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The anointing of persons and objects with oil was widespread in ancient Israel and its environment for both practical and symbolical reasons. Its most practical usage was cosmetic, and for medicinal purposes.

Aside from its cosmetic and therapeutic functions, anointment was an important component of ritual formularies. The anointment of vassals was not a mere ceremonial trapping: "As oil penetrates your flesh, so may they [the gods] make this curse enter into your flesh" (D.J. Wiseman, The Vassal-Treaties of Esarhaddon (1958), lines 622–4, p. 78; cf. Ps. 109:18; for the use of oil in the making of a covenant, see Hos. 12:1; see McCarthy in bibl.). The main role of symbolic anointment in the ancient Near East, however, was to solemnize formally an elevation in legal status: the manumission of a slave woman, the transfer of property, the betrothal of a bride, and the deputation of a vassal. Israel continued the Syrian and Anatolian practice of anointing the king (El Amarna Letter 51:4–9, see below). The consecration of a priest involved anointing, a practice attested at Emar in Central Syria in the thirteenth century B.C.E. The Bible also requires anointing for the rehabilitation of persons afflicted with certain skin diseases. The above cases indicate that in Israel symbolic unction took place in the cult but not in legal proceedings. The attribute mashi'aḥ ("anointed") came to designate the king and the high priest and, by extension, other divinely appointed functionaries who were not anointed at all, e.g., the prophets (I Kings 19:16b, 19b; Isa. 61:1), the patriarchs (Ps. 105:15), and even foreign kings (I Kings 19:15; Isa. 45:1; cf. II Kings 8:7). This figurative use of mshḥ is not a late development since it is already attested in Ugaritic (76:II, 22–23; cf. Ps. 89:21 and 25). Eventually it was applied to the messiah (the very word being taken from the Hebrew "anointed").

In Israel, anointment conferred upon the king the ru'aḥ YHWH ("the spirit of the Lord"), i.e., His support (I Sam. 16:13–14; 18:12), strength (Ps. 89:21–25), and wisdom (Isaiah 11:1–4; see *Messiah ). The king absorbs divine attributes through unction. The anointment of the high priest served an entirely different function. It conferred neither ru'aḥ nor any other divine attribute. Moses, for example, transferred his powers (by hand-laying) upon a ru'aḥ-endowed Joshua (Num. 27:18–20), but when he transfers the high priest's authority from Aaron to his son Eleazar, these spiritual features are conspicuously absent (Num. 20:25 ff.). The high priest's anointment is otherwise designated by the verb kadesh (qaddesh; "to sanctify"). Indeed, the anointment "sanctifies" the high priest by removing him from the realm of the profane and empowering him to operate in the realm of the sacred, i.e., to handle the sancta, such as the oracle. The high priest was anointed in conjunction with the cult objects (Ex. 40:9–15), and the latter practice is found in the oldest portions of the Bible (anointment of pillars, Gen. 28:18; 31:13; 35:14). The story of Solomon's anointment by the high priest Zadok (I Kings 1:39) leads us to the assumption that the royal unction is a derivative of the unction of the high priest. The story could not be an interpolation of the priestly editors, since the latter would by their own laws have condemned Zadok to death (by God) for the crime of anointing a zar, a non-priest (Ex. 30:33). On the contrary, this incident complements the image of the king in the historical narratives: since he may officiate at the sacred altar like a priest (e.g., I Kings 3:4; 8:63–64), why should he not be similarly anointed with the sacred oil?

According to the priestly source, the sons of Aaron were anointed along with him. Though the word mashaḥ is used in Exodus (e.g., 40:15a), it means only that they received the sacred oil and implies nothing about the manner of its application. Indeed, the respective ceremonies differ sharply: the sons were sprinkled (hzh) after the sacrificial service (Ex. 29:21), whereas Aaron's head was doused (yẓk) separately, before the service (v. 7). Furthermore, whereas each succeeding high priest was anointed while his father was still in office (Lev. 6:15), the anointing of the first priests was never repeated; it was to be valid for their posterity (Ex. 40:15b). This concept is proven to be ancient, for it is found in the El-Amarna letters (51:4–9), where a vassal stakes his authority on his grandfather's anointment.

The leper was anointed on the eighth and concluding day of his purification ritual, but the oil was not sacred. The "waving" and the sevenfold sprinkling of the oil "before the Lord" (Lev. 14:12, 16), even before it can be used on the leper, are not rites of consecration but of purification; moreover, the indispensable verb mshḥ is tellingly absent. Perhaps even the "change of status" is operative: the ostracism of the erstwhile leper is ended, and he is free to reenter society. However, an apotropaic function may also be present.

[Jacob Milgrom]

In the Talmud

According to the Talmud the anointing oil was compounded only once in Jewish history, by Moses (Ex. 30:31–33), and the supply made by him sufficed for the whole period from the anointing of Aaron and his sons until the residue was hidden away by Josiah. Anointing oil was therefore not used for the kings and high priests after Josiah, and it was one of the five appurtenances used in the First Temple but not in the Second.

After the anointment of Aaron and his sons only high priests and the priest anointed for war (the appellation of the Talmud for the priest mentioned in Deut. 20:2 ff.; Mishnah Sotah 8:1) were anointed. Every high priest and "priest anointed for war" was anointed, the former even if he succeeded his father as high priest.

On the other hand, from Solomon onward only kings of the Davidic dynasty whose succession was disputed or was in doubt were anointed (as was Jehu, see below). Where the succession was natural and undisputed no anointing took place. Thus Solomon was anointed on account of the rival claims of Adonijah (I Kings 1:39), Joash because of Athaliah (II Kings 11:12), and Jehoahaz because Jehoiakim was his senior by two years (II Kings 23:30).

This anointing of David and his descendants was by oil poured from a horn. For Saul, the only non-Davidic king to be anointed with oil, a cruse was used (I Sam. 16:13) since "his kingdom was not a lasting one."

The kings of the northern secessionist kingdom of Israel were not anointed with oil but with balsam, as was Jehoahaz of Judah since Josiah had hidden away the anointing oil. The statement that Jehu was anointed (with balsam) because of his dispute with Joram would appear to suggest that even in the case of the kings of Israel anointing took place only in the case of disputed succession but it would, of course, have applied to each usurping king and founder of a dynasty, though not to his descendants (cf. Ker. 5b with Hor. 11b).

In the anointing of kings the whole head was covered with oil ("in the shape of a wreath") whereas in the case of priests it was "in the shape of a chi." What is meant by "the shape of a chi?… the shape of Greek X" (the printed texts have "a Greek kaph," probably because of the opposition to the sign of the cross).

All the above data except where otherwise stated are to be found in Horayot 11b and 12a, and more compactly in the Jerusalem Talmud, Horayot 3:4, 47c.

[Louis Isaac Rabinowitz]


E. Cothenet, in: dbi, supplément 6 (1960), 701–32; E. Kutsch, Salbung als Rechtsakt (BZAW, 87, 1963); K.R. Veenhof, in: BOR, 23 (1966), 308–13; J. Licht, in: EM, 5 (1968), 526–31; S. Paul, in: JNES, 28 (1969), 48–53; D.J. McCarthy, in: VT, 14 (1964), 215–21. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: D. Fleming, The Installation of Baal's High Priestess at Emar (1992).

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.