Ki Tissa 5769: The Spice of Death, Used for Life

I have an obsession. It started with sex, but ended up as my breakfast. Every morning, I usually get up, get dressed and drive to a Starbuck’s close to where I will be working for the day. Every day, I order the same thing for breakfast: A venti coffee and oatmeal. While I drink the coffee black, I do add something to the oatmeal. Since the first time I have done so, I have I’ve noticed something. What I added to my oatmeal is mentioned in this week’s portion, though it is far from edible.

23. Take you also to you the best spices, of pure myrrh five hundred shekels, and of sweet cinnamon half so much, two hundred and fifty shekels, and of sweet calamus two hundred and fifty shekels, 24. And of cassia five hundred shekels, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, and of oil olive a hin; 25. And you shall make it an oil of holy ointment, an ointment compound according to the art of the apothecary; it shall be a holy anointing oil.[Exodus 30]

This is to be the oil which all of the vessels of the temple are to be anointed with. There are debates as to the mass of the shekel, making conversion into modern units difficult. 9, 11, 14, and 17 grams are commonly possibilites. Adin Steinstalz in his Talmud: A Reference Guide defines a shekel as 9 grams, and in the lack of any better conversion factor we can come up with a formula of dry ingredients:

Myrrh 500 Shekels (4500gr)

Cinnamon 250 Shekels (2250gr)

Sweet calamus 250 Shekels (2250gr)

Cassia 500 Shekels (4500gr)

This spice power was then suspended in a hin of olive oil. A hin of olive oil is also debated, but this might be 7.1 liters. That would mean if the dry ingredients were added directly to the oil there was 1.9 grams/ml of spice, an amount which would be closer to a paste than flowing oil.
The Talmud however, notes the dry ingredients was extracted by heating this mixture, and the resultant extract was what was added to the oil [K’ritot 5b]. The Talmud also makes adjustments by adding 250 shekels more of sweet cinnamon [K’ritot 5a-b].
Looking at these concentrations, I have for long time suspected something about the anointing oil for the vessels. Part of my suspicion comes from the punishment for using the stuff.

32. Upon man’s flesh shall it not be poured, nor shall you make any other like it, after its composition; it is holy, and it shall be holy to you. 33. Whoever compounds any like it, or whoever puts any of it upon a stranger, shall be cut off from his people.[Exodus 30]

While it is a sacred material, I’ve wondered about such warnings which sound very much like the warnings of a chemical manufacturer when warning a consumer. When I first wondered about this about ten years ago, I was researching the large number of botanical references found in the Song of Songs. Cinnamon, myrrh, and calamus all occur in one verse:

14. Spikenard and saffron; calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense; myrrh and aloes, with all the chief spices; [Song of Songs 4]

Translating the Song I wondered if this was not just a metaphor for some very expensive imported plants, but something more, an herbal pharmacopeia. In the Song of Songs I was looking for aphrodisiacs, but what I found was far more interesting. As I did my research I found out several things about each of these spices:
Cinnamon and Cassia: As far as modern trade names are concerned these are both cinnamon. However, Cinnamon or sweet cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum) is the imported Indian and Sri Lankan species, and cassia (Cinnamomum cassia) is from China, sometimes called Chinese cinnamon. While both have in common the chemical cinnamaldehyde making up 65-80% of its volatile oil, Cassia has less of other active chemicals than Cinnamon, including the antimicrobial o-methoxycinnamaldehyde.
Cinnamon in Hebrew is Kinmon and cassia in Hebrew Kidah. However the Aramaic translation of Exodus 30 has k’tziata, which sounds a lot more like cassia. Kidah and Kinmon has only three occurrences each in the biblical text. The use of the two types of cinnamon do have a sensual side to them, as noted in the Song of Songs (4:14) passage and in the Seductress of Proverbs (7:17) both times associated with anther of the ingredients of the anointing oil, Myrrh. Cassia and Calamus also occur together in Ezekiel 27:19 in terms of being an item traded from afar.
In laboratory experiments, cassia and cinnamon both have been found to retard microbial growth including a wide variety of disease-causing bacteria and fungi. Other research has pointed to other uses. Its folk use as a remedy for abdominal pain seems to have some evidence. Lab tests on animals describe the relaxation of intestinal linings when exposed to cinnamon. The German Commission E, the German government commission given responsibility over herbal supplements in Germany, found evidence it was as effective as cimetidene in controlling gastric problems. However research has also shown it has little to no effect on Helicobacter pylori, the cause of many ulcer related problems. Cinnamon has shown a its greatest promise as a food preservative to retard E. coli and Salmonella among other food pathogens.
Myrrh: While the other three ingredients have only three occurrences, Myrrh had fifteen. Eight are in the Songs of Songs and may have meaning more in its extraction as much as its use. Myrrh is the sap of a tree of genus Commiphora found primarily in the Middle East. Which species is anyone’s guess, because all have similar properties. To harvest Myrrh, one has to massage out the whitish or reddish sap from a slit made in the tree’s twigs, suggesting one of its sexual connotations particualy in the scene in Chapter 5 of the Song of Songs. Myrrh’s other sexual connotation may be hinted themost in its one mention in the book of Esther. One of the precautions given about myrrh in virtually every folk tale and pharmacopeia about it and in several academic journals is its uncanny ability to initiate menstruation. Thus all sources forbid the use of myrrh with pregnant women due to the possibility of miscarriage. Therefore in the case of Esther 3:12 the six months, or two trimesters of Myrrh treatments may be a case of an induced abortion and contraception to assure any child born of the woman chosen queen was a legitimate heir to Ahasuerus’ throne. I could even speculate in one other case about such an abortion: the bitter waters rite for a woman suspected of adultery. Such a rite required the dust from the Mishkan, the same dust the Myrrh infused anointing oil dripped. When ingested, the high concentration of myrrh in the dust on the Mishkan floor might have caused an abortion from an illicit affair, what the text refers to as her thighs falling [Numbers 5:27].
But once again, Myrrh or Mor in Hebrew most documented use in medical literature is as an antimicrobial and fungicide. It was one of the items used in embalming fluid of the Egyptian mummification process, and does wonders in killing all kinds of molds. Apparently it also stimulates the human immune system as well. Due to its difficult harvesting methods and the scarcity of the plant, it is very expensive to use. Thus there is not a significant amount of modern research into its properties.
Sweet calamus: Called Kaneh in both Hebrew and Aramaic, there have been many debates as to what it really is. Most authorities including Israeli biblical botanist Zohary agree it probably is one of the grass species Cymbopogon, with Zohary championing Cymbopogon marinii, commonly known as ginger grass, even though there is another species indigenous to Israel. There is evidence of its use from Egyptian tombs by the smell reported of ginger grass still evident when sealed tombs are opened. People today probably know the East Asian species best, Cymbopogon citratus or lemongrass. As Ezekiel 27:19 and Jeremiah 6:20 seem to indicate Kaneh was an import to Israel, probably from India. One extract from Cymbopogon nardus is citronella, known for its insect repellent properties. All species of Cymbopogon are bactericidal, and there is some laboratory evidence that some may also be antiviral.
There is a consistent pattern among all of the spices of the anointing oil. All, in one way or another are demonstrated antimicrobials. When the raw spice was concentrated into essential oils then placed in an olive oil suspension this became one of the first recorded sanitizers. It purpose was not one of directly of life, but of death to microorganisms. Given the amount of blood and animal carcasses that were part of the priestly sacrifices, killing microorganisms on surfaces makes sense as a way to limit illness from contamination. It is not coincidental that right before the anointing oil God tell Moses to build a handsink, and that Aaron and his sons are to “wash with water, that they do not die” [Exodus 30:20] The health and safety of the priests depended on good decontamination procedures from their daily tasks. The anointing oil was probably the worlds first recorded antiseptic.
But like the bleach we use today, it was not made for human consumption. While all of these ingredients were edible in small quantities, at the concentrations in the anointing oil they might very well be toxic. While some of the others have potential for contact dermatitis, cinnamon and cassia essential oils can cause burns to human skin if left on for prolonged periods. In an oil base this is very likely, demonstrated by cases where it is suspended in petrolatum, and thus another reason for the prohibition of placing on a human being. When we read the phrase “cut off from his people” the rabbis understand this not as a literal ex-communication, but a death penalty meted out by God. Put another way, when that phrase occurs, there is the potential for lethal consequences. In the anoiting oil, toxic levels of cinnamaldehyde alone could cause painful burns.
We tend to think of many of our advances in science as happening in only the last 500 years, and tend to forget that there were people observing the natural world far before that. Some of what those people found was wrong, but more and more, we are finding evidence that was thought superstition was effective cures. I’ve not had problems with gastritis or heartburn since I started eating my cinnamon oatmeal every day. Instead of swallowing Tagamet, I think I’ll keep enjoying a little cinnamon in my oatmeal.

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Trainer, App developer. Author. Artist. Proprietor of makeapppie.com and Host of Slice of App Pie Show

Posted in cinnamon, Environmental Health, myrrh, oil, spices

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