Monday, May 27, 2013

Spices of the Incense: Karkom (Saffron)

Ground saffron
Twice a day, once in the morning and again in the afternoon, the Kohanim would offer Incense upon the Golden Altar inside the Sanctuary Building. This special blend of spices and other ingredients was prepared by the Avtinas Family in one large batch which lasted an entire year. The Talmud (Kereisos 6a), based upon an Oral Tradition, provides the names and quantities of each ingredient and in this post I would like to focus on the spice known as כרכום [karkom], commonly translated as saffron.

The Talmud records that 16 maneh of saffron were used in compounding the Incense. One maneh is equal to approximately 20 ounces, so 16 maneh would equal 320 ounces, or 20 pounds of saffron. If this does not sound like an inordinate amount of spice, consider how saffron is obtained.

Crocus sativus (common crocus)
with bright crimson stigmas
Saffron is derived from the three bright crimson stigmas [thin stalks] which grow from the crocus flower. After being harvested, dried, and ground, the [modern day] yield of saffron per flower comes to about 0.00025 ounces. At this rate it takes over 4,000 crocus flowers to produce a single ounce of dried spice! For this reason, saffron has come to be known as the most expensive spice in the world.

To produce the 20 pounds of saffron used in the Temple for the Incense, a staggering 1.3 million flowers were needed. Based on modern planting densities used in the Mediterranean (see this article, under "Cultivation"), the amount of land required to grow this many flowers is 12.7 acres. For comparison, the entire Temple Mount (which measures 750 feet by 750 feet) is 12.9 acres. Even though there was a garden located on the western side of the Temple Mount which was used to cultivate the spices of the Incense, it emerges that another, much larger, plot of land was needed where the bulk of the saffron could be grown.


  1. Carcom sounds like Crocus to me.

  2. Carcom sounds like Crocus to me.

  3. Carcom sounds like Crocus to me.