What is Onycha?

By Dr. Curtis D. Ward DD MHC

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 was 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] There is also some doubt that a mollusk would have been referred to as a sweet spice.[11] Bahr states that “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] 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 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 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[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 onyx.[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 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. 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] 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 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 than that of labdanum.


Let us briefly summarize the evidence presented above:

Onycha was a sweet spice.
Labdanum is a sweet spice.

The Gemara states that only kosher items may be used for the work of Heaven.
Labdanum is a kosher item.

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.

An ancient Ugaritic text lists onycha among types of vegetation.
Labdanum, the exudation of the rockrose plant, is a product of vegetation.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.
The rabbi who translated the Bible into Arabic translated onycha as “ladana” which is our labdanum.
The learned Rabbi Saʻadiah ben Yosef Gaon (born 882) claimed labdanum was onycha.

The great scholar Bochartus argued that onycha was labdanum. Abrahams wrote onycha was labdanum. Winfred Walker lists onycha as labdanum.
Labdanum is recorded in the book of Genesis as being a balm treasured by the Hebrew people. The ancient Egyptians treasured it.
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 D. Ward DD MHC

External Links
The following links are a must-see:



^ Exodus 30:33, 37-38.
^ Strongs #7827
^ Onkelos Shemot 2:10
^ Abrahams, H.J. - Onycha, Ingredient of the Ancient Jewish Incense: An attempt at identification, Econ. Bot. 33(2): 233-6 1979
^ Ex. 11:10-12
^ 11:24
^ Shabbos 28a
^ Abrahams, HJ, Pg 234
^ Cyclopaedia of Biblical, theological, and ecclesiastical literature, Volume 7, by James Strong John McClintock
^ 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
^ Exodus 30:34b
^ Symbol, i, 422
^ Abrahams, H.J.
^ Abrahams, H.J.
^ James L. Carroll, Elizabeth Siler, "Let My Prayer Be Set Before Thee: The Burning of Incense in the Temple Cult of Ancient Israel"
^ James L. Carroll, Elizabeth Siler
^ Abrahams, H.J. - Onycha, Ingredient of the ancient Jewish incense: An attempt at identification in Econ. Bot. 33(2): 233-6 1979
^ Josiah Conder. The modern traveller (Volume 7)
^ Cyclopaedia of Biblical, theological, and ecclesiastical literature, Volume 7, by James Strong John McClintock
^ Hagensick, Carl, Beauties of the Truth, Volume 4, Number 2, May 1993
^ Walker, Winifred, "All the Plants of the Bible,"Doubleday & Company (October 1979)
^ Kerithoth 6b
^ Chemical abstracts, Volume 13, By American Chemical Society,Chemical Abstracts Service, pg.2104)
^ Gil Marks http://www.gilmarks.com/1215.html
^ Cyclopaedia of Biblical, theological, and ecclesiastical literature,James Strong, John McClintock
^ Cyclopaedia of Biblical, theological, and ecclesiastical literature, Volume 7, by James Strong, John McClintock
^ Jacobs, Louis, The Jewish religion: a companion. pg. 266
^ Sutton, Rabbi Avraham, The Spiritual Significance of the Qetoret in Ancient Jewish Tradition
^ Natural History 12.19.
^ Kerithoth 6b
^ KI SISA - RASHI COMMENTARY, Shemos Book 2: Exodus
^ Age-old Resins of the Mediterranean Region and Their Uses, FN Howes - Economic Botany
^ Gray, Samuel Frederick, A Supplement to the Pharmacopœia and Treatise on Pharmacology in General,pg. 205
^ http://www.naturalhealthcrafters.com/essentialoils/ambreine.html (Second paragraph)
^ 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
^ 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
^ Abrahams, Onycha..., pg.236
^ Studia Antiqua: The Journal of the Student Society for Ancient Studies, Fall 2002, Volume 2, Number 2
^ Lynne, Mary, Galaxy of Scents: The Ancient Art of Perfume Making
^ Histrenact, Historical Reenactment Database
^ http://bible.ort.org/books/glosd1.asp?ACTION=displayletter&char=79&cat=3
^ Newberry, Percy E., The Shepherds "Crook" and the So-Called "Flail" or "Scourge" of Osiris
^ http://www.jstor.org/pss/3854018
^ http://labdanum-creta.blogspot.com/2006/05/crook-and-flail-in-ancient-egypt.html
^ Rhind, William, A history of the vegetable kingdom: embracing the physiology of plants
^ http://www.buffaloah.com/a/archsty/egypt/illus/illus.html
^ Myśliwiec, Karol, The twilight of ancient Egypt: first millennium B.C.E., pg. 12.
^ Massey, Gerald, Ancient Egypt - The Light of the World: A Work of Reclamation And Restitution In Twelve Books
^ http://www.aldokkan.com/society/pharaoh.htm
^ http://www.art.com/products/p15439682-sa-i3746638/kenneth-garrett-as-a-sphinx-hatshepsut-displays-a-lions-mane-and-a-pharaohs-beard.htm
^ Strong's Exhaustive Concordence, Hebrew # 7827 & #7826
^ http://www.essentiallyoils.com/Newsletters/2000/April_2000_Newsletter/april_2000_newsletter.html
^http://www.thegoodscentscompany.com/data/rs1064991.html http://classroom.all-science-fair-projects.com/science_fair_projects_encyclopedia/Labdanum
^ King's American Dispensatory, 1898, by Harvey Wickes Felter, M.D., and John Uri Lloyd, Phr. M., Ph. D
^ Mendes, Abraham Pereira, Prayers for the Intermediate Days on the Tabernacles
^ Natural History Bible; or, description all quadrupeds, birds, fishes [&c.] mentioned Sacred scriptures, THADDEUS MASON HARRIS, D.D.
^ 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
^ N. H. 1. xii. c. 17
^ O'Dowd, Michael J., The history of medications for women: materia medica woman, pg. 165
^ Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries,pp.114-115, By A. Lucas
^ Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries,pg.116, By A. Lucas
^ P.E. Newberry, in Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, xv (1929), pg.94
^ XII:37
^ Book 3, Chapters 107-82, The History of Herodotus, George Rawlinson, ed. and tr., vol. 2 (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1885)
^ French Observations of Disease and Drug Use in Late Eighteenth Century, by J ESTES - 1984 -
^ 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.
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^ A. Lucas, Preservative Materials used by the Ancient Egyptians in Embalming, pp. 31-2
^ Abrahams, JH, pg. 234
^ 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
^ 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 - 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
^ Rimmel, Eugene, The book of perfumes (MDCCCLXV)
^ A dictionary of the natural history of the Bible: By Thaddeus Mason Harris
^ Lis-Balchin, Maria, Aromatherapy science: a guide for healthcare professionals
^ Sanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/saadya/
^ Abrahams, H.J. - Onycha, Ingredient of the ancient Jewish incense: An attempt at identification in Econ. Bot. 33(2): 233-6 1979
^ Abrahams, H.J.