Mystery and debate surrounds what is known as Onycha. Some believe it to be of plant origin, while others believe it to be from the finger-like operculum, or the closing flap of certain snails. Rashi, a great Jewish scholar, believed Onycha to be a kind of root that grew from the ground. Some suggest it is extracted from a Styrax benzoin, a type of resin used in the Tabernacle for incense in ancient biblical times. The Encyclopedia of Bible Plants (F Nigel Hepper 1992) agrees that onycha is more likely to be a plant resin. Rabbi Gamaliel (whom the Apostle Paul studied under) believed it to be part of the plant species and said, “The balm of Onycha required for the incense exudes from the balsam trees.” The Jewish Talmud, whose Hebrew is of a later date than the scriptures, refers to the substance as tsiporen, which means fingernail and seems to be related to sh’chalim, meaning cress, a type of plant.
The Hebrew word for Onycha is tl,xev. Shecheleth and refers to a resin with a nail-like shine, claw or hoof. For this reason, others believe it is an aromatic from the operculum of a shell fish, i.e., the claw or nail of the strombus or wing-shell, a univalve common in the Red Sea (the same mussel from which the blue dye for the Tzitzits (fringes) was obtained). The Greek word from the Septuagint ‘onyx’ also adds confusion. Onyx is an agate with a fingernail like opacity that has for some reason been associated with a claw shaped shellfish.
Onycha, as a plant derivative is highly aromatic and is credited as having great medicinal properties which seems to be the most likely ingredient for the sacred incense when considering the healing effect prayer has.
Tzori alludes to the Torah which is a balm that brings healing to the entire body. Onycha was valued anciently for its ability to speed healing of wounds and to help prevent infection.