The Mystery Ingredient
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Take the following fine spices: as much (that is, 250 shekels) of fragrant cinnamon, 250 shekels of fragrant calamus, 500 shekels of cassia – all according to the sanctuary shekel – and a hin of olive oil. Make these into a sacred anointing oil, a fragrant blend, the work of a perfumer.
While there is agreement about the identity of four of the five ingredients of anointing oil, the identity of the fifth, "kanei bosem," translated as “calamus,” is debatable. Many biblical scholars associate the biblical fragrant cane with Acorus calamus (sweet cane), a marsh plant that likes having “wet feet.” The leaves and rhizome contain aromatic oil with a delightful scent of cinnamon. Our handsome specimen thrives outdoors in a large planter filled with water, freezing solid during the winter, and re-emerging every spring.
Maimonides, however, indicates that the ingredient in the sacred oil was Cymbopogon, ginger grass, which grows wild in the region. Pioneering Israeli botanist Michael Zohary, in Plants of the Bible (1983) supports this view and indicates, “It is hopeless to speculate on which of the possible species was intended. It is even doubtful whether the biblical authors had in mind any particular species.”
This ambiguity highlights the challenge of accurately representing plants of ancient Israel in the Biblical Garden. Lacking direct archaeological evidence, plant identification is often taken from "what grows there now." As with calamus, there may be no single "right" decision about what to include in the garden, so we grow both sweet cane and ginger grass as we have references for each. Our choices reflect our three-fold purpose, to strengthen our connection with Torah, and with our heritage, and to provide a place of shalom to nurture the spirit.
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.