Spice of Life| January 31, 2023
Watered with faith, the world's most valuable spice thrives in the Jerusalem Hills
Photos: Itzik Belinsky
“Make a brachah,” says Moshe Kedem in his unequivocal French accent, as he reverently hands over a jar of the most alluring deep yellow spice. “And make sure you have the proper kavanah.”
“Which brachah?” I ask. “Borei minei besamim?”
“Also, but I meant the brachah of Shehecheyanu. Because I don’t think you’ve ever smelled real saffron in your life.”
He was right. And just like the remarkable story of Moshe Kedem’s own life, this exotic spice, specially grown in the Jerusalem Hills just like in the times of Shlomo Hamelech and the rarest and most elusive part of the Ketores incense, might bring us all a step closer to the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash.
When this former French-educated artist and lawyer came on aliyah and realized his accreditation wouldn’t be recognized in Israel, he started life over — as a simple gardener. But that eventually led him on a path to teshuvah and ultimately to seek out the rare purple saffron flower, a type of crocus, whose tips at the end of the flower’s three red pistils produce the world’s most expensive spice. Today, he says, he’s involved in the best business imaginable: producing the saffron — the “charcom” of the Ketores — that we mention in our prayers every day.
Back to the Land
French-born Moshe Kedem was in his early twenties and already managing a Paris art gallery after earning degrees in both art and law. But when he turned 24 and faced being drafted into the French military, he decided that if he’d have to be drafted, he’d prefer serving in the Israeli army. And so, in 1997, he made aliyah and enlisted in the IDF, where he served as a tank driver.
After his discharge, he discovered that in addition to his degrees not being accredited, the art industry in Israel operated quite differently from what he knew.
“I didn’t really have a choice,” Moshe says. “Without money, family, support, or even my diplomas, I had to find work, and decided to take the first offer that would come my way.”
And that’s how the artist began to work as a gardener, providing gardening services to public entities, including the Jerusalem Municipality.
“I began from zero, without any knowledge,” he relates. “But I figured out how to hold a hoe and how to clean the area of leaves, and as time went on, I discovered that I actually liked this work. I saw myself connecting to the earth, to growth, to bringing life from the soil. Today I know every stone on Har Hazeisim and Har Hamenuchos, because I was the gardener there.”
The work gave Moshe Kedem plenty of flexibility. He would study in ulpan in the mornings to improve his Hebrew, and then would begin his gardening work. Eventually he became an expert in irrigation systems and water management, and was hired to construct and manage water systems.
“At the time, I had no connection to tradition, but I knew one thing,” he recalls. “When I engaged in farming in Eretz Yisrael, I discovered that it connected me to Judaism, to tradition, to the land, the people.”
A few years later, though, art called him back. He opened a gallery for young aspiring artists in Tel Aviv, and at some point, he decided to return to Paris to open a gallery for Israeli art. But Moshe soon learned that the Paris he remembered wasn’t the same.
“Anti-Semitism was rife, and Muslims would stand outside the gallery cursing me and screaming that I killed children in Gaza. I realized I had nothing to look for in Paris, and that also buttressed my feelings of connection to Jewish tradition, of which I knew little. So in essence, that’s what got me to begin my teshuvah process. I started going to Torah classes and keeping mitzvot.”
His newfound path didn’t take him directly back to Israel, though. He got an offer he couldn’t refuse, to manage the irrigation systems for growing cacao beans in Africa. After four years there, he returned to Israel and decided to focus on farming — but this time he knew he didn’t want to just drive a tractor and plow the fields. He wanted to do something unusual and special.
“I don’t have answers, because I don’t have questions.” Moshe Kedem defied the odds in his quest to grow saffron in Eretz Yisrael
Failure to Flower
At the time, he was living in Netanya, and suddenly it came to him at the weekly Torah shiur he attended with a group of French immigrant friends.
“We were learning Shir Hashirim and we reached the pasuk where Shlomo Hamelech details the names of the different spices that were planted in G-d’s holy garden: ‘Neird vecharkom kaneh vekinamon im kol atzei levonah mor v’aholos im kol roshei besamim — spikenard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with all frankincense trees, myrrh and aloes, with all the chief spices.’
“I found myself wondering about the ‘charkom,’ which in modern Hebrew is what we call turmeric. But this is a root bulb that’s buried in the ground and its scent only emerges once it is taken out. How then, does Shlomo Hamelech describe it as a flower that emits a scent?
“We began to look into it,” he says, “and then I found a Rambam that describes its characteristics in detail: ‘It is tall like a stalk, and each one has three stems, and each stem has three leaves.’ In addition, the Rambam notes that it was also used to dye clothes, including the bigdei kehunah. He details its medicinal properties and even notes its Latin name: Crocus sativus.
“So it became clear to me that the charkom in the pasuk is not the spice that we know as turmeric, but rather it is the saffron flower. It has an amazing scent, as Shlomo Hamelech describes, and throughout the world it is sold both as an aromatic spice and also for medicinal purposes.”
Moshe also discovered something else: According to experts, it’s impossible to grow saffron in Eretz Yisrael. “But I wouldn’t relent — I just knew it could be done,” he says. “Shlomo Hamelech went around Yerushalayim and smelled the scent of saffron, so I knew it must have grown here three thousand years ago.”
He discovered that in the past, efforts were made to grow saffron in Israel, but those efforts — through both the Volcani Agricultural Research Institute in Rishon L’Tzion and the agriculture faculty at Tel Aviv University and funded by the Agriculture Ministry — were not successful.
“But it was actually these failures that pushed me forward: I would find a way to grow saffron on the soil of Eretz Yisrael, and with Hashem’s help, I would succeed.”
The spice we think of when we hear “saffron” is actually only a small part of the rare purple flower that only blooms twice a year and needs very specific conditions for growth. And because only a very small part of the flower is used, it takes about 125,000 saffron flowers to make just one pound of saffron spice. That, along with the fact that harvesting must be done manually (about 600 hours of manual labor), leads to a staggering price tag: between $20 and $100 a gram, or $1,000 to $5,000 per pound. (Luckily, only a pinch is required to change up the fanciest culinary creations.)
Saffron is today considered the most expensive spice in the world, and its demand greatly exceeds the supply. Most of today’s saffron is cultivated in Iran, but Moshe was determined to change that. Still, after all the attempts and agricultural experiments, wasn’t he afraid that he, too, would fail?
“I just knew I’d succeed,” he says. “After all, we need the Ketores, and when the Geulah comes, how will we prepare it without having a ready supply of saffron?”
Delicate operation. It takes special skill to remove the valuable three-pronged style from each crocus without any damage. Below, the crocus fields flower according to a biblical formula – after six years of growth, they must be uprooted so the land can rest for a year
Waiting for a Miracle
The dream of growing saffron in commercial quantities that would turn Moshe Kedem into the official supplier for the Beis Hamikdash when the time comes pushed him into a whole new mindset. In addition to his work as an irrigation systems manager, he connected with his entrepreneur friend Moshe (Bruno) Cohen, and together they established a company whose aim was to grow and market saffron.
They had some preconditions. One of them was that the saffron would grow exactly the way it grew in times past in Eretz Yisrael — in other words, no commercial irrigation; they would only rely on rainwater. That was quite a leap for someone whose profession entails hydrating plants regardless of the rain, but Moshe was insistent.
“We wanted to adhere to the Biblical way of growing things, which means using systems that rely on human intervention as little as possible. Of course, everyone in the industry told us we’d fail, that it was a waste of the investment. But we pushed on. Because if charkom appears in Tanach, and it is described as a plant that grew in Eretz Yisrael, no experts could tell us it wouldn’t work.”
Before embarking on the plan, Moshe conferred with rabbinic authorities to find out the exact halachic parameters of the special flower, as it hadn’t grown in Eretz Yisrael since the Churban.
The first stage was to find land that would be hospitable. The team chose three places that they hoped would provide ideal growing conditions for the bulbs of the crocus plant, which they imported from Spain and France: on the coast, in the Negev, and in the forest area around Beitar, south of Jerusalem.
“After three months, we discovered that only the bulbs that we planted in the Jerusalem Hills flowered and thrived. The experts had no explanations, but it all made perfect sense to me. Shlomo Hamelech describes a garden that is blessed with herbal plants, and we can assume that this garden was near his palace — in the Jerusalem area, not on the coast and not in the south.”
They found a farmer by the name of David Buzaglo on Moshav Bar Giora — on the road between Hadassah Hospital and Beitar — who agreed to join their plan and donated a six-dunam field. Buzaglo was actually in the chicken farm industry, but because his parents came from Iran and had told him about the rare spice with its many unique qualities, he decided to come on board.
“We planted the bulbs,” Moshe relates, “and waited for the miracle.”
I Had Faith
The miracle came just three months later. “It was the end of 2019. We brought four tons of bulbs, planted them, and three months later, we couldn’t believe our eyes: They were flowering and thriving. It turned out that we’d planted the flowers in the ideal spot: the Jerusalem Hills, where the flowers get the harsh cold they need when they’re in sleep mode in the winter, and then the heat that they need when they flower.”
Many raised an eyebrow at their success, but not Moshe Kedem. He says that agricultural success is tied to emunah. “You may think I’m some kind of messianic nut, but I have emunah. I go out to the field and I ask HaKadosh Baruch Hu that the shoot should take hold, that there should be rain, that the bulb should flower, and that we should be able to separate the leaves — whatever is needed each time.”
But why did the others fail when it was tried so many times before? “I don’t have answers,” he says, “because I don’t have questions. When I needed rain, I went out to the field and asked HaKadosh Baruch Hu to send me rain, and He sent. Is it any wonder that my experiment succeeded?”
Once the saffron flowers bloom, they continue to grow on their own for the next six years. After that, they need to be uprooted, and the field needs to rest. Only then is another round planted. “They have their own built-in shemittah mechanism,” Moshe says.
In order to extract one kilo of saffron, Moshe needs to open about 250,000 flowers, and the flowers need to be picked by hand before they open in the sun, a three-hour window from 5:30 to 8:30 in the morning.
After the flowers are gathered, the style, which is like three connected threads, is extracted from each flower. It looks like the letter shin, which is how the Rambam describes it.
This work requires special skill. The threads can’t be damaged while separating them from the yellow base. In Iran, Moshe relates, the yellow base is mixed with the red thread and is colored with red dye, and as such, Iranian saffron is considered cheaper. “We go with the pure saffron and produce only from the red thread. That’s why its price is so high.”
While Iranians saffron sells for about $20 per gram, his is closer to $100.
After the separation, the thin threads are placed in an oven to dry. At this point, they have no scent. Only after three months of aging do they develop a powerful and very aromatic smell. Moshe shows me one tiny jar of saffron — just over two ounces — that was just picked, and in fact it has no scent. Another one was harvested a year ago and indeed, it has an amazing scent that’s hard to describe.
I ask Moshe about his warehouses and packaging facilities, but he just laughs. He explains that the yield of an entire year from this field can fit into a plastic container. It’s an annual yield that ranges from just five to seven kilograms.
“The experts had no explanation, but it all made perfect sense to me.” Moshe Kedem’s gamble of faith has paid off; his saffron is in high demand among restaurateurs – though his true goal is to see it used in the Ketores
Four years after the first growing effort, despite it still being considered for research purposes, the dream is becoming a reality. Moshe Kedem’s spice, which is golden in color as opposed to the red Iranian saffron, has the official approval of the ISO standards. It is recognized as one of the ten best types of saffron in the world. In addition, it is ranked among the first in the world in intensity of scent and flavor.
And even though his price is up to five times the amount of the Iranian counterpart, the most prestigious restaurants in the world have become his clients — Michelin star chefs know that a miniscule amount will intensify the flavor of their best specialties.
Until the Ketores is restored, Moshe Kedem’s clients are primarily the top restaurants in France, although he’s designated a small amount for Havdalah besamim. For 110 shekels, you can buy a few grains — a tenth of a gram — encased in a glass ball.
He also put aside a small quantity which he donated to the Machon Hamikdash center in Jerusalem, a Temple study center where many of the articles for use in the Third Beis Hamikdash, G-d willing, have been fashioned.
“While we’re waiting for Mashiach,” says Moshe, “I’m trying to do my part to be ready.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 947)
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