Because trees are rooted in the earth and reach toward the sky, many ancient religions worshiped them in sacred groves and imagined spirits inhabiting them. In early Israelite history, the Patriarchs erected pillars (mazzevot) in the cult of God; the practice was clearly considered legitimate; Jacob, for example, erected a mazzevah at Beth-El to be used in the service of God.

Similar to the erection of mazzevot was the planting of trees for the service of God. Abraham encountered three angels at Elonei Mamre -- the Terebinths of Mamre -- and planted a tamarisk tree which he dedicated to God in Beersheva. We are not told why Abraham planted the tree; there is no suggestion that the place had any prior sanctity, nor did the patriarch make use of other existing cultic objects.

Prof. Nahum Sarna throws light on the phenomenon of the sacred tree, in his commentary on a reference to another spot where the terebinths, Elonei Moreh, grew. "Abraham passed through the land as far as the site of Shechem, at the Terebinths of Moreh. The Caananites were then in the land." (Genesis 12:6)

"The Terebinth of Moreh, in Hebrew 'elon moreh, was undoubtedly some mighty tree with sacred associations. Moreh must mean "teacher, oracle giver." This tree (or a cluster of such trees) was so conspicuous and so famous that it served as a landmark to identify other sites in the area.

The phenomenon of a sacred tree, particularly one associated with a sacred site, is well known in a variety of cultures. A distinguished tree, especially one of great antiquity, might be looked upon as the "tree of life" or as being "cosmic," its stump symbolizing the "navel of the earth" and its top representing heaven. In this sense, it is a bridge between the human and the divine spheres, and it becomes an arena of divine-human encounter, an ideal medium of oracles and revelation.

Trees may have also symbolized the protection or fertility the worshiper hoped to receive from a deity. Fertility cults flourished in connection with such trees, and this form of paganism proved attractive to many Israelites."[1]

While sacred plantings continued for some time, they were eventually forbidden by the official religion of Israel, as they were a common practice among the Israelites' Canaanite neighbors. "You shall not set up a sacred post [asherah] — any kind of pole [etz] beside the altar of the Lord your God that you may make..."

Prof. Jeffry Tigay, in his commentary on the book of Deuteronomy (JPS Translation) differentiates between the two types of sacred posts: "An asherah was a standing wooden object at a place of worship, and its significance is uncertain. Not all objects of this type were inherently idolatrous: Abraham worshiped the Lord at a tamarisk, and there were trees in the sanctuary of the Lord at Shechem and in the Temple. The book of Deuteronomy most likely bans objects of this type from sanctuaries of the Lord because they were associated with Canaanite deities and might eventually have led the Israelites to blur the distinctions between Israelite and Canaanite religion.

The second term in this verse, etz, refers to any treelike object, whether a natural tree, an artificial one, or a pole. This broad definition of a sacred post prevents anyone from claiming that the prohibition covers only certain objects of this type and that others are legitimate; such a distinction could lead to a confusion that can only be prevented by a comprehensive ban."[2]


[1] Nahum M. Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America; 1989 p. 91. [back]

[2] Jeffrey H. Tigay, The JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America; 1996; pp. 161-62 [back]

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