Onycha - Contenders For The Identity of Onycha - Labdanum


There is some doubt as to whether the onycha of the Old Testament was actually the operculum of a sea snail. H.J. While it is not the only mollusk used in Jewish ritual objects, Abrahams says, "The widely held mollusk hypothesis becomes quite perplexing if one considers that the mollusk was counted among the unclean animals in the Bible (Chapters Leviticus 11:9 and 12)." Sea creatures such as the mollusk was an “abomination” and even their carcasses were to be considered an “abomination” and anyone simply touching them became unclean. Rabbeinu Bachyei insisted that only kosher species may be used for the mishkan. The Gemara states that “only items that one may eat may be used for the work of Heaven.” Nachmanides, Torah scholar and famed Jewish theologian, emphasized that the commandment concerning unclean animals pertained also to temple services. James Strong and J. McClintoch write that “it seems improbable that any such substance could have been one of the constituent spices of the most holy perfume; not only because we know of none bearing any powerful and agreeable odor, but specially because all marine creatures that were not finned and scaled fishes were unclean, and as such could not have been touched by the priests or used in the sanctuary.” There is also some doubt that a mollusk would have been referred to as a sweet spice. Bahr states that “the odor of the burned shells is not pleasant.” Although the word onycha has been interpreted as meaning "nail" it is pointed out that nail or claw is actually an extended connotation of onyx, derived from the translucent and sometimes veined appearance of the gemstone onyx which antiquity often describes as a black stone. Coincidentally onycha is the Greek word which was chosen to replace the original Hebrew word which was shecheleth. One of the Hebrew words that shecheleth seems to be related to, שחלים, sh'chalim, refers to a large variety of plants. A ancient Ugaritic text lists onycha among types of vegetables, implying that onycha was a vegetable also. The Talmud specifically states that although onycha (shecheleth) is not from a tree, it does grow from the ground and that it is a plant (Kerithoth 6b). Condor writes “Shecheleth, Exod. xxx. 34; rendered by the Septuagint, onycha, and by the Arabic version, ladana . . . The root of the Hebrew word means to drop or distil, and shecheleth would seem, therefore, to mean some exudation.” James Strong writes "the Syriac etymology of the word, namely, to run in drops, exude, distil, would lead to the idea of a resinous and odoriferous substance of the vegetable kingdom." Another writer says “the context and the etymology seem to require the gum of some aromatic plant, perhaps gum-ladanum. The Hebrew word would seem to mean something that exuded, having odorous qualities.” "Shecheleth" identifies with the Syriac "shehelta" which is translated as “a tear, distillation, or exudation."

According to Winifred Walker's All the Plants of the Bible, shecheleth is a form of rock rose, Cistus ladaniferus var. Cistus creticus, which produces a resin called labdanum. This sweet spicy ingredient has been used in perfumes and incense for thousands of years and grows profusely in the Middle East, specifically in Israel and Palestine. The rock rose is a bush, not a tree (the Talmud states that onycha comes from a ground plant and not a tree) which bears flowers widely noted for the markings upon its petals resembling human fingernails. Labdanum is the gray-black resin that exudes from the branches of the rock rose bush. Labdanum, after it matures, becomes black and is referred to as black amber or black balsam. Gill states that the word "shecheleth is certainly related to the Hebrew word shechor (black)," denoting the color of the shecheleth used in the ketoret formula. Onycha is a play on the word onyx which was a gem. The onyx most esteemed by the ancients was the black gem. The Hebrew word for onyx was shoham and “Braun traces shoham to the Arabic sachma,'blackness:' 'Of such a color,' says he, 'are the Arabian, which have a black ground-color.' This agrees essentially with Charles William King's remarks 'The Arabian species,' he says, 'were formed of black or blue strata.” The rock rose also has an inseparable identification with rocks because its existence depends upon its roots anchoring among them in areas where no other foliage is able to grow. After labdanum became hard it may have been put through another process causing it to emulate even more of the "beautiful" attributes of the onyx or to refine it, "that it be pleasant." When used in sacred rites resins were often steeped in wine to, among other things, increase their fragrance.

A reference to onycha as an annual plant may be confusion with its annual yield. Rock rose usually produces labdanum annually, during the summer, to protect itself from the heat. A reference to onycha as a root may be due to the practice of boiling the twigs and roots for labdanum extraction or the use of cistus roots as a medicine. The root of the Cistus plant is a Jordanian traditional medicine. The root is still used today by the Arabs for bronchitis and also as a pectorial, demulcent, tonic, and anti-diabetic. Then again the possibility exists that while the onycha of Exodus 30 was labdanum, the identity of onycha may have been lost some time during or after the Babylonian captivity, with the operculum becoming identified as onycha during the time of the second Temple. However, as the original onycha of the book of Exodus, Abrahams says that, more than any other substance, "labdanum fills the bill most convincingly."

The flowers of the rockrose bush is described as having petals with scarlet and black fingernail-shaped markings, thus its historically acclaimed connection with the Greek ονυξ onyx. Lynne writes, “Onycha . . . is a rockrose which produces a gum that is known as labdanum. The blossoms are about three inches across, white with at the base of each petal a blotch of brilliant scarlet-rose which deepens into black. In Greek onycha means 'fingernail.' The blotch of color in each petal looks exactly like a brightly painted red fingernail.” Others proclaim that the very petals of this plant are shaped like finger nails. Again, onycha in Greek means “fingernail” or “claw.” Claws were used in ancient Egypt to collect labdanum. Pharaohs were pictured with this claw (a nekhakha) resting on their breasts. Claws, or rakes, were used to collect the labdanum from the cistus bushes and smaller claws, or combs, were used to collect labdamun from the beards of the wild goats. Removing and peeling the very sticky, adhesive labdanum from these very temperamental animals caused them to cry out, to “peel out by the concussion of sound,” or to “roar” out in protest. As mentioned above the original Hebrew word for onycha was שחלת, shecheleth, which comes from a root meaning "to roar" or “peeling off by concussion of sound." In Aramaic, the root SHCHL signifies “retrieve.” For thousands of years labdanum has been retrieved from the beards of goats and the wool of lambs by this method. The resin was peeled off of the goats beard, lambs wool, and from the lambadistrion. Interestingly the Arabic word for peel is sahala. The Pharaohs beard was made up of goats hair which was held together and scented by labdanum. When the royal kingly Pharaoh spoke it was as the lion's “roar,” the voice of god to the people. The Pharaoh was called the "incarnation of Atum." Massy writes that, "The lion was a zootype of Atum . . . He is called the lion-faced in the Ritual . . . He is addressed as a lion god, the god in lion form." Pharaohs were often depicted as part human and part lion wearing the false beard saturated with labdanum. This beard was inspired by the lion's mane and was part of the various sphinx depicting the Pharaohs. A sphinx of Pharaoh Hatsheput displays a lion's mane and the pharaoh's manufactured beard. Strong defines the root word of shecheleth as "to roar; a lion (from his characteristic roar)." Labdanum was used not only as a perfume and adhesive for the Pharaohs beard but was also used by the Egyptian art of the apothecary in an incense known as kyphi which was rolled into small balls and burned upon coals of fire. However labdanum could also be an ingredient of a powdered incense. When aged it becomes more fragrant but it also becomes very brittle and hard. The fresh resin is a soft, sticky, and tar-like substance that is sweet, flowery, musky, and reminiscent of honey or ambergris with a hint of sweet leather. Rabban Simeon, the son of Gamliel, said that wine was used to make onycha become hard, thereby admitting that onycha was not a preexistingly hard mollusk shell, but that onycha was a soft resinous material such as is labdanum. Herodotus affirms that it was much used by the Arabians in perfumes. According to Pliny the Elder (23 - 79 AD), who mentions its fragrant smell, it was the extract of an herb called " ladan." Labdanum was known as "Arabic ladan."

According to the book of Exodus the Israelites were familiar with the ancient art of the apothecary (or perfumery) of the Egyptians from whom they had just been liberated. Lucas lists labdanum (along with frankincense, myrrh, galbanum, and storax) among the only materials most certain to have been used in ancient Egypt and that labdanum "was abundant in the countries bordering the Mediterranean with which Egypt had intercourse.” He writes that in the Bible “ it is stated that certain merchants carried ladanum into Egypt from Gilead (Genesis, xxxvii : 25, Revised Version) and that Jacob sent ladanum to Egypt as a present to his son Joseph (Genesis, xliii : II Revised Version).” Newberry reports that the ancient Egyptians were acquainted with labdanum as early as the 1st century. Pliny states that the Ptolemies introduced labdanum into 'the parts beyond Egypt.” It was known to the Greeks as early as the times of Herodotus (484-425 BC) and Theophrastus (370 - 285 BC). It was one of the ingredients in a remedy in the ancient Egyptian Materia Medica, and in an ancient Egyptian papyrus dated 1500 BC it is used along with hippopontamus fat, as a cure for dandruff. Labdanum was “often made into incense cakes for temple offerings as well as used as a fixative in perfumes. Lucas records an “instance of ladanum having been found in connection with ancient Egypt is a specimen of Coptic incense of the seventh century from Faras near Wadi Halfa.

Martin Luther, in co-operation with Bible expert and Greek scholar Philipp Melanchton, rejected the operculum theory in favor of onycha being a plant product. A commentary footnote in one of the older copies of the Authorized Version seems to agree saying, “The only hint about the onycha that we can find is in the Arabic version, where we meet with ladana, suggesting . . . gum-ladanum.” The Illustrated Dictionary of the Bible plainly defines onycha as the “gum resin obtained from . . . the rockrose, also known as labdanum.

Bochartus, a scholar of profound erudition possessing a thorough knowledge of the principal Oriental languages, including Hebrew, Syriac, Chaldean and Arabic, argued that onycha was labdanum. It is claimed “Bochartus proves, by many arguments, to be ladanum”

Abrahams writes that "the Hebrew name shecheleth was translated as ladana, giving rise to labdanum." The renowned Jewish scholar and writer Saadya (Saʻadiah ben Yosef Gaon, 882-942), born in Upper Egypt (Fayum) and educated in Fustat (Old Cairo), translated the Bible into Arabic. Saadya, who was a theologian as well as the head Rabbi at the Sura Academy, was equally versed in Hebrew, in Greek, and in Arabic, and knew the people and customs of the whole Arabic region intimately. Saadya's translation for Shecheleth was the Arabic "Ladana," and ladana is our ladanum or labdanum. H.J. Abrahams states that "I am sure that Shecheleth (onycha) is a plant product . . . After diligent reflection on all these diverse options, there is little doubt in my mind that onycha of Exodus 30:34 is labdanum. Saadya's labdanum is not only ideally suited for use in incense, but it is also a product of the Jewish homeland."

Read more about this topic:  Onycha, Contenders For The Identity of Onycha

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