Is This the Balm in Gilead?
And the Lord said to Moses: Take sweet spices, stacte and onycha and galbanum, and pure frankincense with these sweet spices; there shall be equal amounts of each. You shall make of these an incense, a compound according to the art of the perfumer, salted, pure, and holy.
Stacte, or, in Hebrew, nataf, was an aromatic gum resin, one of the exotic and costly ingredients in the recipe for holy incense, which was burned in the Tabernacle, morning and evening, and was a component of the ritual performed by the High Priest when he entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur. Compounding of the holy incense was a proprietary process and became a closely-guarded secret.
Nataf was probably extracted from the storax tree, the Turkish sweet gum, which grows wild in Anatolia and possibly grew in Gilead, northeast of Israel, in biblical times. From its wounded bark was extracted an aromatic sap with healing properties, which was processed into a soft gum, preserving its aroma. Storax resin has a pleasant, sweet, balsamic, slightly spicy odor and its derivatives are used in fragrances and pharmaceuticals. It may indeed be the biblical balm associated with Gilead, although that identification is uncertain.
The storax tree is deciduous, grows 6-10 meters tall, and produces a woody, prickly “gumball” of multiple seeds. A close relative is the American sweet gum, two mature specimens of which watch over the chapel-end of the Biblical Garden, and drop “gumballs” a-plenty in the fall.
Rabbi Amy Scheinerman writes: "The hovering, lingering cloud of smoke produced by burning the incense was evocative of God’s presence, the pillar of cloud that led the Israelites through the Wilderness for 40 years.… Holiness is a double-edged sword: For something to be sacred, powerful, transformative, and inspiring, it must be protected from becoming mundane, common, the quotidian of life. But when we withhold that which is holy from others who might share in its value and power, we diminish the divine. The cloud created by the burning of the ketoret (the incense) combines these two seemingly contradictory values: the smoke rose up, and then spread out over the people – all the people."
Michael Schlesinger is Temple Sinai’s Biblical Gardener. Mike has been gardening since he was eight years old. He used to grow grape vines and make wine when he lived in California. He now tends to our garden, continuing the traditions started by Catherine Walters.