned perfume. The balsam made a powerful impression throughout the world, and several classical writers knew very little about the Jews and their land other than their association with the cultivation of balsam.
This pattern emerges already in the works of Theophrastus (3rd-4th centuries B.C.E.), a student of Aristotle, whose lost treatise On Piety praised Judaism as a paradigm of philosophical religion. The only bit of specific information he provides about the Jewish homeland is a description of the balsam plantations.
According to Theophrastus' report, the entire balsam production of Judea was confined to two tiny parks. He describes in detail the procedures for piercing the tree-trunk and collecting the fragrant resin. The harvest must be carried out in the hottest days of summer, and the miniscule amount of gum is afterwards blended with additional ingredients before it is fit to be marketed. The pure balsam gum fetched a price of twice its weight in silver.
The first-century B.C.E. historian Diodorus of Sicily also wrote about the lucrative eminence of Judean balsam, which he explained on the grounds that it was not grown in any other locality, and it was highly valued by physicians for its pharmaceutical uses. Diodorus's younger contemporary, the geographer Strabo of Amaseia, provided more specific details of the balsam's medicinal advantages: it can cure headaches and arrest the development of cataracts. He confirmed that the combination of its usefulness and its scarcity servedf to make it a very costly commodity.
Strabo declared that the dearth of balsam trees was not the consequence of natural factors. Rather, the shrewd Judeans intentionally limited their cultivation in order to artificially inflate the price.
The most detailed and informative description of Judean balsam is included in the Naturalis Historia of Pliny the Elder, the celebrated naturalist and colonial administrator who completed his masterpiece shortly after the Romans crushed the Jewish uprising and destroyed Jerusalem.
In Pliny's account, the status of the balsam was actually depicted as a symbol for the subjugation of the Jews. He noted with considerable pride how Vespasian and Titus made a point of exhibiting the balsam shrubs publicly in the triumphal processions thorugh Rome, as if to declare that the plant, which the Jews had hitherto kept as their own closely guarded secret, was now subservient to the authority of the Empire: The balsam-tree is now a subject of Rome, and pays tribute together with the nation to which it belongs.
Pliny described how the Jews had tried unsucccessfully to carry out a scorched-earth policy to keep the balsam trees from falling into enemy hands; however, the Romans were ultimately successful in protecting the treasures. He reported with visible satisfaction that the plantations were now cultivated profitably by the Roman fiscus.
From Pliny's detailed description of procedures for extracting the fragrant oil, it appears that it was an extremely delicate operation, and that even a minor slip of the operator's hand could severely damage the tree. Training in the requisite skills must have been conducted under very careful controls.
Balsam and its fragrant qualities are mentioned frequently in rabbinic literature. A passage in the midrash described how the larcenous generation of Noah's flood used to smear the locations of people's valuables with oil during the day, so that they would be able to find them easily when they broke in afterwards under cover of darkness.
The midrash goes on to report sardonically that, on the night after Rabbi Hanina told that story in the context of a sermon that he preached in Sepphoris, three hundred break-ins were reported in the town!
Another passage from the midrash described how the promiscuous young ladies of Jerusalem would tread on egg-shells containing balsam in order to irresistibly captivate approaching young men with the seductive fragrance that they released.
In the rabbis' descriptions of the World to Come, it was considered appropriate to include lush landscapes with flowing rivers of balsam. Righteous and saintly individuals were said to exude the fragrance even in their earthly lives, and the beneficial effects of their deeds were figuratively compared to its perfume.
The significance of balsam cultivation to ancient Jewish society has also been invoked to solve a puzzling archeological riddle.
The ancient synagogue in the village of Ein Gedi, which was excavated in the early 1970's, contained an unusual Aramaic mosaic inscription. The text calls down dreadful curses upon the heads of those who would incite strife, inform on their comrades to the gentiles, steal their neighbours' property, or divulge the secrets of the village to outsiders.
Understandably, scholars have been hard pressed to fill in a historical context that would have provoked the community to be so concerned about those particular indiscretions, to the point that the curse should be inscribed prominently and permanently on the floor of a house of worship.
The most persuasive interpretation of the inscription relates it to Ein Gedi's unique situation as one of the centres of Judean balsam cultivation. As was evident from the above-mentioned description by Pliny, the tending of balsam trees, the extraction of the gum and the preparation of the oil involved specialized training and dexterity. It was common in the ancient world to preserve the secrecy of such rare skills within the confines of individual families or exclusive guilds. As we have seen, the need for secrecy was felt more urgently by the Jewish communities in the Land of Israel, who lived under the yoke of despised occupiers, and were willing to destroy their cherished plantations rather than allow the Romans to benefit from their lucrative professional secrets.
Accordingly, some scholars have argued that, after their defeat in 70 C. E., when they were forced to pursue their craft as mere tenants of Roman taskmasters, the guild of balsam-cultivators imposed an explicit curse upon anyone who would betray their industrial secrets, as well as on those who might interpret their status of subservience to the Romans as a carte blanche to pilfer company equipment.
In spite of the efforts of our conquerors, the memory of Israel's world-famous balsam cultivation still continues to spread its tangible fragrance centuries later, in the pages of our classic literature and in the inscriptions of our ancient houses of worship, as it is borne along by the breezes of Jewish history.
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