What is Onycha?

What is this exotic, elusive ingredient of the Holy Incense which Exodus 30:32 calls onycha?

The battle has raged for centuries with most people identifying onycha as the operculum of a sea snail.

But is that identification correct?

The incense symbolizes the prayers of Gods people. Onycha symbolizes one of the vital components which should be present in prayer. The correct identification of this ingredient affects not only the understanding of the function of the HaKetoret but also of it’s true purpose.

Of the many substances proposed to be the mysterious onycha which one most closely fits the etymology and description of the substance recorded in this most ancient incense recipe?

The article below attempts to answer the age-old question — What is Onycha?


Onycha (Greek: ονυξ), along with equal parts of stacte, galbanum, and frankincense, was one of the components of the HaKetoret (holy incense) which appears in the Old Testament in the book of Exodus (Ex.30:34-36) and was used in the temple in Jerusalem. This formula was to be incorporated as a holy incense and was not to be duplicated for non-sacred use.[1] The original Hebrew word used for this component of the ketoret was שחלת, shecheleth, which means “to roar; as a lion (from his characteristic roar)” or “peeling off by concussion of sound.”[2] Shecheleth is related to the Syriac shehelta which is translated as “a tear, distillation, or exudation.”[3] When the Old Testament was translated into Greek (the Septuagint version) the Greek word “onycha” ονυξ, which means “fingernail” or “claw,” was substituted for shecheleth.


Some writers believe that onycha was the fingernail-like operculum, or closing flap, of certain sea snails, however there is some doubt as to whether the onycha of the Old Testament was actually the operculum of a sea snail.[4] H.J. Abrahams says, “The widely held mollusk hypothesis becomes quite perplexing if one considers that the mollusk was counted among the unclean animals in the Bible (Chapters Leviticus 11:9 and 12).”[4] Sea creatures such as the mollusk were an “abomination” and even their carcasses were to be considered an “abomination”[5]and anyone simply touching them became unclean.[6] Rabbeinu Bachyei insisted that only kosher species may be used for the mishkan. The Gemara states that “only items that one may eat may be used for the work of Heaven.”[7] Nachmanides, Torah scholar and famed Jewish theologian, emphasized that the commandment concerning unclean animals pertained also to temple services.[8] James Strong and J. McClintoch write that “it seems improbable that any such substance could have been one of the constituent spices of the most holy perfume; not only because we know of none bearing any powerful and agreeable odor, but specially because all marine creatures that were not finned and scaled fishes were unclean, and as such could not have been touched by the priests or used in the sanctuary.” [9] [10] The High Priest went to great lengths in purifying himself and the Temple before entering the Holy of Holies where he would “put the incense upon the fire before the Lord, that the cloud of incense may cover the mercy seat” (Lev. 16:13). It is doubtful that an unclean ingredient would have been used in an incense meant to cleanseand purify,  as well as to cover the ark of the covenant.  There is also some doubt that a mollusk would have been referred to as a sweet spice.[11] Bahr state that

Onyx stone, white

“the odor of the burned shells is not pleasant.”[12] Although the word onycha has been interpreted as meaning “nail” it is pointed out that nail or claw is actually an extended connotation of onyx, derived from the translucent and sometimes veined appearance of the gemstone onyx which antiquity often describes as a black stone.[13]

Black Onyx

Coincidentally onycha is the Greek word which was chosen to replace the original Hebrew word which was shecheleth.[14] One of the Hebrew words that shecheleth seems to be related to, שחלים, sh’chalim, refers to a large variety of plants.[15] A ancient Ugaritic text lists onycha among types of vegetables, implying that onycha was a vegetable also.[16] The Talmud specifically states that although onycha (shecheleth) is not from a tree, it does grow from the ground and that it is a plant (Kerithoth 6b).[17] Condor writes “Shecheleth, Exod. xxx. 34; [is] rendered by the Septuagint, onycha, and by the Arabic version, ladana . . . The root of the Hebrew word means to drop or distil, and shecheleth would seem, therefore, to mean some exudation.” [18] James Strong writes “the Syriac etymology of the word, namely, to run in drops, exude, distil, would lead to the idea of a resinous and odoriferous substance of the vegetable kingdom.”[19] Another writer says “the context and the etymology seem to require the gum of some aromatic plant, perhaps gum-ladanum. The Hebrew word would seem to mean something that exuded, having odorous qualities.”[20] “Shecheleth” identifies with the Syriac “shehelta” which is translated as “a tear, distillation, or exudation.”

According to Winifred Walker’s All the Plants

Cistus RockRose bush

of the Bible, shecheleth is a form of rock rose, Cistus ladaniferus var. Cistus creticus, which produces a resin called labdanum.[21] This sweet spicy ingredient has been used in perfumes and incense for thousands of years and grows profusely in the Middle East, specifically in Israel and Palestine. The rock rose is a bush, not a tree (The Talmud states that onycha comes from a ground plant and not a tree).[22] Labdanum is the gray-black resin that exudes from the branches of the rock rose bush. Labdanum, after it matures, becomes black and is referred to as black


amber or black balsam.[23] Gill states that the word “shecheleth is certainly related to the Hebrew word shechor (black),” denoting the color of the shecheleth used in the ketoret formula.[24] Onycha is a play on the word onyx which was a gem. The onyx most esteemed by the ancients was the black gem.[25] The Hebrew word for onyx was shoham and “Braun traces shoham to the Arabic sachma,’blackness:’ ‘Of such a

Onyx stone

color,’ says he, ‘are the Arabian [onyxes], which have a black ground-color.’ This agrees essentially with Mr. King’s remarks (Antique Gems, p. 9): ‘The Arabian species,’ he says, ‘were formed of black or blue strata.” [26] The rock rose also has an inseparable identification with rocks because its existence depends upon it’s roots anchoring among them in areas where no other foliage is able to grow. After labdanum became hard it may have been put through another process causing it to emulate even more of the “beautiful”[27] attributes of the onyx or to to refine it, “that it be pleasant.”[28] When used in sacred rites resins were often steeped in wine to, among other things, increase their fragrance.[29] A reference to onycha as an annual plant[30] may be confusion with its annual yield. Rock rose usually produces labdanum annually, during the summer, to protect itself from the heat. A reference to onycha as a root

Cistus root

[31] may be due to the practice of boiling the twigs and roots for labdanum extraction[32] [33][34] or the use of cistus roots as a medicine. The root of the Cistus plant is a Jordanian traditional medicine.[35] The root is still used today by the Arabs for bronchitis and also as a pectorial, demulcent, tonic, and anti-diabetic.[36] Then again the possibility exists that while the onycha of Exodus 30 was labdanum, the identity of onycha may have been lost some time during or after the Babylonian captivity, with the operculum becoming identified as onycha during the time of the second Temple. However, as the original onycha of the book of Exodus, Abrahams says that, more than any other substance, “labdanum fills the bill most convincingly.”[37]

The flowers of the rockrose bush is described as having petals with scarlet and black fingernail-shaped markings, thus its historically acclaimed connection with the Greek ονυξ Cistus RockRose floweronyx.[38] Lynne writes, “Onycha . . . is a rockrose which produces a gum that is known as labdanum. The blossoms are about three inches across, white with at the base of each petal a blotch of brilliant scarlet-rose which deepens into black. In Greek onycha means ‘fingernail.’ The blotch of color in each petal looks exactly like a brightly painted red fingernail.”[39] Others proclaim that the very petals of this plant are shaped like finger

Pharaoh with Crook & Flabellum

nails.[40] [41] Again, onycha in Greek means “fingernail” or “claw.” Claws were used in ancient Egypt to collect labdanum. Pharaohs were pictured with this claw (a nekhakha) resting on their breasts.[42][43][44] Claws, or rakes, were used to collect the labdanum from the cistus bushes and smaller claws, or combs, were used to collect labdamun from the beards of the wild goats.[45] Removing and peeling the very sticky, adhesive labdanum from these very temperamental animals caused them to cry out, to “peel out by the concussion of sound,” or to “roar” out in protest. As mentioned above the original Hebrew word for onycha was שחלת, shecheleth, which comes from a root meaning “to roar” or “peeling off by concussion of sound.” In Aramaic, the root SHCHL signifies “retrieve.” For thousands of years labdanum has been retrieved from the beards of


goats and the wool of lambs by this method. The resin was peeled off of the goats beard, lambs wool, and from the lambadistrion. Interestingly the Arabic word for peel is sahala.

The Pharaohs beard was made up of goats hair [46] which was held together and scented by labdanum.[46 a-d]  When the royal kingly Pharaoh spoke it was as the lion’s “roar,” the voice of god to the people. The Pharaoh was called the “incarnation of Atum.” [47] Massy writes that, “The lion was a zootype of Atum . . . He is called the lion-faced in the Ritual . . . He is addressed as a lion god, the god in lion form.” [48]

Pharaoh wearing a lion’s mane and labdanum saturated beard

Pharaohs were often depicted as part human and part lion wearing the false beard saturated with labdanum. This beard was inspired by the lion’s mane and was part of the various sphinx depicting the Pharaohs.[49] A sphinx of Pharaoh Hatsheput displays a lion’s mane and the pharaoh’s manufactured beard.[50] Strong defines the root word of shecheleth as “to roar; a lion (from his characteristic roar).”[51] Labdanum was used not only as a perfume and adhesive for the Pharaohs beard but was also used by the Egyptian art of the apothecary

Pharaoh as Atum, a Lion King sphinx

in an incense known as kyphi which was rolled into small balls and burned upon coals of fire. However labdanum could also be an ingredient of a powdered incense. When aged it becomes more fragrant [52]but it also becomes very brittle[53] and hard. [54] The fresh resin is a soft, sticky, and tar-like substance that is sweet, flowery, musky, and reminiscent of honey or ambergris with a hint of sweet leather. Rabban Simeon, the son of Gamliel, said that wine was used to make onycha become hard,[55] thereby admitting that onycha was not a preexistingly hard mollusk shell, but that onycha was a soft resinous material such as is labdanum. Herodotus affirms that it was much used by the Arabians in perfumes.[56] According to Pliny the Elder (23 A.D. – 79 A.D.), who mentions its fragrant smell, it was the extract of an herb called ” ladan.”[57][58] Labdanum was known as “Arabic ladan.”[59]

According to the book of Exodus the Israelites were familiar with the ancient art of the apothecary (or perfumery) of the Egyptians from whom they had just been liberated. Lucas lists labdanum (along with frankincense, myrrh, galbanum, and storax) among the only materials most certain to have been used in ancient Egypt and that labdanum “was abundant in the countries boardering the Mediteranian with which Egypt had intercourse.”[60] He writes that in the Bible “ it is stated that certain merchants carried ladanum into Egypt from Gilead (Genesis, xxxvii : 25, Revised Version) and that Jacob sent ladanum to Egypt as a present to his son Joseph (Genesis, xliii : II Revised Version).” [61] Newberry reports that the ancient Egyptians were aquainted with labdanum as early as the first century.[62] Pliny states that the Ptolemies introduced labdanum into ‘the parts beyond Egypt.”[63] It was known to the Greeks as early as the times of Herodotus (484 BC-425 BC)[64]and Theophrastus (370BC – 285 BC). It was one of the ingredients in a remedy in the ancient Egyptian Materia Medica,[65]and in an ancient Egyptian papyrus dated 1500 B.C. it is used along with hippopontamus fat, as a cure for dandruff.[66] Labdanum was “often made into incense cakes for temple offerings as well as used as a fixative in perfumes.[67] Lucas records an “instance of ladanum having been found in connection with ancient Egypt [which] is a specimen of Coptic incense of the seventh century from Faras near Wadi Halfa.[68]

Martin Luther, in co-operation with Bible expert and Greek scholar Philipp Melanchton, rejected the operculum theory in favor of onycha being a plant product.[69] A commentary footnote in one of the older copies of the Authorized Version seems to agree saying, “The only hint about the onycha that we can find is in the Arabic version, where we meet with ladana, suggesting . . . gum-ladanum.”[70] The Illustrated Dictionary of the Bible plainly defines onycha as the “gum resin obtained from . . . the rockrose, also known as labdanum.[71]

Bochartus, a scholar of profound erudition possessing a thorough knowledge of the principal Oriental languages, including Hebrew, Syriac, Chaldean and Arabic, argued that onycha was labdanum. It is claimed “Bochartus proves, by many arguments, [onycha ] to be ladanum” [72][73][74]

Abrahams writes that “the Hebrew name shecheleth was translated as ladana, giving rise to labdanum.” [75] The renowned Jewish scholar and writer Saadya (Saʻadiah ben Yosef Gaon, 882-942), born in Upper Egypt (Fayum) and educated in Fustat (Old Cairo), translated the Bible into Arabic. Saadya, who was a theologian as well as the head Rabbi at the Sura Academy,[76] was equally versed in Hebrew, in Greek, and in Arabic, and knew the people and customs of the whole Arabic region intimately. Saadya’s translation for Shecheleth was the Arabic “Ladana,” and ladana is our ladanum or labdanum.[77] H.J. Abrahams states that “I am sure that Shecheleth (onycha) is a plant product . . . After diligent reflection on all these diverse options, there is little doubt in my mind that onycha of Exodus 30:34 is labdanum. Saadya’s labdanum is not only ideally suited for use in incense, but it is also a product of the Jewish homeland.”[78]


Personal research has uncovered an abundance of evidence revealing that onycha was indeed labdanum. Styrax benzoin (which may have been the carrier for the liquid stacte myrrh) and labdanum may have inadvertently switched places in the incense formula by the time of the pre-Herodian Temple. By the time of the second Temple the operculum may have taken the place of being onycha. However, labdanum was the original onycha. No other ingredient that has ever been proposed as the onycha of Exodus 30:32 fits the bill more perfectly than that of labdanum.


Let us briefly summarize the evidence presented above:

  1. Onycha was a sweet spice. === Labdanum is a sweet spice.
  2. The Gemara states that only kosher items may be used for the work of Heaven. === Labdanum is a kosher item.
  3. The Talmud specifically states that although onycha (shecheleth) is not from a tree, it does grow from the ground and that it is a plant (Kerithoth 6b). === The rockrose bush which produces labdanum is not a tree, it grows from the ground and it is a plant.
  4. An ancient Ugaritic text lists onycha among types of vegetation. === Labdanum, the exudation of the rockrose plant, is a product of vegetation.
  5. Onycha is an extended connotation of the black stone called the onyx. Shecheleth, the original Hebrew word for onycha, is related to the Hebrew word shechor which means black. === Labdanum is black and has been referred to as black amber.
  6. One of the root words for shecheleth, the Syriac shehelta, means to drop, distill, or exude. === Labdanum is the droppings and the exudation of the rockrose plant.
  7. Another word related to shecheleth is sahala which means to “peel. === The sticky labdanum resin was peeled off of the instruments used to collect it.
  8. The root word in Aramaic means to retrieve. === Labdanum has been retrieved for thousands of years from the beards of goats and the wool of lambs.
  9. Rashi wrote that onycha was a type of root. === The root of the Cistus plant is a Jordanian traditional medicine and is still used to this very day by the Arabians.
  10. The Greek word onycha means nail or claw. === The leaves of the rockrose plant are shaped like fingernails and have scarlet and black fingernail-like markings on them. Claws, rakes, and combs were used, in antiquity, to collect labdanum and ancient Pharaohs were pictured with this claw crossing their breast.
  11. Strong says that the original word shecheleth means: “to roar; as a lion (from his characteristic roar)” or “peeling off by concussion of sound.” === The temperamental goats would cry out when labdanum was retrieved from their hair. The Pharaoh wore a goats beard saturated with labdanum and his voice was the roar of a god to the people.
  12. Shecheleth means to roar with sound like a lion. === The ancient Pharaohs were considered to be a lion god, the god in lion form, and he was half lion and half man. The Pharaoh wore labdanum beards and labdanum was considered the food the lion god desired.
  13. The rabbi who translated the Bible into Arabic translated onycha as “ladana” which is our labdanum.
  14. The learned Rabbi Saʻadiah ben Yosef Gaon (born 882) claimed labdanum was onycha.
  15. The great scholar Bochartus argued that onycha was labdanum. Abrahams wrote onycha was labdanum. Winfred Walker lists onycha as labdanum.
  16. Labdanum is recorded in the book of Genesis as being a balm treasured by the Hebrew people. The ancient Egyptians treasured it.
  17. Arabians and Jews have used it since antiquity. It is the produce of the Holy land.

These and a multitude of other evidence proves without a shadow of a doubt which substance more closely aligns itself with onycha – the ancient balm called labdanum.

By Dr. Curtis Ward DD MHC

The above article is the result of original research made by Dr. Curtis D. Ward. The article was then overhauled and made acceptable for an encyclopedic article such as can be found at Wikipedia (Dr. Ward IS CWatchman at Wikipedia). A university which illegally used this article in their textbook without Dr. Ward’s permission, were contacted and the information was removed from their textbook. Plagarism is a crime. Always properly source your information.

Below is research Dr. Ward did BEFORE his final discovery that labdanum was indeed the original Onycha (entitled, “Other Contenders for the Identity of Onycha”) and this article  is followed by sources for every quote in all articles on this page.


The following are some very interesting and informative sites on labdanum: 


You may purchase labdaum from different companies on the following sites:



If interested in experiencing the ketoret of the second Temple you may order the ketoret in oil form from the following sites:



If interested in experiencing the ketoret incense of the second Temple you may order the ketoret incense  from the following sites:



To date I have been unable to find the original first Temple ketoret online but I do manufacture it myself.  My upcoming book on the ketoret will include instructions on how to make both the first and second Temple ketoret.



Other Contenders for the Identity of Onycha

(Below is research Dr. Ward did BEFORE his final discovery that labdanum was indeed the original Onycha)


Some writers believe that onycha was the fingernail-like Operculum (gastropod)|operculum, or closing flap, of certain sea snails, including ”Strombus lentiginosus”, ”Murex anguliferus”, ”Onyx marinus”, and ”Unguis odoratus”. It may be the operculum of a snail-like mollusk found in the Red Sea. This operculum is the upper part of a shell called by the Latins ”Conchylium”. These opercula may be of different sizes, but their overall shape is that of a claw, which is the origin of the name ”Unguis odoratus”. The name ”Blatta Byzantina” is occasioned by its having usually been imported from Constantinople, the ancient Byzantium. In antiquity the operculum was used as an ingredient in incense. Writers during the Middle Ages recorded that onycha was rubbed with an alkali solution prepared from the bitter vetch to remove impurities, it was then soaked in the fermented berry juice of the Caper shrub, or a strong white wine, in order to enhance its fragrance.


The internationally renowned Bible scholar Bochart stated, at one point in his research, that onycha was actually benzoin, a gum-resin from the Styrax species.[79] H.J. Abrahams states that the use of benzoin in the Biblical incense is not inconceivable since Syro-Arabian tribes maintained extensive trade routes prior to Hellenism. Styrax Benzoin was available via import to the biblical lands during the Old Testament era. Herodotus of Halicarnassus in the 5th century BC indicates that different kinds of styrax resins were traded. Styrax benzoin was used by the ancient Egyptians in the art of perfumery and incense. The apothecary of Shemot (book of Exodus) would have been familiar with its aromatic uses. S. benzoin has a history steeped in antiquity and was once employed as an incense in Egypt. All the compounds identified in benzoin resin were detected in an archaeological organic residue from an Egyptian ceramic censer, thus proving that this resin was used as one of the components of the mixture of organic materials burned as incense in ancient Egypt. [80] An ancient Egyptian perfume formula (1200 BC) contained benzoin as one of its chief ingredients.[81] The name “benzoin” is probably derived from Arabic lubān jāwī (لبان جاوي, “Javan frankincense”); compare the mid-eastern terms “gum benjamin” and “benjoin”.

The word ‘Storax’ is an alteration of the Late Latin styrax. In the Orphic hymns it is στόρακας or στόρακα. As pointed out earlier the original word shecheleth was replaced with onycha by the Septuagint translation. Onycha in turn is derived from the onyx stone meaning “fingernail.” Conder writes that “the root of the Hebrew word [shecheleth] means to drop or distil, and shecheleth would seem, therefore, to mean some exudation.”[82] Another writer says that the Hebrew shecheleth identifies with the Syriac shehelta which is translated as “a tear or distillation” and that “the context and the etymology seem to require the gum of some aromatic plant . . . The Hebrew word would seem to mean something that exuded, having odorous qualities.”[83] The book of Ecclesiasticus lists storax as one of the ingredients when alluding to the sacred incense of the biblical tabernacle.[84] The Hindustanis use Benzoin to burn in their temples—a circumstance strongly in favor of the hypothesis that benzoin is part of the incense formula of Exodus.[85] The infrequent mention of benzoin by name in antiquity is quite suspicious considering it’s importance in ancient recipes. It stands to reason it must have been known by another name not currently used today. References to it by name are conspicuously missing also from the Old Testament. Callcott writes “It has been suggested [86] that Gum Benzoin, which is not mentioned by any other name in scripture, must be onycha. Its fracture has exactly the lustre required by the name. . . The gum is a secretion of the bark, and is of great efficacy in healing wounds. . . Such are the pretensions of the Benzoin to be looked upon as the true Onycha, which, from the text, as I have already said, must have been some fragrant vegetable gum in itself, of foreign production, and ranking with stacte, and myrrh, and galbanum . . . all which conditions are fulfilled by the Gum Benzoin.” [87] Dioscorides and Galen describe two kinds of bdellium, the second of which is Benzoin, according to Hardouin and Sprengel.[88] Pererra describes benzoin tears as “flattened pieces, some of which are angular, and the larger of them . . . an inch in length.” [89] He says that “externally, these pieces are shiny.” This description most certainly fits well with the interpretation of “onycha” which means “fingernail.” He continues to say many of the pieces “are of an amber or reddish-yellow colour” and continues to describe parts of it as “translucent or milky, and frequently striped.” This is a good description of the appearance of various onyx stones, from which the name onycha is derived. He says that many tears of Styrax benzoin “are translucent, or, in a few cases, almost transparent.” [90] One type of benzoin has “numerous, white, small pieces . . . intermingled, which thereby give the broken surface a speckled appearance” which he calls “marbly.” [91] As mentioned above, although the word onycha has been interpreted as meaning “nail” it is pointed out that nail or claw is actually an extended connotation of onyx, derived from the translucent and sometimes veined appearance of the gemstone onyx. Onyx comes in a variety of colors the most prominent being either the black and veined striped gem or the pinkish translucent striped gem. One related Styrax is black and the benzoin discussed thus far seems to be of the pinkish, translucent sort. Steeping Styrax benzoin tears in wine can enhance it’s fragrance as well as it’s translucent qualities and “shiny” appearance, thus making it appear even more like the onyx gem. Rambam stated that soaking onycha in wine made it beautiful. [92] Benzoin tears look much different than other resins and appears to be small stones rather than the vegetable product that it is.

Rashi writes that onycha was a root from the ground. Benzoin almonds do not resemble the resins they actually are but appear as a rough stoney almonds. Not being native to Palestine they could easily have been mistaken as portions of a root since they do not seem to adequately resemble any other portion of a plant body. However it seems that the root of benzoin was also used . The ancient Greeks and Romans used benzoin root in a seasoning sauce for a meat boiled in sweet herbs.[93]A Roman supper sometimes included shellfish prepared with pepper, cinnamon, and benzoin root.[94]Benzoin root was also used in a recipe for seasoning goose liver.[95]Benzoin root is still used today in incense recipes.[96] Also the resin proper is procured near the root of the tree.[97]Resin procured from the tree during the first three years is referred to as head benzoin. That which is obtained during the next 7 or 8 years is known as the belly benzoin. The third type is called foot benzoin, and is obtained by splitting the tree and scraping the wood of the trunk and roots. [98] This latter source contains impurities. Rambam says that onycha was rubbed with bitter vetch to remove impurities.[99] The Talmud also appears to indicate that onycha came from an annual plant.[100] Benzoin gum is harvested annually,[101] and not being native to Palestine it is possible confusion slipped in identifying it’s annual yield with its life span. Different Styrax trees are often misidentified or referred to as a “bush.”[102] Onycha is said to have been soaked in wine to enhance it’s fragrance which was often done with resins used for incense.[103]

The Hindustanis refer to benzoin as “lobanee” or “luban.” The Arabs refer to it as “luban” or “luban jawi.”[104][105]

The book of Eccesiasticus (Sirach) 24:15 alludes to the sacred incense speaking of “a pleasant odour like the best myrrh, as galbanum, and onyx, and sweet storax, and as the fume of frankincense in the tabernacle.”[106] The storax of antiquity was styrax.[107] Interestingly the writer refers to “onyx” as opposed to “onycha” while referencing styrax as part of the formula. Styrax benzoin may have been the concrete carrier for the liquid myrrh called stacte.[108] [109]

Onycha may have been labdanum.[110] Since myrrh was often mixed with labdanum,[111] [112] throughout many centuries benzoin and labdanum may have inadvertently switched places in the formula.[113] The possibility exists that the onycha of Exodus 30 was labdanum while the onycha of the second Temple was benzoin, with both ingredients still remaining in both formulas.

Winifred Walker writes that the onycha referred to in Exodus 30 is labdanum[114]but later in the same book states that there was also another onycha, which he also equates as a component of the holy incense, which may have been derived from benzoin.[115]

Labdanum and Benzoin mixed

Labdanum and benzoin was often mixed together. The reproduced scent of ambergris is predominantly a mix of labdanum and benzoin. Ambergris was used by the ancient Egyptians as an incense.[116] For centuries, benzoin has been mixed with labdanum, particularly in the Middle East, as an incense to scent homes, places of worship, and as an air purifier. [117] This blend was used by the ancient Egyptians as an incense. Based on some of the latest research from the Edfu temple and a recent study of ceramic dishes used in the preparation of kyphi, it appears that labdanum mixed with benzoin was an important part of the kyphi recipe. [118] It was also part of the formula written about by Nostradamus who said it made “the most supreme perfume, and the longest-lasting that can be made anywhere in the world” and that it acted as an air purifier against disease.[119] It is possible that onycha was this mix of labdanum and Styrax benzoin. Styrax (referred to as storax in antiquity) is mentioned alongside of onycha in Eccesiasticus 24:15 when alluding to the sacred incense. Either onycha and styrax were originally mixed together or styrax was treated with labdanum or by the time of the first temple period a fifth ingredient was added to the ketoret.[120] Styrax benzoin may have been the solid carrier for the clarified liquid labdanum.


Commiphora wightii, syn. C. mukul: Bdellium has been seriously considered as the ancient onycha. The tree, which grows in Arabia, produces a gum that was used in antiquity as an incense. It was one of the substances used in incense in ancient Egypt. As an incense it produces a sweet, spicy smell that some consider similar, although less bitter than, myrrh, combined with the scent of mushroom. The gum was often used as an adulterant of myrrh in the spice trade. The gum rolled into a small ball is known as hadrabolon. It is dry and shining having numerous white spots, like finger-nails in shape.[121] Dioscorides said that bdellium was “the tear of an Arabian tree.”[122][123] He describes bdellium as resembling a fingernail[124] (which is the Greek meaning of onycha). Pliny says that bdellium ” is shining and dry, and covered with numerous white spots resembling the fingernails.”[125][126] This is the appears to be the same bdellium referred to by Damocritus, a medical writer, who was quoted by Saracenus in his Scholia in Dioscoridis, and the same bdellium referred to by Galen, as quoted by Salmasius in his Plinianae Exercitationes. Salmasius states that bdellium is the Arab Molochil (Mukul).[127] When used in sacred rites bdellium was steeped in wine to increase its fragrance[128] (Rambam says that shecheleth, or onycha, was steeped in wine to enhance it’s fragrance).[129] The gum exudes from the cracks in the bark of the trunk near the root (Rashi refers to onycha, or shecheleth, as a kind of root). Bdellium is referred to in the early history of the Bible. Bdellium, like onyx, is the name both of an odoriferous gum and also of a gem or precious stone. “And the gold of that land is good: there is bdellium and the onyx stone.” (Gen 2:12)

Gum Tragacanth

After this gum is harvested it takes on the appearance of grotesque “fingernails.” It had been used for thousands of years as an ingredient in incense and has been seriously considered a likely candidate for onycha.


Cloves or “zipporen” in Hebrew, have been considered as a possibility. In contemporary Hebrew the word means “nails”.


It was the opinion of K.G. Jacob that shecheleth was amber.[130]

Cuttlefish bone

Cuttlefish bone looks like large fingernails and can also be used in incense.


Spikenard is a well known aromatic that has been suggested.

By Dr. Curtis D. Ward



  1. ^Exodus 30:33, 37-38.
  2. ^ Strongs #7827
  3. ^ Onkelos Shemot 2:10
  4. ^ Abrahams, H.J. – Onycha, Ingredient of the Ancient Jewish Incense: An attempt at identification, Econ. Bot. 33(2): 233-6 1979
  5. ^ Ex. 11:10-12
  6. ^ 11:24
  7. ^ Shabbos 28a
  8. ^ Abrahams, HJ, Pg 234
  9. ^ Cyclopaedia of Biblical, theological, and ecclesiastical literature, Volume 7, by James Strong John McClintock
  10. ^ Kumph, A mboinischeRaritdten-Kammer, cap. xvii, p. 48 (the German ed. Vienna, 1706); and comp. also Sprcngel, Comment, ad Dioscor. ii, 10; Forskal, Desc.Anim. p. 143 (“Unguis odoratus”); Phiios. Transactions, xvii, 641; Johnston, Introd. to ConchoL p. 77; Gesenius, Thesaur. p. 1388
  11. ^ Exodus 30:34b
  12. ^ Symbol, i, 422
  13. ^ Abrahams, H.J.
  14. ^ Abrahams, H.J.
  15. ^ James L. Carroll, Elizabeth Siler, “Let My Prayer Be Set Before Thee: The Burning of Incense in the Temple Cult of Ancient Israel”
  16. ^ James L. Carroll, Elizabeth Siler
  17. ^ Abrahams, H.J. – Onycha, Ingredient of the ancient Jewish incense: An attempt at identification in Econ. Bot. 33(2): 233-6 1979
  18. ^ Josiah Conder. The modern traveller (Volume 7)
  19. ^ Cyclopaedia of Biblical, theological, and ecclesiastical literature, Volume 7, by James Strong John McClintock
  20. ^ Hagensick, Carl, Beauties of the Truth, Volume 4, Number 2, May 1993
  21. ^ Walker, Winifred, “All the Plants of the Bible,”Doubleday & Company (October 1979)
  22. ^ Kerithoth 6b
  23. ^ Chemical abstracts, Volume 13, By American Chemical Society,Chemical Abstracts Service, pg.2104)
  24. ^ Gil Marks http://www.gilmarks.com/1215.html
  25. ^ Cyclopaedia of Biblical, theological, and ecclesiastical literature,James Strong, John McClintock
  26. ^ Cyclopaedia of Biblical, theological, and ecclesiastical literature, Volume 7, by James Strong, John McClintock
  27. ^ Jacobs, Louis, The Jewish religion: a companion. pg. 266
  28. ^ Sutton, Rabbi Avraham, The Spiritual Significance of the Qetoret in Ancient Jewish Tradition
  29. ^ Natural History 12.19.
  30. ^ Kerithoth 6b
  31. ^ KI SISA – RASHI COMMENTARY, Shemos Book 2: Exodus
  32. ^ Age-old Resins of the Mediterranean Region and Their Uses, FN Howes – Economic Botany
  33. ^ Gray, Samuel Frederick, A Supplement to the Pharmacopœia and Treatise on Pharmacology in General,pg. 205
  34. ^http://www.naturalhealthcrafters.com/essentialoils/ambreine.html (Second paragraph)
  35. ^ A Survey of Plants Used in Jordanian Traditional Medicine, 1995, Vol. 33, No. 4 , pp. 317-323, Suleiman Al-Khalil, Faculty of Pharmacy, University of Jordan, Amman, Jordan
  36. ^ Palynological analyses of resinuous materials from the roman mummy of Grottarossa, second century A.D.: a new hypothesis about the site of mummification L. Ciuffarella, aDipartimento di Biologia Vegetale, Università degli Studi di Roma `La Sapienza’, P.le A. Moro 5, 00185 Rome, Italy
  37. ^ Abrahams, Onycha…, pg.236
  38. ^ Studia Antiqua: The Journal of the Student Society for Ancient Studies, Fall 2002, Volume 2, Number 2
  39. ^ Lynne, Mary, Galaxy of Scents: The Ancient Art of Perfume Making
  40. ^ Histrenact, Historical Reenactment Database
  41. ^http://bible.ort.org/books/glosd1.asp?ACTION=displayletter&char=79&cat=3
  42. ^ Newberry, Percy E., The Shepherds “Crook” and the So-Called “Flail” or “Scourge” of Osiris
  43. ^http://www.jstor.org/pss/3854018
  44. ^http://labdanum-creta.blogspot.com/2006/05/crook-and-flail-in-ancient-egypt.html
  45. ^ Rhind, William, A history of the vegetable kingdom: embracing the physiology of plants
  46. ^http://www.buffaloah.com/a/archsty/egypt/illus/illus.html ,         46 a-d — (a) Newberry, PE, The Shepherd’s Crook and the So-Called” Flail” or” Scourge” of Osiris, The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 1929, pg.9, (b)http://www.bojensen.net/EssentialOilsEng/EssentialOils15/EssentialOils15.htm , (c) Reutter L. Analyses des parfums égyptiens. Annales, Le Caire 1914, (d)  Lucas A. Cosmetics, perfumes and incense in ancient Egypt. Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries. London; 1926
  47. ^ Myśliwiec, Karol, The twilight of ancient Egypt: first millennium B.C.E., pg. 12.
  48. ^ Massey, Gerald, Ancient Egypt – The Light of the World: A Work of Reclamation And Restitution In Twelve Books
  49. ^http://www.aldokkan.com/society/pharaoh.htm
  50. ^http://www.art.com/products/p15439682-sa-i3746638/kenneth-garrett-as-a-sphinx-hatshepsut-displays-a-lions-mane-and-a-pharaohs-beard.htm
  51. ^ Strong’s Exhaustive Concordence, Hebrew # 7827 & #7826
  52. ^http://www.essentiallyoils.com/Newsletters/2000/April_2000_Newsletter/april_2000_newsletter.html
  53. ^http://www.thegoodscentscompany.com/data/rs1064991.htmlhttp://classroom.all-science-fair-projects.com/science_fair_projects_encyclopedia/Labdanum
  54. ^ King’s American Dispensatory, 1898, by Harvey Wickes Felter, M.D., and John Uri Lloyd, Phr. M., Ph. D
  55. ^ Mendes, Abraham Pereira, Prayers for the Intermediate Days on the Tabernacles
  56. ^ Natural History Bible; or, description all quadrupeds, birds, fishes [&c.] mentioned Sacred scriptures, THADDEUS MASON HARRIS, D.D.
  57. ^ Natural History Bible; or, Description of All Quadrupeds, Birds, Fishes [&c.] Mentioned in the Sacred scriptures, Collected From the Best Authorities, and Alphabetically Arranged by Thaddeus Mason Harris, D.D. of Dorchester, Massachusetts
  58. ^ N. H. 1. xii. c. 17
  59. ^ O’Dowd, Michael J., The history of medications for women: materia medica woman, pg. 165
  60. ^ Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries,pp.114-115, By A. Lucas
  61. ^ Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries,pg.116, By A. Lucas
  62. ^ P.E. Newberry, in Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, xv (1929), pg.94
  63. ^ XII:37
  64. ^ Book 3, Chapters 107-82, The History of Herodotus, George Rawlinson, ed. and tr., vol. 2 (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1885)
  65. ^ French Observations of Disease and Drug Use in Late Eighteenth Century, by J ESTES – 1984 –
  66. ^ Brooklyn Museum Archives. Records of the Department of Public Information. Press releases, 1939 – 1941. 01-02/1940, 025-7,Beauty Formula from Egyptians Papyrus 1500 B.C.
  67. ^ The Cosmetic and Perfume Practices of the Ancient Egyptians: Part 2-The Ingredients, by Aimee Bova
  68. ^ A. Lucas, Preservative Materials used by the Ancient Egyptians in Embalming, pp. 31-2
  69. ^ Abrahams, JH, pg. 234
  70. ^ The Holy Bible: According to the Authorized Version, with Original Notes, and the Subjects of Natural History, Costume, and Antiquities from the Best Sources . . . Volume 1, London C. Knight, 22, Ludgate Street, MDCCCXXXVI
  71. ^ Illustrated Dictionary of the Bible, H. Lockyer Sr., F.F. Bruce, R.K. Harrison. I.D.B., Plants of the Bible (under onycha) online: http://www.angelfire.com/sc3/wedigmontana/Plantsp4.html#R>R</a> – <a href=
  72. ^ A Synopsis of Criticisms Upon Those Passages of the Old Testament in Which Modern Commentators Have Differed From the Authorized Version: Together With … in the Hebrew English Texts V.2 Pt.2 by Richard Arthur Francis Barrett
  73. ^ Rimmel, Eugene, The book of perfumes (MDCCCLXV)
  74. ^ A dictionary of the natural history of the Bible: By Thaddeus Mason Harris
  75. ^ Lis-Balchin, Maria, Aromatherapy science: a guide for healthcare professionals
  76. ^ Sanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/saadya/
  77. ^ Abrahams, H.J. – Onycha, Ingredient of the ancient Jewish incense: An attempt at identification in Econ. Bot. 33(2): 233-6 1979
  78. ^ Abrahams, H.J.
  79. ^ Abrahams, H.J. – Onycha, Ingredient of the ancient Jewish incense: An attempt at identification in Econ. Bot. 33(2): 233-6 1979
  80. ^ Journal of Chromatography A Volume 1134, Issues 1-2, 17 November 2006, Pages 298-304, Aromatic resin characterisation by gas chromatography–mass spectrometry: Raw and archaeological materials, Francesca Modugnoa, Erika Ribechinia and Maria Perla Colombini, aDipartimento di Chimica e Chimica Industriale, Università di Pisa, via Risorgimento 35-56126 Pisa, Italy
  81. ^ Aromatherapy: A Complete Guide to the Healing Art, By Kathi Keville, Mindy Green
  82. ^ Josiah Conder. The modern traveller (Volume 7)
  83. ^ Hagensick, Carl, Beauties of the Truth, Volume 4, Number 2, May 1993
  84. ^ Ecclesiasticus 24:15
  85. ^ Cyclopaedia of Biblical, theological, and ecclesiastical literature, Volume 9, By John McClintock, James Strong
  86. ^ By C.H., Esq.
  87. ^ Calcott, Maria, A Scripture Herbal, London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, Paternoster-Row, 1842
  88. ^ Smith, William George, A dictionary of Greek and Roman antiquities
  89. ^ The Elements of materia medica and therapeutics, Volume 2 By Jonathan Pereira
  90. ^ Pereira
  91. ^ Pereira
  92. ^ Kerithoth 6a; Yad, Kley HaMikdash 2:5
  93. ^ Soyer, Alexis, The Pantropheon: A History of Food and Its Preparation in Ancient Times
  94. ^ The Eclectic Review: N.S. V. 19 1823 Jan-Jun, University of Michigan Library (April 27, 2009)
  95. ^ Remains, Historical & Literary, Connected with the Palatine Counties of Lancaster and Chester, Chetham Society
  96. ^http://www.starbornalchemy.com/perfumeoil.html
  97. ^ Herb Data New Zealand,Benzoinum, Monograph of the U.S.D. 1926, Edited by Ivor Hughes
  98. ^ Herb Data New Zealand,Benzoinum, Monograph of the U.S.D. 1926, Edited by Ivor Hughes
  99. ^ Rambam on Maaser Sheni 2:4
  100. ^ Kerithoth 6b
  101. ^ Herb Data New Zealand,Benzoinum, Monograph of the U.S.D. 1926, Edited by Ivor Hughes
  102. ^http://www.laspilitas.com/nature-of-california/plants/styrax-officinalis-californica
  103. ^ Kerithoth 6a; Yad, Kley HaMikdash 2:5
  104. ^ Langenheim, Jean H. (2003). Plant resins: chemistry, evolution, ecology, and ethnobotany. Timber Press. p. 354.
  105. ^ The plants and drugs of Sind: Being a systematic account, with descriptions of the indigenous flora and notices of the value and uses of their products in commerce, medicine, and the arts, by James A Murray
  106. ^http://theology101.org/bib/apo/sir024.htm#015
  107. ^ Encyclopaedia Britannica 1893:Incense of the Old Testament
  108. ^ Archaeology Along the Spice Route of Yemen by James A. Sauer and Jeffrey A. Blakely. Araby the blest: studies in Arabian archaeology, By Daniel T. Potts
  109. ^http://www.cookingwiththebible.com/reader/Default.aspx/GR3410-4252/lore/
  110. ^ Walker, Winifred, “All the Plants of the Bible,”Doubleday & Company (October 1979)
  111. ^ Stewart, David, Healing Oils of the Bible
  112. ^ Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Myrrh
  113. ^ Tucker, A.O., Frankincense and Myrrh – Economic botany, 1986
  114. ^ Walker, Winifred, All the Plants of the Bible, pg.158
  115. ^ Walker, Winifred, All the Plants of the Bible, pg.241
  116. ^ Brady, George Stuart; Clauser, Henry R.; Vaccari, John A. (2002). Materials Handbook: An Encyclopedia for Managers, Technical Professionals, Purchasing and Production Managers, Technicians, and Supervisors. United States: McGraw-Hill Professional. p. 64. ISBN 9780071360760.
  117. ^http://www.historykb.com/Uwe/Forum.aspx/ancient-egypt/54/Kyphi-receipe-by-V-Loret#aa1e8972ce917uwe
  118. ^http://www.historykb.com/Uwe/Forum.aspx/ancient-egypt/54/Kyphi-receipe-by-V-Loret#aa1e8972ce917uwe
  119. ^ Nostradamus,Traité des fardemens et confitures, Part 1 Chapter XI
  120. ^ Taylor’s edition of Calmet’s great dictionary of the Holy Bible, By Augustin Calmet, Charles Taylor, Edward Wells
  121. ^ Natural History 12.19
  122. ^ “De Materia Medica,” i. 80
  123. ^ Jewish Encyclopedia,Morris Jastrow Jr. and Immanuel Benzinger
  124. ^ De materia medica, A, 67
  125. ^ Report by Dr. M. C. Cooke, on the gums, resins, oleo-resins, and resinous Products in the India Museum, Or Produced in India, By Mordecai Cubitt Cooke, John Forbes Watson
  126. ^ Historia Naturalis
  127. ^ Report by Dr. M. C. Cooke, on the gums, resins, oleo-resins, and resinous Products in the India Museum, Or Produced in India, By Mordecai Cubitt Cooke, John Forbes Watson
  128. ^ Natural History 12.19
  129. ^ Kerithoth 6a; Yad, Kley HaMikdash 2:5
  130. ^ Encyclopaedia Biblica : a critical dictionary of the literary, political, and religious history, the archaeology, geography, and natural history of the Bible, Edited by T. K. Cheyne, M.A., D.D. and J. Sutherland Black M.A., LL.D.
Revised May, 4, 2010

8 thoughts on “What is Onycha?

  1. Onchya is what we know of here in the Red Sea as snail nail and is still used today as an ingredient in homemade perfume in Sudan.
    It has been used as such from time immemorial and is collected by the ton here on the southern Red Sea coast of todays Eritrea, formerly the Land of Punt, once home to onchya, frankinsense, myrrh, ebony, ivory, gold and white gold/salt.
    One only has to walk the beaches of the Red Sea to find this shell and its “nail”.
    So much for all your research, do some footwork, real homework on the ground before you write. As is typical for all western reportage from our parts, fiction passes as fact.
    Massawa. Eritrea

  2. You fail to understand the actual point the article is attempting to make. Perhaps I should make this clearer in the article and will do so at my earliest convenience.

    While the title of the article is “What is Onycha?” the article itself actually attempts to identify Sheheleth which was later NAMED “onycha.”

    I am attempting to identify what Sheheleth (which was later renamed onycha) actually was during antiquity and not what onycha is today. Sheheleth was NEVER referred to as “onycha” during the time of the book of Exodus. It was not referred to as “onycha” until the book of Exodus was rewritten in Greek— a very long time after the Babylonian exile. They may have called sheheleth “onycha” because of the fingernail-like markings on the flower petals OR they may have totally lost the identity of sheheleth by this time and actually believed that it WAS the Red Sea snail shell. At any rate I am not attempting to identify what onycha is today but what was the “sheheleth” that eventually got stuck with the name “onycha.” A more accurate, but very awkward, title for the article would be “What was sheheleth which later got stuck with the name of onycha?”

    After reading my letter and reconsidering the article I would like very much to hear from you again. Thank you for your very informed input.



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  7. The word “onycha” was a later substitute for the original word “SHECHELETH.”

    The substance in question, which was one of the ingredients of the sacred incense in Exodus 30, was called Shecheleth.

    Shecheleth was NEVER referred to as “onycha” during the time of the book of Exodus. It was not referred to as “onycha” until the book of Exodus was rewritten in Greek— a very long time after the Babylonian exile.

    They may have replaced the word “shecheleth” with the word “onycha” because of the fingernail-like markings on the flower petals of the cistus or the resemblance of the black resin with the black onyx stone.

    By the time of the second temple the identity of “shecheleth” was lost and was replaced in the Greek text with the word “onycha.” This misleading word choice may have caused this ingredient to have been re-identified and replaced by the mollusk shell.

    This would make shecheleth part of the incense ingredients of the first temple and the mollusk shell part of the ingredients of the second temple. At any rate, you may choose to use either ingredient which would still be regarded sacred relative to the temple period represented.

    However, if you wish to use the kosher ingredient of the original Holy Incense of Exodus 30 you would choose labdanum as the proper choice for “shecheleth/onycha.”

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