( Jeremiah 2:22 ; Malachi 3:2 ; Heb. borith), properly a vegetable alkali, obtained from the ashes of certain plants, particularly the salsola kali (saltwort), which abounds on the shores of the Dead Sea and of the Mediterranean. It does not appear that the Hebrews were acquainted with what is now called "soap," which is a compound of alkaline carbonates with oleaginous matter. The word "purely" in Isaiah 1:25 (RSV, "throughly;" marg., "as with lye") is lit. "as with bor ." This word means "clearness," and hence also that which makes clear, or pure, alkali. "The ancients made use of alkali mingled with oil, instead of soap ( Job 9:30 ), and also in smelting metals, to make them melt and flow more readily and purely" (Gesenius).
The Hebrew term borith is a general term for any substance of cleansing qualities. As, however, it appears in ( Jeremiah 2:22 ) in contradistinction to nether , which undoubtedly means "natron" or mineral alkali, it is fair to infer that borith refers to vegetable alkali, or some kind of potash, which forms one of the usual ingredients in our soap. Numerous plants capable of yielding alkalies exist in Palestine and the surrounding countries; we may notice one named hubeibeh (the Salsola kali of botanists) found near the Dead Sea, the ashes of which are called el-kuli , from their strong alkaline properties.
sop (borith; the King James Version sope):
Borith is a derivative of bor, "purity," hence, something which cleanses or makes pure. Soap in the modern sense, as referring to a salt of a fatty acid, for example, that produced by treating olive oil with caustic soda, was probably unknown in Old Testament times. Even today there are districts in the interior of Syria where soap is never used. Cooking utensils, clothes, even the body are cleansed with ashes. The ashes of the household fires are carefully saved for this purpose. The cleansing material referred to in Jeremiah 2:22 (compare Septuagint at the place, where borith is rendered by poia = "grass") and Malachi 3:2 was probably the vegetable lye called in Arabic el qali (the origin of English alkali). This material, which is a mixture of crude sodium and potassium carbonates, is sold in the market in the form of grayish lumps. It is produced by burning the desert plants and adding enough water to the ashes to agglomerate them. Before the discovery of Leblanc's process large quantities of qali were exported from Syria to Europe.
For washing clothes the women sprinkle the powdered qali over the wet garments and then place them on a flat stone and pound them with a wooden paddle. For washing the body, oil is first smeared over the skin and then qali rubbed on and the whole slimy mixture rinsed off with water. Qali was also used in ancient times as a flux in refining precious metals (compare Malachi 3:2). At the present time many Syrian soap-makers prefer the qali to the imported caustic soda for soap-making.
In Susanna (verse 17) is a curious reference to "washing balls" (smegmata).
James A. Patch
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