WILLOW (Heb. עֲרָבָה, aravah). The Bible describes the willow as a tree that grows rapidly near water (Isa. 44:4) and in whose shade the
(Job 40:22). The exiles from Judea hung their harps on willows by the rivers of Babylon, loath "to sing the Lord's song in a foreign land" (Ps. 137:2). The willow is one of the
and is characterized as possessing "neither taste nor fragrance," thus symbolizing those among Israel "who are neither learned nor possessed of good deeds" (Lev. R. 30:12). Although the identification of the aravah with the willow is undoubted, it should be noted that in the time of the Mishnah philological problems had already arisen in connection with this identification. The amora Ḥisda states that after the destruction of the Temple the name of the aravah (Salix) and ẓafẓafah (poplar, Populus) were interchanged (Shah. 36a), and in fact in Arabic it is the poplar which is called aʾrb (Heb. aravah) and the willow, ẓafẓaf (Heb. ẓafẓafah). The rabbis pointed out the difference between these two genera with regard to validity for the precept of the Four Species: "The willow has a red stalk, an elongated leaf and a smooth [leaf] edge. The ẓafẓafah has a white stalk and a round leaf with a serrated edge" (Suk. 34a). The conclusion finally reached is that the willow with the serrated leaf is also valid (ibid.). The willow was also used during the festival of Tabernacles, the altar being decorated with willow branches which were brought from Moẓa near Jerusalem. There is undoubtedly a connection between the willow growing by the waterside and the prayer for water on Hoshana Rabba, as well as the prayer for rain on Shemini Aẓeret (eighth day of solemn assembly), the last day of Tabernacles, when "they are judged in respect of water" (RH 1:2).
The willow is a very useful tree. Its soft branches were used for wicker work (Bik. 3:8). The wood withstands rot and was therefore used for building boats called arba, the spelling for aravah in Aramaic and Syrian. Its fruit contains soft fibers, which are the petilat ha-idan ("wick of bast"), used as wicks for lamps (Shab. 2:1). Though not a fruit tree, according to the agricultural folklore of the period fruit trees could be grafted on to it (see TJ, Or. 1:2, 61a). Two species of willow, the Salix acmophylla and Salix alba, as well as hybrids of both species, grow wild in Israel on the bank of streams and rivers. Another species, Salix babylonica, the weeping willow, originated in China.