“This shall be the law of the leper on the day of his cleansing... The priest shall command for him...cedar wood...and...hyssop.” (Lev. 14:2-4)

“Said Rabbi Isaac bar Tavlai: [1] What is the significance of cedar wood and hyssop for the leper? They say to him: You were proud like the cedar, and the Holy One, Blessed be He, humbled you like this hyssop that is crushed by everyone.” [2]

While pride is symbolized by the lofty cedar tree in Jewish tradition, the lowly hyssop represents modesty and humility. The hyssop (Majorana syriaca (L.) Rafin, or Origanum syriacum (L.) Sieb; ezov in Hebrew) is a grayish shrub with thin woody branches; neither its leaves nor its flowers are outstanding in any way. It makes do with very little, sometimes even growing out of the smallest cracks in stone (“in the rock” [3]), yet it is highly valued for its fragrance and flavor. The hyssop is an important spice and medicinal plant, while its dry branches are excellent kindling. The best known food made from the hyssop in the Middle East is a powder known by its Arabic name, za’tar. It is a mixture of crushed or powdered hyssop leaves, sesame seeds, ground sumac fruit, salt and pepper.

The words of Rabbi bar Tavlai, “the hyssop is crushed by all,” reflect its widespread use for spice, fragrance and medicine. Yet the lowly hyssop never becomes proud because of its numerous useful qualities, but remains humble in appearance and modest in its demands.

This symbolism of the hyssop versus the cedar also helps us to understand the entreaty of King David after the prophet Nathan rebukes him for his deeds with Bathsheba: “Cleanse me with hyssop that I may be pure; wash me that I may become whiter than snow.”[4] By taking Bathsheba as he did, David arrogantly accorded himself the unjust privileges assumed by foreign kings, thus “he became proud above his people.” David’s prayer for forgiveness can be understood like the plea of the leper: I was proud and haughty like the cedar, and now I beseech you to make me humble like this hyssop with which I ask to be cleansed.

Hyssop: moss or shrub?

“Go, pick out lambs for your families, and slaughter the Passover offering. 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.” (Exodus 12:21-22)

For many years, especially in European countries, it was accepted that the biblical ezov was moss or lichen, that short, clumpy plant growing on tree trunks, rocks and walls, frequently on the shaded, moist northern exposure. Rashi [5] objects to this identification (in his commentary on Exodus 12:22), saying: “Ezov is a plant that has branches.” Many places in the writings of the Sages indicate that ezov has branches. For instance: “The ezov was dipped with its stem and its branches...” [6] it is impossible, therefore, for the hyssop to be moss or lichen, which does not have visible branches and of which it certainly cannot be said that it could be “dipped with its stem and its branches.”

Then, too, there is the saying, “If a flame catches the cedars, what will the hyssop in the rock do?” Despite its Biblical sounding language, this comes from the Gemara, [7] from the eulogy recited by the famed orator Bar-Kipok over Rav Ashi.[8] This saying gives us additional proof that the hyssop is “a kind of tree” whose branches easily catch fire. If the hyssop were really moss growing on rock faces, this saying could never have been composed. For what danger is there for the moist, spongy moss, growing in damp places, even when the mighty cedars of Lebanon catch fire?

Ibn Ezra[9] in his commentary on this same passage (Exodus 12:22) says: “the Gaon identified hyssop with the Arabic za’tar, oregano in the foreign language, which is not of the most important spice plants. It is not possible that the Gaon is right, because the Bible says that ‘the hyssop grows in the rock’ and therefore I do not know what it is. However, it seems that it cannot be a large plant because it is the opposite of the cedar mentioned in the verse.” It seems the Ibn Ezra was not familiar with the hyssop’s various habitats, one of which is rock outcroppings, as can be seen in all the hilly regions of Israel. Therefore he did not accept the Gaon’s identification.

Because the ezov is a plant with a woody stem and branches, it is listed among the trees of which Solomon spoke: “He discoursed of the trees, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows in the rocks.” [10] Solomon spoke of trees, from the most mighty to the most lowly, from the most haughty to the most humble.

[1] Amora (scholar) in Palestine in the third generation (290-320). [back]
[2] Midrash Hagadol, Metzora 14 [back]
[3] I Kings 5:13 [back]
[4] Psalms 51:9 [back]
[5] Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki; lived in France and Germany in the 11th century. The most popular and authoritative commentator on the Bible and Talmud, his works became the bases for most later traditional biblical and Talmudic commentaries. [back]
[6] Tosefta Parah 12:3 [back]
[7] Moed Katan 25b [back]
[8](Rabbana): greatest Babylonian amora of the sixth (375-425) generation; redactor of the Babylonian Talmud; for almost sixty years served as head of the Academy of Sura. His contemporaries said of him: “never since the days of Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi were learning and greatness combined in one person as they were in Rav Ashi.” [back]
[9] Twelfth-century scholar from Spain; most widely studied biblical commentator after Rashi. [back]
[10] I Kings 4:33 [back]
From Tree and Shrub in our Biblical Heritage by Nogah Hareuveni. Translated from Hebrew and adapted by Helen Frenkley. A publication of Neot Kedumim Ltd., The Biblical Landscape Reserve in Israel.



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