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Herbs & Judaism

Lavender for sleep. Rosemary for clarity. Rose for love. Those are the basics, according to the Internet. But there is so much more to herbalism, and the use of herbs, especially in the Jewish tradition.

The modern terminology of herbalism is defined by Wikipedia as "the study of pharmacognosy and the use of medicinal plants, which are a basis of traditional medicine." (1) But for this blog post, we're going to narrow the focus to three specific areas: ritual, magical, and medicinal plants historically and traditionally used by Jews.

It is important to note the Jewish Diaspora is vast, and as Jews moved and settled, different herbs were available to them. This means that the herbalism of one group would look different from the herbalism of another. This is meant to be an overview. There are many Jewish herbal traditions that I will not cover. This will also not be all-encompassing. The traditions of Jews and herbs are vast and diverse: far more intricate than any single blog post could adequately investigate in detail. This is meant to serve as a light overview and jumping-off point for further research in a few different directions on the topic of Jews and herbs.

Separating ritual, magical, and medicinal is a difficult task; these categories are blurred, overlapping, and interwoven, even before the introduction of herbs. As history continued, as new herbs were introduced, as Jews created and uncreated rituals and magic, plants were faithfully by our side, allies, and tools to whatever end.

The modern idea of spirituality and medicine being separate entities is just that: a modern conception. For most of history, illness, disease, and by extension, the healing of said maladies were all part of a spiritual ecosystem. Demons and evil entities were often believed to be the cause of illness, and to cure an illness wasn't merely stopping a series of physical symptoms; it was ridding the patient of whatever evil plagued them. Plants that were physically powerful could also serve as magically protective, in turn, deeming them ritually important, meaning that a single plant could fall within all three categories at once.

The use of plants in ritual spans to before the Exodus from Egypt. When the Israelites were to paint blood over their door posts to protect them from the angel of death claiming the firstborns, it was the plant hyssop that they were instructed to use. Its protective uses are lauded to this day.

"Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and apply some of the blood that is in the basin to the lintel and to the two doorposts. None of you shall go outside the door of your house until morning." Exodus 12:22

When offerings are burnt for HaShem, hyssop and cedar are required, "the priest shall order two live pure birds, cedar wood, crimson stuff, and hyssop to be brought for the one to be purified." Leviticus 14:4

The purification rituals include hyssop, once again, "Another party who is pure shall take hyssop, dip it in the water, and sprinkle on the tent and on all the vessels and people who were there, or on the one who touched the bones or the person who was killed or died naturally or the grave ."Numbers 19:18

Fragrant incense, ketoret, burned at the altar was created of 11 fragrant herbs, identified by Maimonides as, "Onycha, Storax, Frankincense, Musk, Cassia, Spikenard, Saffron, Costus, Cinnamon, Agarwood," with the addition of "salt of Sodom and Jordanian amber. Another two ingredients (vetch lye and "caper wine") were used in preparation of the tziporen (onycha) spice. There was also a special herb, referred to simply as maaleh ashan ("makes smoke rise"), that would produce a pillar of smoke that rose straight up rather than spread out. The identity of the herb was a secret that was closely guarded by members of the Avitnus family, who made the incense based on the tradition of their ancestor" (13).

The anointing oil of the Kohanim, high priests, is made of olive oil, myrrh, cinnamon, and other spices, as described in the Torah.

"And you, take for yourself spices of the finest sort: of pure myrrh five hundred [shekel weights]; of fragrant cinnamon half of it two hundred and fifty [shekel weights]; of fragrant cane two hundred and fifty [shekel weights]." (Shemot 30:23)

The use of plants in ritual has not waned or lessened in the Diaspora, though they are hardly identified by these names. Once pointed out, people can often point to numerous ritualistic uses of herbs. One such easily identifiable experience is Havdalah, the closing ceremony of Shabbat (the Sabbath). It is believed, in very few words, that during Shabbat, one receives extra spiritual heights. At Havdalah, this Shabbat soul departs and your soul is left devastated. To comfort and soothe oneself, one inhales the scent of fragrant spices, herbs, or fruits. (4) The most popular of the herbs used for this is cloves.

According to OUKosher, in regards to Ashkenazi tradition, "Mishnah Berurah (297:1) writes that for Havdalah, no matter which spice one smells, one recites the bracha of borei minei besamim. Ordinarily, each type of spice has a separate Bracha: Spices that grow from the ground are borei isvei besamim. Spices that grow on a tree are borei atzei besamim. Spices that are edible fruit are ha'nosein rei'ach tov b'peiros. Still, since many are not familiar with these brachos and to avoid confusion, it was instituted that at Havdalah one only recites borei minei besamim, which is the most general Bracha and will cover every spice. However, lechatchila it is best to use a spice whose bracha is borei minei besamim. According to many opinions the Bracha on cloves is borei minei besamim, and therefore it is a preferred spice. One may also mix other spices together with the cloves." (3)

However, they acknowledged that Sefardi communities might follow a different tradition that commands the specific blessings as per the blend of spices. The example given is that for cinnamon, which comes from trees, the blessing of "borei atzei besamim" would be required.

Outside of cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, myrtle, myrrh, star anise, orange peel, etrog, mint, rose, and jasmine are popular, among others. These fragrant spice blends are often kept in highly decorated boxes; in Ashkenazi households, many of these besamim spice boxers take the appearance of castles or turrets. For some communities, it is a tradition to save the myrtle from Sukkot, our next ritualistic use of plants.

During Sukkot or the Feast of the Tabernacles, we utilize four sacred plants known as the Arba minim or "Four Kinds., "The lulav is a palm branch, which is joined with myrtle and willow branches, and an etrog, a citron fruit. The four species are held and waved during various parts of the synagogue service on Sukkot" (5). According to Chabad, "A palm branch (lulav), two willows (aravot), a minimum of three myrtles (hadassim) and one citron (etrog)" are the correct quantities for each (6). The bundle of palm, myrtle, and willow is often referred to as the "lulav" on its own, due to the prominence of the palm. During the various services, "the custom is to wave the arba minim in all six directions—south, north, east, up, down and west" (6).

The myrtle is frequently kept for including in the besamim for Havdalah, while the etrog may be turned into jam, liquor, or decorations, as well as a myriad of other uses. Customs vary by community on the methodology and purpose of disposal for the Arba minim.

While not explicitly used within the same rituals as the etrog and lulav, during Sukkot, it is traditional to eat the Seven Sacred Species.

"A land of wheat, and barley, and vines, and fig trees and pomegranates; a land of olive oil and honey (Deut. 8:8)."

Great Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria, gave associations to each of the special species: Wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates. His work linked these plants to the seven of the lower sefirot or Divine Emanations. Wheat = Chesed, Barley = Gevura, Grapes = Tiferet, Figs = Neztach, Pomegranates = Hod, Olives = Yesod, Dates = Malchut.

These sacred plants appear heavily within Jewish ritual–with grape wine and juice, being a central component of Shabbat, Havdalah, and most major holidays, wheat and barley, being used for the creation of Challah and matzoh, pomegranate appearing on tables as the preferred fruit at holidays, celebration, as well as eaten ritually for its connection to fertility, and so on and so forth.

These few examples of ritual usages of plants are well known to most Jews, but there are other uses that have experienced marginalization in recent years, leaving certain members of the community without introduction to their purpose and benefit. Alternatively, their experiences with them have been greatly demystified, shrouded not in their spiritual power and propensity for protection or healing, but in that of mundanity.