There are many references in the Gemara to apharsemon. We learn that one of the things that a woman cannot carry on Shabbat is a צלוחית של פלייטון, a small perfume vial. There is a statement by Rabbi Ami that the women of Jerusalem would go out with apharsemon in their shoes and when they would meet boys in the market, they would step on the apharsemon and release a scent so strong that it would make the evil inclination enter them “like a poisonous snake.” One cannot light from the sap of apharsemon lest one come to desire some of the oil which will result the fire to extinguish earlier.
Powerful stuff! What was it? The Gemara and other sources of the time are familiar with the apharsemon plant (not the persimmon of today) that was grown in the Ein Gedi region and was used to make perfume. It was a valuable item that made those who grew it rich. Apharsemon is usually translated as “balsam” and some say that is the origin of the Hebrew word “bosem,” perfume.
Apharsemon was valuable but the perfume was difficult to make and its production was a closely guarded trade secret. So closely guarded that written into the inscription of the synagogue mosaic from Ein Gedi, a center of apharsemon production, is a curse on those who give away the “secret of the town,” i.e., how to make apharsemon perfume.
Professor Zohar Amar identifies the apharsemon as Commiphora gileadensis and has succeeded in planting it in Ein Gedi. The next challenge is to figure out “the secret of the town” and make some Eau de Balsam from it.
Balsam also had some more, shall we say, volatile qualities. One is not supposed to light Shabbat candles from it. (Shabbat 26a) One of the reasons given is that it catches fire very quickly. This is illustrated by the ultimate evil mother-in-law story. A mother-in-law told her daughter-in-law to adorn herself with balsam. Then she told her to go light the candles. You can figure out the ending for yourself . . .
And what about the container for the perfume, a decoration that a woman cannot carry outside on Shabbat? A recent excavation of the Second Templeperiod town of Migdalon the shores of the Kinneret may shed some light on that. The archaeologists found a small perfume vial with a greasy substance inside. Ancient apharsemon? Only the lab results will reveal the truth!
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