Balm of Gilead

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For other uses, see Balm of Gilead (disambiguation).

Balm of Gilead, Balm of Mecca or Balsam of Mecca[1] is the balsam extracted from the tree Commiphora gileadensis (often called by its synonym Commiphora opobalsamum). It is named for the region of Gilead, where it occurred according to the Bible (Jeremiah 8:22). It has been used as a spice, perfume, cosmetic, and medicine. The balsam tree was an emblem of Palestine.[2][clarification needed]


In the Bible, balsam is designated by various names: בֹּשֶׂם (bosem), בֶּשֶׂם (besem), צֳרִי (ẓori), נׇטׇף (nataf), and, in rabbinic literature, קׇטׇף (kataf), בַּלְסׇם (balsam), אַפּוֹבַּלְסַמוֹן (appobalsamon), and אֲפַרְסְמוֹן (afarsemon). The Balm of Gilead is mentioned as having healing properties (Jeremiah 8:22). Balsam was an ingredient of the incense (ketoret) burned in the Tabernacle (Exodus 30:34). Balsam was among the many precious gifts of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon (I Kings 10:10), it is further mentioned in the Song of Songs (5:1; 5:13; 6:2).[3] Balm was as a trade item along with wheat, honey and oil (Ezekiel 27:17).[2]

According to Josephus (Ant., 8:174–5), balsam was originally brought to Israel by the Queen of Sheba.[3]

The tree that yields Balm of Gilead is named balsamon by Dioscorides in his De Materia Medica (1.18).[4] The "juice" that the tree exudes was known to Dioscorides and to Pliny (Historia Naturalis 12.116; 13.18) as opobalsamum.[5][1] Among the many medicinal properties listed for it by Dioscorides are expelling menstrual flow; being an abortifacient; moving the urine; assisting breathing and conception; being an antidote for aconitum and snakebite; treating pleurisy, pneumonia, cough, sciatica, epilepsy, vertigo, asthma, and gripes.[4]

In the Talmud, balsam appears as an ointment which was a highly praised product of the Jericho plain (Shab. 26a). However, its main use was medicinal rather than cosmetic.[6]

The Egyptian town of Ain Shams was renowned for its balsam-garden, which was cultivated under the supervision of the government. During the Middle Ages the balsam-tree is said to have grown only here, though formerly it had also been a native plant in Syria. According to a Coptic tradition known also by the Muslims, it was in the spring of Ayn Shams that Mary, the mother of Jesus, washed the clothes of the latter on her way back to Palestine after her flight to Egypt. From that time onwards, the spring was beneficent, and during the Middle Ages balsam-trees could only produce their precious secretion on land watered by it.[7]

At present the tree Commiphora gileadensis grows wild in the valley of Mecca where it is called beshem. Many strains of this species are found, some in Somalia and Yemen.[3]

The German botanist Schweinfurth has reconstructed the ancient process of balsam production.[3]


  1. ^ a b Hanuš, Lumír O. et al. (2005). "Myrrh-Commiphora Chemistry". Biomedical Papers 149 (1): 3–23. PMID 16170385. 
  2. ^ a b Duke, James A. (2008). "Balm Of Gilead". Duke's Handbook of Medicinal Plants of the Bible. CRC Press. pp. 128–130. 
  3. ^ a b c d Feliks, Jehuda (2007), "Balsam", Encyclopaedia Judaica 3 (2nd ed.), Thomson Gale, p. 95 
  4. ^ a b Osbaldeston, Tess Anne (translator) (2000). Dioscorides. Johannesburg: Ibidis Press. p. 1.18. 
  5. ^ "opobalsamum". Oxford Latin Dictionary. Oxford University Press. 1968. p. 1254. 
  6. ^ "Cosmetics". Encyclopaedia Judaica 5 (2nd ed.). Gale. 2007. pp. 229–231. 
  7. ^ Becke, C. H. (1986). "ʿAYN SHAMS". The Encyclopaedia of Islam 1 (2nd ed.). Brill. p. 788a.