Galbanum And Judaism: Its use in the ancient Jewish temple

By Sudhir Ahluwalia

Ferula galbaniflua syn F gummosa is found in Iran, southern Russia, Afghanistan, and Turkey. It is a perennial that grows to a height of one meter. The plant bears umbelliferus yellow flowers arranged in a panicle. The gum resin is extracted by wounding the root or lower part of the stem.

The resin that oozes out of the wound is collected around two weeks after wounding, by which time the exudates have hardened into a crystalline substance. The chemical constituents of galbanum are monoterpenes (α and β pinene), sabinene, limonene, undecatriene, and pyrazines. Galbanum is one of the four essential ingredients of the Holy Incense mentioned in Exodus 30:34 and Ecclesiastes 24:14–15. It was one of the ingredients of Ketoret (1), the Jewish Holy Incense that was burned in the Tabernacle in the 1 st and 2nd Jewish Temple at Jerusalem.

The current widely accepted source of galbanum is Ferula gummosa, which is synonymous with Ferula galbaniflua, though other species also yield galbanum. It has an acute and unpleasant smell, hence its nickname “devils dung” in English, which makes one wonder about its selection for use in ancient incense. Galbanum was likely a fixative in ancient perfumes, and it is still used as such today. Fixatives do not need to be sweet smelling. Fixatives instead enhance and prolong the scent of perfumes. The plant that produces galbanum has similar chemical compounds to the pungent asafetida, a spice that is popular in Indian cuisine.

Nomads of southwestern Iran have traditionally used the plant as an antidiarrheal. Ancient Iranian medical literature refers to it as an anticonvulsant, antispasmodic, expectorant, and wound treatment. These treatments have been studied in trials on rats, but they have not been validated in clinical trials.

Antibacterial action of the resin was studied, but little activity was detected. Spasmolytic action of the essential oil against part of the intestine has also been studied by scientists. In Iranian traditional medicine, an oleo-gum- resin obtain from F. gummosa is popular for treating various disorders that include stomach ache, cholera, diarrhea, epilepsy, inflammation, and pain. In a review of the species conducted by Nabavi et al. (2012) in Iran, the anti-oxidant action of the gum was studied and validated.

Related Article:

The Health Benefits of the Biblical Plant Galbanum


(1) ketoret was the most prestigious and sacred of the services in the Holy Temple. The incense offering (ketoret in Judaism) was related to perfumed offerings on the Incense altar  in the time of the Tabernacle and the First and Second Temple period, and was an important component of priestly liturgy in the Temple in Jerusalem. During the days of the Temple, the Ketoret is burned every evening and morning on the golden Incense Altar by the Cohanim (Priests), in front of the Holy Ark in the Temple Sanctuary. [Gideon]