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November 2009

The Balm of Gilead

Arch Dermatol. 2009;145(11):1308. doi:10.1001/archdermatol.2009.268

“Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me,—tell me, I implore!” Quoth the raven, “Nevermore!”

Readers will recognize this verse as coming from Edgar Allan Poe's beloved poem “The Raven,” which was published in 1845. There is much to enjoy in “The Raven,” and the poetic words “balm in Gilead” caught my attention. What exactly was the balm of Gilead?

This verse is directly paraphrased from the Book of Jeremiah (8:22): “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then, has the health of the daughter of my people not been restored?”1 The Biblical Hebraic word for “balm” in Gilead is tzori, which is also the term for one of the ingredients of the incense that was used thousands of years ago in the Temple in Jerusalem, as explained in the Talmud.2 The tzori used in the incense appears to have been “the sap that drips from balsam trees.”2 Maimonides, a renowned 12th century rabbi and physician, also identifies tzori as balsam sap, although he holds that it was the balsam wood itself that was used in the Temple incense.3

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