As the first ingredient of the Holy Incense, Nataph in Hebrew means “drop,” corresponding to “drops of water” (Job 36:27). The English translations use Stacte, from the Greek word meaning “an oozing substance,” referring to various viscous liquids including myrrh and labdanum (Rose of Sharon). Rabbi Gamaliel described it as “the sap that drips from the tapping of the wood of the Ketaf tree (Kerithot 6a). Rashi clarified, “Nataph is the same as Tzree (Balm), and since it is only drips (and is not drawn out), the drips from the Ketaf tree are called Nataph (drips). Interestingly, in the book of Jeremiah where Tzree is mentioned (Jeremiah 8:22, 46:11, 51:8), it was in concurrence with the root word Refah, meaning to heal. In other places in the Torah, Tzree (balm) is mentioned with spices that were carried by Ishmaelite traders in Genesis 37:25, and then in Genesis 43:11 as a gift from Jacob in the land of Canaan presented to Joseph, as the Prince of Egypt.
Gil Marks reported in his research concerning the Qetoret that, “some ancient sources indicate that Nataph and Tzree are not synonymous. Balm that exudes spontaneously (Nataph) was considered of the highest quality, as opposed to that produced through manmade incisions (Tzree); the latter acceptable for commercial purposes, while Nataph was specified in the Qetoret.”
Some commentators claim Stacte to be the same as Myrrh, and there is sufficient evidence that the Greek Stactae was a form of myrrh. The Septuagint’s mistake in translation could have been because both Nataph and Stactae mean “to drip” while myrrh was translated as מר, Mor, in the same chapter earlier in reference to the anointing oil. Almost all other commentators agree that the oozing matter comes from the balsam tree or one of the many types of storax trees– the sap being called “balm” in English.
Thousand years ago, in an oasis on the western shore of the Dead Sea numerous rare and special balsam trees sprouted from the terraces and hills of Engedi. The balsam oil from Engedi and Jericho was considered by the Greeks and Romans to be the finest in the world for its fragrance and as a medicinal salve. In fact, the city’s name, Jericho, derived from the root Rayach (fragrance), alluded to the ancient presence of balsam trees in the area.
As a close relative to myrrh, author Gil Marks writes, “Varieties of balsam grew wild throughout much of the land surrounding the Red Sea. The one that produces the superior resin is Commiphora opobalsamum, a 10- to 12-foot high tree with a deep brown bark and small trifoliate leaves. During the heat and humidity of the summer, the aromatic resin spontaneously oozes out in drops from cracks in the lower section of the trunk, a process fostered with manmade incisions. The whitish balm gradually turns gray and solid. The still fluid sap may be added to oil, which absorbs the intoxicating fragrance. Solidified balm may be pulverized and added to oil or mixed with other resins. Balm, although very expensive, constituted a significant component of life in ancient Israel.”
According to legend, balsam was originally brought to Israel from Arabia by the Queen of Sheba among her gifts to King Solomon. However, balm was already a prominent export from Canaan at the time of the Patriarchs in Genesis 37:25.
In 1996, the “Biblical Archaeology Review” reported that during the excavation of the ancient city of Gilead, they unearthed the remains of a building used for the manufacture of balsam essential oil. This oil known as the “Balm of Gilead” is noted in Jeremiah 8:22:
“Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people?”
This balm of Gilead was known for its miraculous healing of wounds. The production of this healing balm was so well guarded that archeologists found this inscription on the mosaic floor of an ancient ruin:
“Whoever reveals the secret of the village to the gentiles, the one whose eyes roam over the entire earth and sees what is concealed will uproot this person and his seed from the sun.”