SPICES


The Bible has no special word for spice. In the talmudic and midrashic literature the term tavlin is used, from the verb tavel (תבל), which is apparently connected with the root balol ("to mix"). This term was employed metaphorically by R. Joshua b. Ḥananiah in his reply to questions by "the emperor" (probably Hadrian): "Why has the Sabbath dish such a fragrant odor?" To this R. Joshua replied: "We have a certain spice (tavlin) called the Sabbath, which we put into it [the Sabbath dish] and which gives it a fragrant odor" (Shab. 119a). Spiced foods were very popular among the Jews of Ereẓ Israel and Babylonia, even as they are today among Jews from Oriental countries who know several dozen varieties of spices, special favorites being the pungent-tasting ones, principally pepper, that stimulate the appetite. Such spices apparently also have some disinfectant action under the inferior conditions of food hygiene prevalent in the East. The general name for spices is משביחי אוכלין (mashbiḥei okhelin, "food improvers"; Sif. Deut. 107, where seven kinds of spices are mentioned). Another term used is צִיקֵי קְדֵרָה (ẓikei kederah; Yoma 75a; Ḥul. 77b; et al.).

Among the "food-improving" spices may also be included pungent-tasting vegetables, such as *garlic, the *leek, the *onion, etc. Some aromatic plants (*incenses and perfumes), such as *cinnamon and *saffron, were also used as spices. In addition to these aromatic plants and vegetables, the Bible mentions four kinds of spices, *hyssop, *caper, *cumin, and *fennel-flower, while talmudic literature refers to dozens of varieties, the most important of which are the following.

AMOMUM

The word ḥamam mentioned in the Mishnah (Uk. 3:5; et al.) refers, according to Asaph ha-Rofe, to the seed of the pungent-tasting, aromatic plants of the genus Amomum of the Zingiberaceae – ginger family – such as Amomum cardamomum. Called hel in Arabic, it is popular among Oriental communities as an additive to coffee. Some hold that the "principal spices" (Ex. 30:23) refer to these plants.

ASAFETIDA

The ḥiltit of the Mishnah is the plant Ferula asafetida, the congener of galbanum, and, like it, has an unpleasant aroma but flavors a dish, and is still used in Iran. Mentioned together with asafetida is a spice named ti'ah (Uk. 3:5), held by some to be the root of the same plant.

CAPER

The fruit, aviyyonah, and the flower buds, ẓalat, of the caper plant were eaten pickled either in salt or in vinegar.

CARAWAY

The karbos of the Mishnah (Kil. 2:5 – this is the correct reading), which is identified in the Jerusalem Talmud (MS Rome, ibid. 2:5, 27d) refers to Carum carvi, the seed of which was used as a spice and the thick root as a vegetable.

COSTUS

The kosht, which is mentioned among the "food improvers" (Sif. Deut. 107; cf. Uk. 3:5) and among the ingredients of the incense used in the Temple (Ker. 6a), has been identified with the aromatic spice Costus, which was extracted from species of plants belonging to the ginger family. According to another view, the Costus of the ancients is to be identified with Aucklandia costus (= Aplotaxixhappa), a fragrant plant which is a member of the Compositae family.

CUMIN

The seed of the kammon of the Bible and the literature of the sages was used as a spice on bread during baking.

DILL

Called shevet in the Mishnah, dill is the plant Anethum graveolens used today mainly as a spice in pickled cucumbers. In mishnaic times its foliage, stems, and seed were used as a spice (Ma'as. 4:5), and it was sown for this purpose (Pe'ah 3:2). It is an umbelliferous plant with yellow flowers, which grows wild in the Negev (it is popularly but erroneously called shamir).

DODDER

This plant is identified with plants of the genus Cuscuta of which there are many species that are parasitic on cultivated and wild plants in Israel. Dodder is called in the Mishnah keshut, the meaning of which is "hair," since these plants are leafless and have the appearance of entwined hair. The seed sprouts on the ground, and the plant winds itself around the stem of another plant, extracting its sap by putting forth suckers into it. The fruit of the dodder was used as a spice, mainly in wine (Pliny, Historia naturalis 13:46). In the Talmud it is mentioned that the dodder is a parasitic plant, its life depending on the plant to which it is attached (Er. 28b).

FENNEL

The umbelliferous plant Foeniculum vulgare, leaves of which are used as a spice similar to dill, fennel is called gufnan in the Mishnah (Dem. 1:1) and shumar in the Talmud. The Jerusalem Talmud (Dem. 1:1, 21d) states that the Galileans did not consider it a spice, but it was regarded as such in Judah.

FENNEL-FLOWER

Known as keẓah in the Bible and the literature of the sages, the seed of the fennel-flower was used as a spice on bread.

GINGER

The Indian plant Zingibar officinale, from the rootstock of which an aromatic spice was made, ginger is called zangevila in the Talmud and was sold both dried and fresh (Ber. 36b; Yoma 81b). In the Talmud (ibid.) it is also called "the himalta which comes from India."

HYSSOP

The plant Majorana syriaca is called ezov in the Bible and in the literature of the sages; its leaves were used as a spice. Of the allied genera, reference is made to the spice plants (ezov koḥeli), which is Hyssopus officinalis (Neg: 14, 6, where ezov romi is also mentioned), evreta, maru-ḥiyyura, and shumshuk (Shab. 109b), species that belong to the genera Majorana or Origanum.

LAVENDER

The plant Lavandula officinalis (spica) is known as ezovyon, and its leaves are used as a perfume and as a medicine (Shab. 14:3).

MINT

The plant Menta piperita, the leaves of which are used as a spice and yield an ethereal oil, is called minta in the Mishnah (Uk. 1:2) and na'ana (which is also its Arabic name) in the Jerusalem Talmud (Shab. 7, 10a). Four species of mint grow wild in Israel.

MUSTARD

Known as ḥardal in the literature of the sages, *mustard is extracted from the seed of species of Sinapis and Brassica.

PEPPER

The most important and popular spice, black *pepper is know as pilpel, and Piper longum as pilpela arikhta.

RUE

The small shrub Ruta graveolens, whose leaves have a pungent aroma (regarded by some as unpleasant), is popular among Oriental communities. In the Mishnah (Uk. 1:2; et al.), it is called pigam, and in Arabic fijn or rudah (= Ruta). The Mishnah (Shev. 9:1) also mentions a rue that grows wild, the reference being to Ruta bracteosa, which grows in the woods in Israel. To the family of rue – Rutaceae – belong species of the Citrus.

SAFFLOWER

The prickly plant Carthamus tinctorius has reddish-yellow leaves, ḥallot ḥari'a (Uk. 3:5), which were used as a spice, and its seed, benot ḥari'a (Tosef. Ma'as. Sh. 1:13), as food as well as a spice. In the Talmud koẓah, kurtama, and morika are used as synonyms for safflower. Today the safflower is grown largely for the oil extracted from its seed. The petals of the flower's corolla were formerly used as a dye (see *Dye Plants).

SAFFRON

Known as karkom in the Bible and the literature of the sages, the stigmas of its flower were used as a spice and a dye.

SAVORY

Called si'ah in the Mishnah, savory is mentioned there, together with hyssop and thyme, among plants which were grown as spices; it also grew wild (Shev. 8:1; Ma'as. 3, 9). According to the Jerusalem Talmud (Shev. 7:2, 37b), si'ah is identified with ẓatrah, which is Satureia tymbra Savory, an aromatic dwarf shrub of the family Labiatae, that grows wild on mountains. The Arabs call these three species zaʿar.

SESAME

The summer plant Sesamum orientalis (indicum), sesame was used in the preparation of delicacies and as a spice in various kinds of pastry (Shev. 2:7; TY 1:5). Its seed consists of 50% oil, which was used as a food and in lamps (Ned. 6:9; Shab. 2:2).

SUMAC

The og of the Mishnah, the fruit of the sumac tree was used as a spice.

THYME

Called koranit in the Mishnah, thyme is a diminutive dwarf shrub which grows extensively in Israel on the kurkar hills near the coast and on mountains. Its tiny, pungently aromatic leaves were used as a spice, like hyssop and savory, together with which it is mentioned (Ma'as. 3:9).

The above are the most probable identifications, others having been suggested by commentators for these plants, as well as for kinds of spices common in their day. Among these, mention should be made of the poppy, the plant Papaver somniferum. Its seed is used as a spice and also in various kinds of pastry. In modern Hebrew the poppy is called parag or pereg, on the basis of the identification given in the Arukh and by other commentators for פרגים in the Mishnah, which are, however, none other than *millet. Although several species of Papaver grow wild in Israel, it is impossible to determine whether the cultivated poppy was grown. The only reference to ofyon (opium is extracted, as is known, from poppy) occurs in the Jerusalem Talmud (Av. Zar. 2:2, 40d). It was considered dangerous to buy ofyon from heathens (see *Havdalah).

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Loew, Flora, respective articles and 4 (1934), 93f.; S. Krauss, Kadmoniyyot ha-Talmud, 2 (1929), 243–9; J. Feliks, Olam ha-Ẓome'ah ha-Mikra'i (1968), 176–85; idem, Kilei Zera'im ve-Harkavah (1937), index. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: Feliks, Ha-Tzome'aḥ, 19, 22, 24, 41, 65, 66, 69, 73, 85, 89, 100, 104, 123, 125, 132, 137, 147, 148, 154, 157, 197.

[Jehuda Feliks]


Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.