Biblical Botany: A Torah Flora Tour

In his blog Torah Flora, Dr. Jon Greenberg shares his unique insights and vast knowledge on Judaism and plants (or as he more articulately puts it, “biblical ethnobotany”). Some of us had the chance to witness that knowledge first hand today at the New York Botanical Garden, where Dr. Greenberg gave an enthusiastic group a “Torah Flora Tour.”

The goal of the tour (and blog), according to Dr. Greenberg, is to “use knowledge of plants and nature to better understand Torah and Halacha.” He cites a long-lost relationship during the biblical era between Judaism and nature, and a wish to reconstruct it.

Turns out this relationship goes well beyond the obvious of using Lulav and Etrog on Sukkot and bitter herbs on Pesach (though he discussed those as well, with exhibits A, B, and C proudly on view). This symbiosis exists in ways we have overlooked in our learning, in the very language of Tanach. Dr. Greenberg quoted Devarim in comparing a bitter man to wormwood, and wondered about the true identity of the desert Juniper in Jeremiah. It seems we’ve always turned to our green, leafy friends, for culinary, spiritual, and literary inspiration!

With every plant we passed, Dr. Greenberg pointed out its identifying marks and place in Jewish history (confirmed and fabled; Legend has it that it was a Jewish friend who showed Thomas Jefferson how to eat tomatoes…), and threw in some fun facts to sweeten the deal. He quoted sources with impressive speed and skill, citing the Talmud, Rambam, and Josephus in his fascinating botanical history lesson. Eventually, my intended event-reporting soon became a long list of “Who Knew?” facts and ideas I couldn’t wait to share on JCarrot!

For instance, while many Midrashic sources list the four species of Sukkot as metaphorical representations of people or senses, the Rambam sees them in an entirely original light: as an agricultural history of the Jews: The Lulav (date palm) grows in the desert, where the Jews wandered for forty years. The Aravot (willow) is a water-loving plant which finds its home on river banks, and represents our people’s crossing of the Jordan River on their way to Israel. The Hadasim (myrtle) grows in the Israeli highlands, where the people eventually spread out and settled, and the Etrog (citron, a cultivated fruit) represents the orchards that finally signaled the Jews’ agricultural growth in the land.

But the lessons didn’t end with interpretations of Judaic ritual items, oh, no. Some of the highlights of the tour were the “fun facts,” the stuff we might not use but sure are glad to know! For example, did you know that the word “scallion” comes from the Latin name for it, “Ascelonium”, so-called since the plants were imported from Ashkelon? I sure didn’t. Or that the original Maror (bitter herbs) probably wasn’t horseradish at all, but sea holly, the “prickly lettuce?” Dr. Greenberg and his wife offered us some samples of this spicy plant. Man, is it bitter. It could kick wasabi and romaine lettuce both to the curb come Hillel sandwich season. Funny thing is, sea holly starts out sweet. But as it matures, it becomes bitter and spiny, until it reaches a point where it’s no longer edible; just like the Jews’ experience in Egypt started pleasantly and ended in unbearable oppression!

As we walked among the rows of flowers and fruit, grateful that temperature had dropped a few degrees for the occasion (“I’ve got connections up there,” Dr. Greenberg joked), we came across familiar plants with hidden stories. “Not all of our favorite vegetables were always popular,” Dr. Greenberg shared, explaining how potatoes and tomatoes, both members of the Nightshade family, were once thought to be poisonous. In fact, eggplant took quite a while to find an audience. Quoting an Italian source from the 1890’s, he told us how the purple food was described as “a disgusting vegetable fit only for Jews.” Gee, thanks, guys. I’ll take that Eggplant Parmesan to go.

Dr. Greenberg spoke with such aplomb and excitement; it made me glad that I’d driven across the Throgs Neck Bridge to be there. Where else could I have heard so much about our shared history with nature? Next time I’m choosing my farmers’ market apricots, I’ll think for a moment about how some sources identify it as the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge in Eden.

At one point, we arrived at an ordinary, flowering sage plant.

“What does this look like to you?” Dr. Greenberg asked.

“A Menorah!” some brave or eager volunteer announced.

“Exactly. And where did we light the Menorah?”

“In Jerusalem, on Har HaMoriah.”

“Right. ‘Moriah’ is Hebrew for ‘sage.’”

Wow.

Dr. Greenberg will be speaking next at the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists in Southbury, Connecticut on Sunday, July 25th. Those interested can register for the event at aojs.org.

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6 Responses to “Biblical Botany: A Torah Flora Tour”

  1. minda Says:

    Southbury is near some of the best gardening companies.

    Is this a coincidence?

  2. Yael Says:

    In Israel people call sage מרוה spelled basically the same as מוריה but pronounced Mar Va slightly different. But because Hebrew language is based on roots it seems like they might have the same root מ.ר.ה.

  3. Jon Greenberg Says:

    Thank you for the wonderful article! I just want to add one small correction: Sea holly (Eryngium spp.) and prickly lettuce (Lactuca serriola) are two different plants that can be used for maror. Prickly lettuce is a common weed and the ancestor of cultivated lettuce. It is mentioned first in the mishnah, before sea holly, and is the ideal species to use, but either one is fine.

    I will be leading some more Torah tours of the New York, Brooklyn, and Berkshire (MA) botanical gardens soon. For more details, check out the Events page (www.torahflora.org/events/) on my Web site, Torahflora.org, or e-mail me at jon@torahflora.org to be added to my list (strictly confidential, no ads or spam) for announcements of future Torah Flora events.

    Jon Greenberg

  4. alice chesler Says:

    i love reading your works. is that barbara in this picture?
    if you ever want essential oil extracts of the species mentioned for illustration, i have many,i.e. juniper,lemon,etc.
    alice

  5. Jon Greenberg Says:

    Thank you, Alice! No, Barbara is not in the picture. Those are some friends and neighbors of ours. We’ll be doing some more tours and talks this summer in NYC, New England, and maybe northern CA.

    Best,

    Jon Greenberg

  6. desert safari Says:

    Thank you for any other great article. The place else may anybody
    get that type of info in such a perfect manner of writing?
    I have a presentation subsequent week, and I am on the search for such information.

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