Word of the Day / Samim

Though it has a holy and fragrant history, this ancient word got mixed up with the wrong crowd and is now wanted as an illegal substance.

Elon Gilad
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“Take unto thee sweet spices,” the Lord said unto Moses (Exodus 30:34). The original Hebrew word for what the King James Bible calls “spices” is samim (sa-MEEM), a word that in Modern Hebrew has come to mean drugs, particularly those not legal for consumption. How did this happen?

In Biblical times, samim - stacte, onycha, galbanum, and frankincense- were burnt twice a day as incense in the Great Temple of Jerusalem. But this came to an end in 586 BCE, when the temple was destroyed by the Babylonians. After the destruction, while the Hebrews were in exile in Babylonia and the incense wasn't used anymore, the word was relegated to mostly theoretical discussions.

But also while in exile, the Jews picked up the local language - Aramaic. This is why most of the Talmud is in that language. This would have important consequences for fate of the word "samim", because in Aramaic, the equivalent word sama (sa-MA), means drug in the medicinal sense.

Under the influence of the Talmud, this medicinal meaning of the word caught on in Hebrew texts of the Middle Ages and was transmitted to Modern Hebrew in the 20th century where it competed with its synonym trufah (tru-FAH). But the words were destined to drift apart.

In 1925, the British, then rulers of Palestine under mandate from the United Nations, consolidated their empire’s drug laws and passed the Dangerous Drugs Ordinance, legislation that would be at the heart of the Mandate Palestine’s drug laws all the way to its end in 1948. And, in fact, they remain the law in Israel today.

In naming the ordinance, Isaac Abadi, the British Mandate’s official translator, used the Hebrew word "samim" for "drugs". It is very likely that Abadi decided to use this word and not its synonym "trufah" because in Arabic, which he also spoke, samna (sam-NA) means poison.

Over the next decades the papers began to be peppered with stories of nefarious individuals and their run-ins with police. This tainted the word samim and in pharmacies across Palestine, people buying their ointments and pills were gradually using the word trufah more and more and asking for samim less and less. Eventually, the newspapers, which originally were careful to use “samim mesukanim” (“dangerous drugs”) in articles about the downfall of drug dealers, started dropping the adjective and just used "samim".

By the time Israel was established in 1948, samim had completely become identified with illegal substances and was no longer used to mean medicine. To this day it carries this meaning, though our story comes to an ironic twist at the end because, in the last decade, so-called “legal highs,” drugs that are not technically illegal, began being marketed as incense in “Ktoret” (ke-to-RET) shops. So that "ktoret", a biblical synonym of samim, has become a euphemism for legal-highs, making it a counterpart to its long-lost brother.

Shoshana Kordova is on leave. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.

Hey...interested in some Biblical spices?Credit: Reuters