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Trees, Almond and Tu Bish’vat

With the advent of Tu Bish’vat, the new year of trees next Thursday, I am happy to present this excerpt from The Natural Bible by Baruch Sienna about trees and the almond tree that is the harbinger of spring in Israel.

Introduction to Trees

From the very first trees planted at creation and the Garden of Eden, to the trees worshipped by King Ahaz in the final chapters of the Bible, trees figure prominently in Jewish literature and lore. The Hebrew word for tree appears over 150 times in the Bible, and more than 100 different kinds of trees, shrubs and plants are named. The Mishnah adds hundreds of names of plants; Masechet Zera’im in particular deals with laws of agriculture. Midrashim, too, often use plants in similes and parables. In all, over 500 different plants are mentioned in classical Jewish sources. The Bible is rich in natural imagery, metaphors and parables. Often, our understanding of the biblical text is impoverished because we no longer appreciate their meaning.

Trees and plants were important in the ancient world. Trees furnished wood for construction of buildings, boats, furniture and smaller articles. Many trees provided nutritious and tasty fruit. Grains and vegetables were cultivated and wild plants were gathered. Other plants were used for food, medicinal purposes, herbs and spices, incense important for use in sacrifices, rope and cloth fibers. Sap and oils were extracted from plants and trees.

Today, many of us live much farther removed from the natural world than did our biblical ancestors who lived and worked outdoors for much of their lives. It is only natural that the Bible used images of the great outdoors that surrounded them.

While the Bible uses images and descriptions of plants and trees, it is not meant to be a botanical encyclopedia. The Bible often mentions plants and trees incidentally; the names and descriptions of plant and animal life are not systematic. Some plants, such as ebony, pistachio, and walnut, are mentioned by chance, appearing just once in the whole Bible, while even many common species of plants, such as the caper and carob, are not mentioned at all.

What are trees?

Trees are the tallest and longest living plants on the earth. It is difficult not to be inspired by an enormous tree, whose roots are in the earth, yet whose branches seem to touch the very sky. Trees typically survive for several human generations, and their longevity must have also impressed the ancient Israelites. It is not surprising that trees were powerful symbols for the ancient Israelite, and many significant trees are featured in biblical stories.

The terms conifer and broadleaf are used to describe the trees included in this tree guide. While conifers are typically evergreen, the two terms are not synonymous even though they are often commonly and incorrectly used interchangeably. A conifer has needlelike or scalelike leaves, and usually produces its seeds in a woody cone-like fruit (although the juniper fruit, being the exception that proves the rule, resembles a berry). Broadleaves are often deciduous (meaning they lose their leaves), but again, many broadleaves, especially living in Israel’s climate, are also evergreen. Broadleaves produce diverse types of edible and inedible fruit: berries, fleshy fruits, as well as nuts. The palm “tree” is a special case. Palms seem very tree-like but are not actually true trees. Palms have a single unbranched stem that does not increase in girth with age. The difference is apparent when a palm is cut down — the trunk is not woody, and the stump does not have the rings of growth we normally see in an actual tree.

Identification issues

The majority of biblical plants have been identified, though occasionally differing identifications and interpretations have been suggested. As a result, the identity of some biblical flora is speculative. The Bible does not include a full botanical description, and it is even possible that the plant referred to in the Bible may no longer grow in Israel or at all. Some plant names in the Bible are very specific and some names refer to a more generic category. So, kotz for example, refers to thorns in general. The word erez can be both: it usually refers to the cedar but sometimes is used to mean non-fruit bearing conifer trees in general.

Descriptions in classical rabbinic sources as well as other ancient translations and early historical writings are helpful in identifying biblical flora. Often, a plant’s name has been preserved in its Aramaic or Arabic form. Biblical scholars assume that there have been no major changes in the geology or climate of the region, so trees that are described as growing in a particular region presumably might still be found there. This may not always be ​the case for trees which have been over-harvested, for example. Conversely, many exotic species have been introduced into Israel’s flora, such as the native Australian eucalyptus tree. These were planted extensively during the early 1900s to drain potential mosquito breeding grounds, to provide shade, and to serve as a natural camouflage for military installations and road convoys.

A common mistake of early commentators and translators was to identify flora with species found in their respective countries. Israel enjoys a remarkable variety of soil and climatic conditions, but it cannot be assumed that the trees found in medieval France also grew in the land of Israel. (Rashi, for example, incorrectly identifies the armon with the chestnut.)

Furthermore, languages change over time. Occasionally, a Hebrew name is used in modern Hebrew to refer to a different plant than was meant in the Bible. Asking for botnim today in Israel will buy you peanuts; in the Bible the word refers to pistachios. The biblical Hebrew word kishu-im is now used in Israel to refer to the zucchini squash, and not cucumbers. To identify the cucumbers mentioned by the Israelites who left Egypt, we must search for a species that grew in Egypt in the period of the Israelite wanderings, and not with the species that flourish today.

Translations may not reflect the latest botanical understanding and are not always reliable. For example, it is now generally agreed that the biblical brosh refers to the juniper, although it is usually translated as cypress, which has become its modern day meaning as well. Finally, some plants such as the ‘ar ‘ar and the tirzah, many animals and birds, and names of precious stones and gems cannot be identified with any certainty at all, and translations are at best a guess.

What follows in the Natural Bible is a comprehensive guide to the plants mentioned in the Bible. From this guide, I have chosen one tree, the almond, a symbol of springtime in Israel and associated with Tu BiSh’vat as its flowers usually appear in the month of Sh’vat – while guiding up on the mountain ridge at Belvoir I saw the first almond blossoms in January, the day before Rosh Hodesh Sh’vat.

Almond (Prunus Amygdalus)

Jacob then got fresh shoots of poplar, and of almond and plane, and peeled white stripes in them, laying bare the white of the shoots. (Genesis 30:37)

Although the common word for almond is sha-keid, the word luz appears once in Genesis 30:37 (where it is erroneously identified as hazelnut by Rashi). The word luz is similar to the Arabic and Aramaic word for almond: luza.

Almond trees

Almonds were also one of the “choice products” Jacob instructed his sons to take with them to Egypt:

Put in your baggage the land’s best products and take them to the man as gifts — some balm, a little honey, gum, ladanum, pistachios and almonds” (Genesis 43:11).


Almond trees produce pink or white five-petalled blossoms. Both wild (bitter) and domestic varieties of almonds grow in Israel. The wild variety can be eaten with the rind when young, but in its later stages requires roasting to destroy poisonous alkaloids. Cultivated almond trees of the early 20th century were attacked by the borer beetle, and almost all the orchards were destroyed. In the 1960s, almond cultivation resumed in Israel.

Excerpt From: “The Natural Bible” Baruch Sienna, Behrman House, 2013.
A great resource and just in time for Tu Bish’vat, available as an iBook at https://itun.es/us/ERuJJ.l

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Trees on Tu Bishvat – Carob

Big treeThis Friday evening is Tu Bishvat, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shvat, the new year of trees, one of the four new years mentioned in the Mishna. As a child growing up in Canada, I remember two things about Tu Bishvat: planting a tree and eating dried fruit. At school, we would buy stamps, with leaves printed on them, for 10 cents each and stick them on a page with an image of a tree. When we had stuck on 18 leaves and our tree looked good, the money collected was given to the Jewish National Fund (JNF) and a real sapling was planted in Israel. Coming in the midst of a Canadian winter it seemed a little strange to think about planting a tree.

grape Olive Fig Pom

There are 7 species mentioned in the Bible as native to the land of Israel, two grains, wheat and barley and five fruit. According to a mystical tradition from Tzfat these are to be eaten at a Tu BIshvat seder. In Canada there were no grapes, figs, or pomegranates, maybe olives and dates but not from Israel. If there were almonds they were from California, oranges from Florida. The one “fruit” that we could get from the Mediterranean, in an Italian shop in the Byward market, was bokser, the brown, hard pods of the carob and so that is what marked the holiday of Tu Bishvat. Growing up in Canada I never saw any of these fruit trees.

Now I live in Israel, but more significantly my children have grown up here with a grape vine, fig, pomegranate and olive trees in our small garden. There are date palms, almond and carob trees in our neighborhood. Though it snowed last week, the weather is warming up and you can plant a tree in January. The almond trees are blossoming.

AlmondIn the 1950s, the JNF cultivated  carob trees on 50,000 dunam in the Park Britannia and Ben Shemen forests as fodder for Israel’s milk cows but the plan didn’t work out. If cows ate carob pods would they give carob milk?

Carob maleMost carob trees (Ceratonia siliqua) are dioecious, meaning there are separate male and female trees (date palms and persimmons are two other examples). The male tree has a reddish flower that blooms in October, with a smell reminiscent of semen. The female tree has flowers that when pollinated by wind or insects become the fruit. It’s actually a little more complicated since you can find some carob trees that have both male and female flowers, specifically in the case that one tree is isolated from other carob trees. It seems that carob trees can also change their gender during their lifetime.

Interestingly, the carob tree is not mentioned in the Bible, only in the Mishna and Talmud. One opinion is that the carob was not native to Israel but was brought here in the 2nd century.

There is a story in the Mishna about the sage, Honi HaMa’gel, who was walking along the road and saw an elderly man planting a carob tree. Honi asked him how many years it takes a carob tree to give fruit. The man replied, “70 years”. (Actually, it takes 4-6 years). Honi asked why he was planting a fruit-bearing tree when he would not live to eat its fruit. The man replied, “Just as my ancestors planted trees for me, I am planting for my grandchildren”.

With Tu Bishvat coming a few days after national elections in Israel, it is appropriate to retell the story. It is incumbent on our generation to leave the world a better place for our children.

Just in time for Tu Bishvat – my brother Baruch called excitedly to tell me that his book for the iPad, The Natural Bible: Encyclopedia of Judaism & Nature is available on the Apple iBookstore for download. From the website at http://thenaturalbible.weebly.com:

For anyone interested in Bible study, nature, the environment or religion, this unique and valuable resource elucidates the connections between the Bible and Jewish tradition and the natural world.

Almond Blossoms on Tu Bishvat

The 15th of the Hebrew month of Shvat is the holiday of Tu Bishvat which according to the sage Hillel is the New Year of Trees, the date from which the age of a tree is calculated for the purpose of biblical tithes.

Almond Blossom Jerusalem

Associated with the holiday is a festive meal of at least 10 different fruit including the 7 species (grape, fig, pomegranate, olive, date and 2 grains, wheat and barley) that are mentioned in the Bible as growing natively in the land of Israel. We drink 4 cups of wine in varying hue (white, pink and red), corresponding to the 4 seasons and the 4 aspects of creation according to the Kabbalah. This formula corresponds to the tradition inaugurated in the 16th century in Tzfat by the Ari, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria and his disciples of a Tu Bishvat seder in which the appropriate blessings on the fruit and wine would bring the world closer to spiritual perfection.

Another tree that is strongly connected to Tu Bishvat is the almond (Prunus dulcis) native to the Middle East and South Asia. The almond tree is the first tree to blossom after the winter rains in Israel and so is the precursor of spring. There is even a song for the holiday about the almond tree.

The almond tree is blossoming,

 A golden sun is glowing

Birds sing out in joyous glee 

From every roof and every tree.

השקדיה פורחת 

ושמש פז זורחת

צפורים מראש כל גג

.מבשרות את בוא החג

Near Jerusalem, there are almond trees in Emeq HaMatzleva, the Sherover promenade, Sataf, Ein Kerem, Nahal Katlav, Bab el Wad. So today I went out to appreciate the almond trees, newly awakened and covered with delicate white and pink flowers in the Valley of the Cross.

If you have tasted the fruit of the wild almond it is very bitter. This is because it contains the glycoside amygdalin which becomes transformed into a deadly poison, prussic acid (hydrogen cyanide) after crushing, chewing, or any other injury to the seed.

Besides the almonds there were cyclamen and red anemones (kalaniot כלניות); there were also 3 researchers banding and recording birds (the Jerusalem Bird Observatory is nearby).