BARSÔM (Avestan baresma/baresman) are sacred branches or twigs of an evergreen or fruit tree that form an important part of the Zoroastrian liturgical ceremony.
The word barsôm is the Middle Iranian form of the Avestan baresma/ baresman, which is derived from the root barez, Sanskrit bṛh “ to grow bright, beautiful, splendid.”
The object of holding barsôm “twigs/branches of a fruit or evergreen tree” in prayers is to pay reverence to the whole plant kingdom and all growing, verdant things. We read in Vendidad (19.17-18:) “Zarathûshtrá asked Ahûrá Mazdá: O Splendid Creator! In what way shall I praise Thee? Ahûrá Mazdá replied: O Spitamá Zarathûshtrá! Go near a tree grown out of the earth and repeat thus: Homage unto thee, O beautiful, flourishing, strong and Mazdā-created tree.” (In the next paragraph a reference to the method of cutting the barsôm twig by a fire priest is given.)
The ceremonial practice of cleansing the barsôm or sacred twigs with holy water reminds one of fertility and verdant growth through rainfall.
According to the ancient Zoroastrian tradition, a keeper of flame or fire priest has to draw water from a sacred well. With this pure water collected in a ritually purified pot, the priest shall go before the tree. He shall say the sacred formula: fra-sastayaæ-ča ûrvaráv vaŋhûyáv Mazda-ðátayáv ašaônyáv—“For the highest praise of awe-inspiring tree, created by Mazdā, virtuous and luminous.”
The priest shall then cut off the twigs or branches with the recitation of Ašem vôhü “awe-inspiring virtue/excellence” formula. The twigs or branches are then immersed in the water collected from the sacred well and the following formula is recited:
nemö ûrvairæ vaŋuhî Mazda-ðátæ ašaônæ “Bow/homage to the awe-inspiring tree, created by mazdá, virtuous and good.”
In the Avesta, the second chapter of Yasná is dedicated to sacred twigs and is called BARSÔM YAŠT in the Zoroastrian religious vernacular.
The baresman sacred twigs are from a pomegranate, an evergreen or a fruit tree in blossom. The sacred twigs are first laid out and then tied up in bundles.
The number of sacred branches or twigs varies according to the ceremony or ritual to be performed. The celebration of the Yasna “yearning, adoration, union with god-powers” requires 23 sacred twigs of which 21 form a bundle.
The celebration of the Vendidad or Vi-daæv-dát “the laws against demons” ceremony requires 35 sacred twigs of which 33 form a bundle.
The celebration of the Vispered or Vispa-ratü “all wise counsels” requires 35 sacred twigs.
The celebration of high noon, 3 days after the vernal equinox requires 15 sacred twigs.
The celebration of the sacred word or voice “vaaj” in honor of the departed souls requires 5 sacred twigs.
The initiation into priesthood ceremony requires 7 sacred twigs.
According to the Nirangistan “the book of formulas” the minimum number to be used in the any religious ceremony is three sacred twigs.
In the grace before festive banquets, wherein certain chapters of the Yasna are recited, the barsôm is a requisite. In ancient times the barsôm was absolutely required in the grace recited before meals. The reciter held it in his or her hand during the grace. We learn from Ferdowsī that the last fallen Sassanid Emperor, Yazd-gærd, asked for the barsôm to say grace before his last meal.
Unfortunately today, instead of following the ancient orthodox Avestan tradition, brass or silver wires are used. But real baresman or barsôm comes only from a living sacred tree. It is a branch from a fruit tree in blossom, or a sacred evergreen or pomegranate and not an inanimate substitute.