Saffron – The Golden Spice
Saffron is a spice with a very long history. It has been as prized as gold for thousands of years. A spice salesman in the local Shuk Market told me that he used to smuggle the spice in from abroad and charge 3 times the current legal price. It is no longer illegal to import Saffron. Its current high price for a single gram is what you would pay for 150 grams of other spices. A field planted with Saffron is the example of an expensive farmed field in the Gemarah. (Baba Metziah 109 a)
Modern Hebrew is confusing when discussing the word “Karkom”. “Karkom” is Saffron in older Hebrew. However, today, Modern Hebrew calls Turmeric Karkom. Rambam says that the spice called “Karkom” in Hebrew is known as “Saffron” in Arabic. This is discussed in the laws regarding the 11 spices used in the incense in the Bet Hamikdash – Holy. (The Laws of Temple Utensils – Kley Hamikdash 2 – 4) We will see many very early references in the following discussion.
The scientific name for Saffron is Crocus sativus. The spice is made from the stigma of the Crocus Flower. These stigma are long reddish threads. When disolved it turns food yellow. It has been extensivly used as a die.
Saffron has a very early connection to Judaism. It is mentioned in Shir Hashirim: (Song of Songs) Spikenard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense; myrrh and aloes, with all the chief spices. (4 – 14) This is part of the description of the mystical garden where the lovers, G-d and “Knesset Yisrael”, meet each other. The portion finishes by saying, “Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his precious fruits.” (4 – 16)
Our Rabbis of Blessed memory added to the mystical allegory of the Garden which included exquisite Saffron flowers of differing colored flowers. They stated that these exotic species represented Bezalel, the biblical artisan. (Midrash Zuta – Shir Hashirim – Buber 4 – 14) Bezalel was himself the most gifted artisan and could form beautiful articles with his hands. He was charged with building the articles in the Mishkan including the Golden Menorah. This allegory fits very well with beauty and uses of the spices. These spices are used for incense, as dies and as spices for food. Just as Bezalel formed beautiful objects: the use of these spices brings beauty, flavor and fragrance.
Yitzchak Avinu asked his son Esav for a succulent dish to eat before giving a blessing. According to Midrash Sechel Tov the succulent meat that Yitzchak requested was to be properly spiced with oil, salt, pepper, saffron and cumin. Taste was especially important to the blind Yitzchak Avinu who used to enjoy seeing the dish in front of him before he became blind.
The Talmud has a discussion regarding whether one can grind spices and salt on Yom Tov. According to Bet Hillel one can grind all spices with a mortar and pestle on Yom Tov. However, one can grind salt only in a wooden mortar and pestle. The Talmud discusses Bet Hillel’s reason for differentiating between salt and other spices. Rav Huna says that salt should be ground in a different utensil because salt is very common. Rav Chisda states that salt needs to be ground in a different utensil because it could have been ground before Yom Tov. Spices like pepper and mustard loose their flavor when ground ahead of time. Therefore, they can be ground in their regular utensil. It is important for us to know whether Rav Huna or Rav Chisda is correct. This is because we need to know whether it is permissible to grind Saffron (Morika in Aramaic) on Yom Tov. Saffron threads do not easily loose its flavor. Therefore, they are similar to salt which does not loose its flavor. (Betza 14 a)
Rabbi Yosef Karo was born in Spain in 5248 – 1489 CE and died in Tzfat. 5335 – 1575 CE In his Shulchan Aruch states that the Halacha is that ANY spices can be ground on Yom Tov because they will loose their flavor. In The Bet Yosef he discusses at length that, although, Saffron keeps most of its flavor when ground before Yom Tov it still looses some flavor. Therefore, he permits grinding even Saffron.
Saffron grows around the Mediterranean area including in Israel. The eleven spices used as incense in the Bet Hamikdash were a mixture of imported spices and homegrown spices. The three kinds of wild Saffron that grow in Israel are protected species.
The Mishna discussing menstrual blood states that the red needs to be red like saffron threads. They also state that it is very difficult to see all of the different hues of red. They state that saffron threads are the correct color only when fresh and not when dry. Additionally, they discuss which of the three stigmas is most suitable to compare to blood. In their eagerness to learn Torah they picked a saffron flower (today this is punishable) and brought it to Rabbi Abahu. He stated that the redness is only correct when the flower is still growing in the dirt. (Niddah 19a and 20a)
According to a Braita (an early extra-talmudic source) one who has sexual relations while standing or sitting will get sick with diarrhea. However, the Gemarah tells you how to get rid of Diarrhea. They suggest sucking on saffron in order to heal the diarrhea. A few lines later Abaye suggests a mixture of a kind of saffron diluted in wine to cure male impotence. (Gittin 70 a)
Another source in the Talmud discusses how to make a drink that causes sterility and abortion. The brew consists of Alexandrian Gum, liquid alum and Garden Saffron in equal quantities. (Shabbat 110a) The Talmud concludes that one may not drink this on Shabbat.
A very popular drink in Talmudic times was “Egyptiant Beer” called “Zetoom Hamitzri.” This was made of barley, saffron and salt. It is mentioned as a medicinal oriented drink which healthy people drink. (Shabbat 110a) Naturally it is not permitted to drink this barley based drink on Passover.
Rabenu Saadia Gaon (born in Egypt 4642 – 882 CE) states that in order to be healthy in mind one needs to do like the Majesty does. They eat and combine different foods in order that their mood should be good for their country. Among other things he states that saffron is a hot dry food.
Rabbi Shmuel Ben Moshe of Medina (Maharashda”m) was born in Solonika in 5207 (1506 CE). He addressed important questions from abroad. Many people value Saffron like gold. The Government of Venice applied a corrupt tax on Saffron, actually, putting it into the category of gold, silver and precious stones. This Saffron tax was a great burden on Jewish Merchants.
Chaim Ibn Srok had the ability to oversee the tax authorities and a talent to reduce taxes for the Jewish community merchants. The community agreed to employ Chaim Ibn Srok. The community was to pay him an amount equal to half of what he saved them. The Jewish community agreed to put a lean on all of the merchandise as a guarantee to pay. Additionally, anyone who does not pay would be excommunicated.
After several years some of the community decided that they no longer needed such a tax broker service. They asked Rabbi Shmuel Ben Moshe of Medina (Maharashda”m) in Thessaloniki whether it is permissible to cancel the deal with Chaim Ibn Srok.
Maharashda”m begins his answer by citing The Ramba”m (Maimonades) that one need not keep a promise to give a friend a gift of immeasurable value. It would seem that our Saffron Tax issue is similar, since the value is not known ahead of time and did not even exist years ago when the agreement was made. Another rule from the Talmud is that one cannot acquire something that does not currently exist. This too seems to make the deal between the Jewish community of Venice and Chaim Ibn Srok the tax broker.
However, Maharashda”m concludes that every member of the Jewish community must pay. This is because one needs to keep promises. If everybody could get out of paying then no one would ever try to help. Additionally, the merchants gain by paying Chaim Ibn Srok. This is because they pay him only half of what they would have otherwise needed to pay.