Exodus 30:11 – 34:35
Galbanum: Why include this vile fragrance?
This week we are going to explore Torah through our sense of smell. We are also going to discuss the different types of scents; good and bad, sweet and sour, pleasant and bitter. We will discuss the way that fragrance can inspire people’s moods. We will also discuss how at other times in our tradition a scent can be used as an example of certain type personality.
In this parsha we get beyond just the details of the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), and now we get into the practical measures to make it a working reality. In last weeks parsha we had presented for us the instructions for making the Ketoret – the Temple Incense (see Exodus chapters 25 and 35). Now in the same vein, this week our parsha is discussing the making of the Shemen Meshechat – the fragrant Anointing Oil (שמן המשחה) which was needed for the inauguration. This parsha will also detail how the incense and oil are to be used.
Both of these discussions are very similar. They are both sacred compounds which were made of herbs, spices and resins; made into exclusive blend which could only be used for ritual purposes. They were also made of much of the same herbal products.
In Hebrew the term for herbs and fragrant spices is samim (סמים). A sam (סם) is any type of spice, be it used as a fragrance or as a medication. For this reason the word sam also means a drug or a narcotic. As we know, drugs and medications are often the exact same compound, it’s just a matter of whether or not people are using them properly, and to what concentration. (see similar topic for Parshat Re’eh 2012)
Actually, making perfumed and medication are quite similar in process. The active and fragrant ingredients, which are held in the essential oils of herbs and spices, can be released and collected. These oils from the herbs (samim) can be infused into regular oil (shemen). In this case, olive oil (shemen zayit). (Although it is also common for jojoba to be used as a carrier as well, see “Mystical Aromatherapy: The Divine Gift of Fragrance”)
This is the process which we read of in this weeks parsha:
“And you shall take for yourself top-quality spices: 500 [shekels] of pure myrrh; of fragrant cinnamon, half as much, 250; and of fragrant cane, 250;
And of cassia, 500, after the weight of the sanctuary; and a hin of olive oil.
You shall make it a holy anointing oil, a perfumed compounded after the art of the perfumer; it shall be a holy anointing oil.”
וְאַתָּה קַח–לְךָ, בְּשָׂמִים רֹאשׁ, מָר–דְּרוֹר חֲמֵשׁ מֵאוֹת, וְקִנְּמָן–בֶּשֶׂם מַחֲצִיתוֹ חֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתָיִם; וּקְנֵה–בֹשֶׂם, חֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתָיִ.
וְקִדָּה, חֲמֵשׁ מֵאוֹת בְּשֶׁקֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ; וְשֶׁמֶן זַיִת, הִין.
וְעָשִׂיתָ אֹתוֹ, שֶׁמֶן מִשְׁחַת–קֹדֶשׁ—רֹקַח מִרְקַחַת, מַעֲשֵׂה רֹקֵחַ; שֶׁמֶן מִשְׁחַת–קֹדֶשׁ, יִהְיֶה.
In the commentary by Rashi for these verses, we are reminded of the dispute between Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehudah regarding the way in which the fragrant anointing oil was made. There are two common method that could have been used to make such a perfumed substance. (also see the source, Talmud Bavli, Keritot 5a-6b)
The first being the boiling of the spices in oil, thus releasing the scent directly into the oil and then straining out the spices. This process I understand well, it is a process that people like myself commonly use for extraction of the medicinal substances from natural products like cannabis (As you know, I have been battling a life threatening illness. See a demonstration of medical marijuana extraction into fats in this video, “How To Make Cannabis Butter, Cooking With Marijuana”). This is the method suggested by Rabbi Meir.
The second option is actual perfuming, in which you merely capture the scent of the spices alone through contact and exposure (thank you Rabbi Juan Mejia for enlightening me on this!). This is something new to me, but interesting to learn. In the old days perfume was most commonly made by taking fresh spices, flowers and hydrated barks and placing them directly into oil. (see this method explained “Making Essential Oils at Home”) Yet another method of perfuming still relies on contact transfer as well. It is when the herbs are placed in water to release the oils, olive oil would then be floated over the surface to capture the essential oils and fragrances of the spices, the mixed oils would then be skimmed from the mixture or distilled off; the water in the mixture is very slowly boiled off, leaving only the fragrant substance. This latter method is suggested by Rabbi Yehudah.
I find this topic fascinating, because it a good demonstration of how much knowledge we have lost in the consumer age. In days gone by, people readily knew how to made extracts and perfumes, but in the lack of practice the details are not understood by most of us today.
I’m not going to take on that debate at this time, as we don’t really know the final answer to the question of which method was used anyhow. Both methods compromise a certain precondition, either the purity (clarity) or the need to be throughly mixed. What we do know is that what ever method used had to get the essence of 75 pounds of spices into a hin of oil; about a gallon of oil. Either method is quite difficult and requiring great care, considering in most cases even anything over a 1% solution of cinnamon alone could burn the skin!
The creation of this composition, for now will have to remain a mystery. We are further told that we are not allowed to recreate this formula of anointing oil. We cannot experiment with it to find out. It is sacred, and should not be poured directly on to human flesh (al basar adam lo yisach, see verse 32). Do we mean it should not be poured, just rubbed on to a person? The next verse seems to clarify by suggesting we cannot place this on foreign, non-priest, (al zar, see verse 33); it can only be used for anointing the priests.
This is what we appear to observe concerning the oil, which was to be placed directly on to Aharon and his sons to sanctify them for their priestly service.
Now it is most obvious to many of us why it is so important that this anointing oil be fragranced, as in our tradition spices are of great significance. Spices are said to awaken the soul, and enlighten the eye. For this reason we use spices during Havdalah – to end Shabbat we inhale the spices deeply to reawaken our souls for the week of labor ahead. The pleasantness of spices moves us in a way that is inspiring.
But what about spices that don’t smell so good? In fact, many medicinal herbs do not smell nice. Notice it is their horrible smell which also makes them unpalatable, just too awful to want to be tasted. Things which are too bad to drink or even smell on their own.
Actually in our parsha, we are faced with just that. This discussion is also in close chronologically with the Talmud as well. This topic arises surrounding the equally sacred Ketoret incense.
“And Hashem said to Moses:
Take for yourself spices;
spices and pure frankincense;
They shall be of equal weight
And you shall make it into incense,
according to the art of the perfumer,
well blended, pure, holy.”
| Vayomer Hashem el-Moshe
| kach-lecha samim
| samim ulevonah zakah
| bad bevad yihyeh
| Ve’asita otah ktoret
| ma’aseh roke’ach
| memulach tahor kodesh
In the production of the Ketoret, there are eleven spices that are used to create that blended compound. The spices and mixtures were prepared by grinding them down very fine, and then mixing them together by spatula blending. Turning over and over, utill mixed.
All the ingredients seem to make sense except for the galbanum. That is one of the substances that we understand the least, but which is the most discussed among the curious. There is a reason why we want to understand this, as our rabbis are also of the opinion that small amounts of all of the ketoret spices are placed into the anointing oil as well. Galbanum would have naturally have been one of the ingredients.
Today modern science sheds some light on the origins and possible usefulness of this herbal ingredient.
First off, we know that this that chalbena/galbanum comes for the east, deeper into Asia. Native to Iran and then spread through the regions of Afghanistan, it subsequently was brought west to Syria and Canaan. It likewise spread into India and China, who have the finest specimens we favor for medicine to this day. This plant has a bamboo-like cane stalk, and is commonly called “the giant fennel.”
What is it used for? More often than not, in literature it is used for burning, such as for making torches in classic Greek literature. It also most commonly used externally as a natural remedy. Whereas many items are applied to the skin, galbanum can also be used as an inhalant and a fumigant as well. It’s external uses are said to cure many things, but namely for releasing muscle spasms. It has also known to be used as a remedy for epilepsy, hysteria and giddiness, among other things. It is also useful as an insect repellent, when utilized as a fumigant (through smoke; interestingly that is one of the few observations about the Ketoret and Temple in our tradition, there were no presence of flying insects)
Galbanum can also be used internally, to treat a cough and asthma. When mixed with other compounds like myrrh it can be used as antidote for poison, with honey it can be used as a laxative and deobstruent. It’s apparently very good for the stomach, liver and spleen. Although today, much of the knowledge necessary for medicinal use is lost in it’s countries of origin. (see Encyclopædia Iranica: Galbanum)
However, today people still make extracts of galbanum and place them on neck, temples and on spasming muscles.
The problem with using galbanum is that it is terribly hard to use, since it smells so terrible. It‘s odor is described simply as “intense green,” by most people. A green and almost piny fragrance. However, raw and in its purer form, people merely describe it as smelling like turpentine.
There is no way around it, process it all you want, the stuff is awful. So why is it that we are asked to use something so foul and bitter smelling in the incense, and thus in turn also include it in the anointing oil?
Rashi brings up this point as well in his commentary regarding the smell of chalbana/galbanum. Rashi says:
“And galbanum: A spice with a vile odor, called galbane [in Old French], galbanum. The Scripture counted it among the ingredients of the incense [in order] to teach us that we should not look with disapproval at including Jewish sinners with us when we assemble for fasting or prayer. [The Torah instructs us] that they should be counted with us. [from Ker. 6b]”
וחלבנה: בשם שריחו רע וקורין לו גלבנא, ומנאה הכתוב בין סמני הקטורת, ללמדנו, שלא יקל בעינינו לצרף עמנו באגודת תעניותינו ותפלותינו את פושעי ישראל שיהיו נמנין עמנו:
Rashi to Genesis 30:34
Here Rashi brings us back to the Talmud, to the same sections we were previously discussing. And in this commentary we have it reaffirmed for us, we are all in agreement that this substance smelled “ra,” it was a bad and dare we say “evil” smelling substance. It smells nasty, that’s what ra means. It doesn’t get much more descriptive than that.
And this is why we most often discuss galbanum, people want to know why this vile smelling ingredient needs to be included. Our rabbis, since as far back as any of us can remember, have taught that the reason we include the chalbana is because the mixture would be incomplete without it, it just wouldn’t smell right. The rabbis not just make the point that it needs to be mixed in with other substances to be acceptable. But that the other spices of the Ketoret would themselves not smell right unless this bitter ingredient was included in the mix. This re’ach ra – this evil smell.
You know more often than not when I talk to people about going to synagogue or joining in a Jewish event, I often have people tell me that they don’t belong. Few will tell me that they are just too much of a sinner. But that’s what many suggest. Instead many people instead suggest that they are just too bitter of a person to fit into a community. There is no place for them, they aren’t needed.
Our tradition would suggest that even if it were true, that one could claim that either themselves or some other Jew is just too bitter, in fact too sinful of a person to be part of the Jewish community; that is the very reason why that person needs to be included.
Just like mixing incense or perfumes, a really good fragrance is not just one type of smell. It’s nice, but that will never do. In a good mix, in a proper blend we have several smells mixed together, each complimenting each other. On their own they are lovely, but together they can be something amazing.
It’s no different when it comes to community, the personalities can often temper and compliment each other. It is good that we be in the mix with other Jewish people, even us sharp personalities like myself. Other people can help take the edge off us. Our friends and loved ones bringing balance to us.
But even more so, we need to all recognize that we as a community are incomplete if we don’t have some of those more intense and strong personalities that most people would rather avoid. Even those bitter persons. We need to have some of their sharpness and distinctive intensity, they accentuate us. They are needed to bring balance and wholeness to us all.
The Talmud, which Rashi is paraphrasing here in his commentary, actually takes it one step further. We are taught that we are not to look down on the person who comes to be included in the prayers of the Jewish people. When they come on holy and auspicious days like Yom Kippur, we don’t belittle them. Think about it, what point is a day of fasting and repentance if the sinners where not included? We need their prayers to be part of ours in order for our supplications to be complete.
The great Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan z”l clarifies on this for us, by taking us down a mystical route. So I quote the master:
“The incense consisted of ten spices or perfumes with good fragrances, and an eleventh spice, Chelbenah-galbanum, with a vile odor… which alludes to the elevation of evil back into the realm of the holy.
”Following the idea of the ten fragrant spices and the single unpleasant one, the Talmud (Keritot 6b) states: ‘Every communal fast that does not include sinners of Israel is not a fast.’ This is derived from the fact that the incense included Chelbenah-galbanum. Just as the Chelbenah was necessary to give the other spices exactly the right fragrance, a congregation is not complete without someone who has also fallen and who must re-elevate himself through repentance. In particular, when a difficult punishment has been decreed against Israel because of some evil deed, this very evil must be taken and elevated. Thus, the idea of transforming evil by elevating it back to its source in holiness is intimated in the incense. It is for this reason also that a communal fast must include ‘the sinners of Israel.'”
– Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, “Innerspace” p. 87
Are you bitter? Then you have a place with us! Are you an unpleasant person? The Jewish community needs you! Are you a sinner? Then we need you to be part of this as well. Maybe you feel like the 11th ingredient, the odd-man-out; but you aren’t useless, you are part of our essential make-up. We are incomplete without you. You are part of the blend that makes the Jewish people so unique and so intense. Your distinctiveness is needed to help elevate the spiritual and communal experience of the rest of us!
Do-It-Yourself Project Suggestion:
Want to experiment with some of what we have learned today about the production of oils and perfumes? As we have discussed, there are several ways of transferring fragrances into oil. If you can make iced tea, you can make perfumed oils. Learn how to make Lavender Scented Oil today from the video below.