The word mashi’ah is invariably connected with Messianism and the end of days, but its actual meaning is “the anointed one” – that is, the one who has been anointed with anointing oil. In our context the term ha-kohen ha-mashi’ah (Vayikra4:2) refers to the anointed priest who errs and sins. The Mishnah teaches that this excludes a High Priest who is merubeh begadim – who serves with the additional vestments of the kohen gadol (=High Priest), but who has not been anointed, which was the case throughout most of the Second Temple period.
What was this shemen ha-mish’ha, this anointing oil?
The Torah teaches that a unique anointing oil must be prepared to consecrate the mishkan – the Tabernacle – and its vessels (see Sefer Shemot 30:22-33) as well as the High Priest, Aharon ha-kohen and his children. Our Gemara teaches that the kings of Israel were also anointed, although there was no need to anoint a king who replaced his father in peaceful succession.
The Gemara quotes a baraita where Rabbi Yehudah teaches that the oil was produced by boiling the roots of the plants from which it was made. Rabbi Yossi objects that such a method could not possibly have produced enough oil to perform the necessary tasks, rather the roots were placed in water where they were boiled, and when the oil was extracted from the roots it would float on the water where it could be removed. Rabbi Yehudah responded that there were many miracles in the production and use of the oil. Although only 12 lugin were produced, it sufficed to anoint all of the vessels in the mishkan as well as Aharon and his sons throughout the week of dedication of the Tabernacle. Furthermore, based on the passage in Sefer (30:31), the oil remained for use at the end of days.
One of the ingredients in making this oil, tzori, may be identified as the plant Commiphora apobalsamum, from which balsam oil is taken. The highest quality perfume drips from the plants, but most of the perfume is extracted by means of boiling its branches. When such oil was used for medicinal purposes, its main use was for incense and fragrant oil. During the time of the Mishnah it was literally worth its weight in gold.