In Shir Hashirim chapter 4, verse 14 states: "Spikenard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with all frankincense trees, myrrh and aloes, with all the chief spices."

What is the significance of spikenard, saffron, calamus, cinnamon, frankincense, myrrh and aloes in this context? Are we to interpret these symbolically (as in they provide sweet aromatic smells and thus are pleasing to G*D.... mirroring the smell of the temple or Garden of Eden?) or were they historically the most valuable spices at this time? Or just the choice perfumes one would use to adorn themselves for beautification and fragrant reasons to make them more appealing to the opposite gender?

Do each of these spices represent a quality or trait in which would earn them the title "chief of all spices"?

But perhaps what is on my mind the most is... What makes these the "chief spices" instead of the spices used twice daily in the temple incense offering (Keterot)?? While I do know some overlap, i.e. Frankincense, but why isn't stacte (נָטָף), onycha (שְׁחֵלֶת), & galbanum (חֶלְבְּנָה) among the chief spices??? Or is it possible they are and we just don't know what the last three spices actually refer to?

Or is the author just using a different purpose here?

  • There are spices in the Shemen HaMishchah that aren’t in the Ketores. Why don’t you ask about those?
    – DonielF
    Commented Dec 18, 2017 at 22:47

1 Answer 1


Firstly, חלבנה was known to have a very unpleasant smell (Kerisus 6b). This would be a simple reason for excluding it from the list of nice-smelling spices in Shir Hashirim 4:14, although it does not explain the other 2 omissions.

Alshich (Shir Hashirim 4:14) provides reasons for each of the spices chosen as part of his interpretation (e.g. Mor refers to the נפש, based on the fact that the word מור can refer to blood, and הדם הוא הנפש), however, נרד וכרכום are explained as listed due to their "nice smell", which might equally apply to other spices not listed. Therefore, he does not answer this question fully.

Netziv (Rinah Shel Torah 3:6, 4:14) seems to imply that the list in Shir Hashirim contains the most diversity in properties of the spices (collection methods, smells, etc.) and was chosen for that purpose. Perhaps the other spices in the Ketoret would not provide as diverse a list, and therefore were excluded from the list in place of the other spices.

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