What is Nataf (Stacte), the ancient ingredient used by Jewish priests in the biblical Temple?

[The Hebrew word nataf means “drop”, corresponding to “drops of water”]

by Sudhir Ahluwalia

Stacte, known in Hebrew as nataf, is one of the four ingredients in Holy Incense referred to in Exodus 35:34. As with most Biblical and other religious references to herbs and plants, the botany of the plant from which the spice, incense, or medicine was extracted has been a matter of considerable debate and discussion. In this case, some say that stacte is another name for myrrh. Both are gum exudates collected in the form of tears. Scholars have referenced Herodotus and Pliny to support this claim. The plant apparently grew in the Mediterranean. Pliny mentions it in his Book XII of Natural Historia. In Book LV of Natural Historia, he states, “The Syrians value this gum highly, and use it medicinally as a demulcent in pectoral complaints, and also in perfumery.” Perhaps this fragrant gum was collected in the same manner as myrrh, or perhaps it was another tree gum called tragacanth.

In view of the lack of archaeological evidence as to the source of stacte, we must rely on circumstantial evidence. Pliny mentions that stacte was found in the region that is now Syria. Herodotus notes that different kinds of “storax” were actiStyrax Officinalisvely traded during his time. Storax was an aromatic spice used as incense and in medicine.

An Egyptian perfume formula from 1200 BC consisted of “Storax, Labdanum, Galbanum, Frankincense, Myrrh, Cinnamon, Cassia, Honey, Raisins” (Keville and Green, 2008) Rosenmeuller (1840) records that “the Greeks also called stacte, a species of Storax gum, which Dioscorides described, as transparent like a tear, and resembling myrrh.”

From at least 500 BC to 1000 AD, an active trade in spices existed between the Arabia Peninsula, India, Malaku (modern day Indonesia), northern Africa, Greece, Rome, and Israel. It is probable that stacte, referred to as one of the ingredients in the Holy Incense mentioned in Exodus 30:34, could be storax. However, it is highly unlikely that it is synonymous with myrrh, as there are extensive references to myrrh throughout the Old and the New Testaments and it is thus unlikely that myrrh and stacte would be used interchangeably.

Another contender for stacte are species belonging to the genus Styrax. Styrax benzoin, Styrax benzoides, and Styrax tonkinensis are three species found extensively in Malacca in modern Indonesia. They all are sources of pleasant-smelling gum. S. benzoin gum is used as incense in churches and mosques today. The popular name for this oleoresin is gum Benjamin. According to Wikipedia, the name benzoin probably derives from the Arabic luban jawai (Javan frankincense). Styrax is still used in the Middle East as an air freshener. Maybe, as Dioscorides said, multiple types of storax or styrax were traded in the region. It is therefore likely that the stacte-like frankincense came from multiple plants.

Styrax Officinalis

Styrax inhabits eastern Mediterranean countries across Italy, Turkey, and Israel. A styrax variety also grows in California in the United States. In Israel, styrax grows in the Judean and Samarian mountains on Mount Carmel and in Herman, the Upper Jordan, and other northern valleys. Styrax often has a shrub-like appearance but is classified as a tree and can grow to five meters in height. It inhabits dry rocky slopes in woods, thickets, and near streams. This deciduous tree has white flowers that emanate a citrus fragrance, attracting many bees and insects. The smoke from the tree is aromatic, but toxic.

The Israeli species does not yield resin. Some claim that the absence of resin in the Israeli varieties is a consequence of genetic changes, but there is no evidence to support this theory. Seven of the eight ancient Greek Hymns of Orpheus mention storax 13 times, which is only slightly fewer than the most popular aromatic spice, frankincense. Storax was likely a highly valued aromatic resin. An essential oil produced from S. officinalis seed in Turkey is used in some Roman Catholic churches in Europe.

A branch from the tree is said to have been used as a staff by Moses. Styrax and benzoin balsams have been used since ancient times by Romans and others (Gianno et al., 1990; Modugno et al., 2006) to treat chronic infections of the respiratory tract. The plant has therapeutic and pharmacological properties as a disinfectant and expectorant.

Avicenna’s Law of Medicine indicates that styrax resin mixed with antibiotic substances and hardening materials is a good dental restorative material. Nowadays, the resin is used as a fixative in perfumes and as a filler and flavor-enhancer in cosmetics and foods (Fernandez et al., 2003, 2006; Castel et al., 2006).