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Israel Environment & Nature: Flowers

Almost all the very rich and variegated flora of Ereẓ Israel are flowering plants (Phanerogamae), and most of them have an attractively colored corolla. In Israel flowers bloom all year, in the cold and rainy season as well as in the burning heat of summer, but mainly during the spring. In this respect Israel differs from those countries where plants almost entirely cease blooming in winter and burst forth in spring in a blaze of flowers and greenery. The biblical "month of Abib" ("spring"; Ex. 13:4; et al.) refers to the time when the grains of corn in the ear are still tender. In point of fact, there are two seasons of the year in Israel: "Cold and heat, summer and winter" (Gen. 8:22); "Thou hast made summer and winter" (Ps. 74:17). The winter season begins after the early rains have fallen (October–November). Shortly afterward the ground is covered with a blanket of green grass. Appearing soon after the early rains, the first flowers bloom, mainly those of bulbous plants such as species of colchicum with their pinkish-white flowers and the crocus and saffron with their white ones. Masses of yellow dandelions and calendula appear a few weeks later. Once more the color of the fields changes, this time to the bright pink of the thousands of silene. In January the fields are covered with the blood-red flowers of the anemone, other colors of it – white, pink, and violet – growing in Galilee and on the Carmel. Their red is replaced shortly after by the fiery red flowers of the ranunculus, and here and there are to be seen the beautiful red blooms of the tulip, which in the 1930s and 1940s dominated the landscape of the Sharon and the mountains but have been greatly diminished as a result of ruthless picking. The red species of poppy, however, which bring the season of abundant flowering to a close, have not been affected in this way.

Such is the main cycle of the landscape's changing hues in Israel's Mediterranean areas until the arrival of summer. In addition to these there are hundreds of species of other flowers, some of them the most beautiful in the country, as well as several endemic species that are among the prettiest in the world, such as the cyclamen, conspicuous by its delicate flowers and picturesque leaves, which appears among the rocks as early as December. The fragrant narcissus is found in the valleys and prominent in March–May are many species of terrestrial orchids, not inferior in beauty despite their small flowers to their congener, the tropical epiphytic orchids. This period is rich in the blooming of floral species of the Iridaceae family, such as those of the gladiolus and iris, as well as flowers of the Liliaceae family, to which the Lilium candidum belong. Because of expanding agricultural settlement and the intensive picking of blooms, the areas of these beautiful flowers have been greatly reduced, but their number has been increasing year by year since the passing of the State of Israel's nature protection laws.

In the desert areas of Israel – the Negev and Aravah – flowering begins after the first rain and here also are many splendid flowers, particularly of the Liliaceae and Iridaceae families as well as species of the Salvia and crucifers. To the last belongs the desert Mantur which in winter covers the rocky hammada with a purple carpet of millions of flowers. The flowering period of the desert flora is short. Annuals have a brief existence, the entire life cycle of some – sprouting, growing, flowering, and seeding – lasting no more than ten weeks. In this way desert flora ensure their survival before the advent of the long, dry summer months. The Mediterranean single-season flora, too, have a brief span of life. Taking advantage of the rainy season, they grow rapidly, and flower for a few days, only to disappear suddenly with the coming of the first hot sharav ("sirocco") winds of spring. This phenomenon has found expression in many metaphors, such as those describing the end of man's life: "The grass withereth, the flower fadeth" (Isa. 40:7), and his short life: "In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth" (Ps. 90:6). The wicked, too, are likened to masses of single-season flowers that suddenly flourish in all their brilliance but with the coming of the hot sharav wind disappear without a trace (ibid. 92:8).

Besides wild annuals or bulbous and tuberous flora, there are many wild perennials – beautiful flowering shrubs and trees. Cyclical changes mirrored in the blossoms' hues on the dominant shrubs and trees can be distinguished in the color of the landscape. The first tree to bloom in Israel, when foresttrees are still shedding their leaves is the *almond , covered with a white mantle of blossoms (some strains of the cultivated almond have pinkish flowers). Shortly after, in January, with the blossoming of the Calycotome shrub, the prevailing color of the woods changes to yellow. Next the rockrose (Cistus) shrubs bloom with their large pink and white flowers. The purple flowers of the Judas tree (Cercis) are conspicuous in the woods in March. Then yellow, the color of the spartium shrubs, once again becomes the predominant hue, to be replaced by the white of the flowers of the styrax and the hawthorn (Crataegus). The great majority of the country's shrubs and trees blossom in winter and spring, and only a few of them in the dry summer – the season when the eucalyptus flowers. Soon after the rains the various species of *citrus bloom, and the air is filled with the scent of their blossoms. The end of summer, with the approach of the rainy season, sees a revival in some species of flora known as "the harbingers of winter"; prominent among these is the *squill with its white flower, like an erect candle, which comes out of the bulb during the last months of summer. The Pancriatum– "lily of Sharon" – blooms in this season, its large, fragrant flowers visible from afar in the desolate landscape. Two species of the colchicum flourish at the end of summer. lt is, at first sight, surprising that the Bible and talmudic literature seldom refer to the use of flowers for decorative purposes, but in ancient times the emphasis was laid on aromatic flora, and it is their fragrance which is emphasized. The picking of flowers is referred to in the Bible only once: "My beloved is gone down to his garden, to the beds of spices, to feed in the gardens, and to gather lilies" (Song 6:2). The Mishnah, too, speaks of the picking of lilies, but in a cemetery (Toh. 3:7). Mention is made of a "rose garden" which existed in Jerusalem since the days of the prophets (BK 82b). According to the Mishnah, figs grew there (Ma'as 2:5). But here, too, it is doubtful whether this garden was for decorative purposes or whether the fragrant roses were not used in the preparation of perfumes (see *Rose ). The flowers mentioned in the Talmud, such as the saffron, jasmin, and narcissus, are chiefly mentioned as aromatic and medicinal flora.

The flower was a common motif in ancient Hebrew art: the ornamentation of the candlestick was in the form of "a calyx and petals" (Ex. 25:33). On the brim of the "sea" in the Temple were embellishments "like the brim of a cup, like the flower of a lily" (I Kings 7:26), while the boards of cedar in it were "carved with knops and open flowers" (ibid. 6:18). Josephus tells that the crown worn by the high priest was in the form of the calyx of the Hyoscyamus flower. Apparently the passage, "Woe to the crown of pride of the drunkards of Ephraim, and to the fading flower of his glorious beauty" (Isa. 28:1), alludes to floral wreaths. In apocalyptic literature it is stated that virgins wore floral chaplets, as did those celebrating Tabernacles and the victor in battle (Il Bar. 10:13; Jub. 16:30; IV Macc. 17:15). The Talmud refers several times to chaplets of roses (Shab. 152a; BM 84a). It is also related that bridegrooms wore wreaths of roses and myrtle (Sot. 9:14; Tosef. 15:8) and that non-Jews garlanded the idols on their festivals with crowns of roses and corn (Av. Zar. 4:2; TJ, Av. Zar. 4:2, 43d).

Flowers of the Bible

Only three flowers are mentioned by name in the Bible, the shoshan or shoshannah ("lily" or "rose"), shoshannat haamakim (shoshannah "of the valleys"), and ḥavaẓẓelet ha-Sharon ("rose" or "lily" of the Sharon (Valley)). The complex question of the identification of the shoshan or shoshannah has provoked more studies than any other flora mentioned in the Bible, there being scarcely a beautiful flower found in lsrael (and even beyond its borders) that has not been suggested. Symbolizing in the Bible beauty and fragrance, it is most probably to be identified with the Lilium candidum– the white (madonna) lily. Abraham Ibn Ezra (in his commentary on Song 2:1) had this flower in mind when hestated that shoshan, shoshannah is derived from shesh ("six"), "since it always has six white petals as well as a pistil and long stamens which likewise number six." On the basis of this identification and doubtless also because of its delightful smell, Ibn Ezra declared, contrary to the generally accepted view, that the expression "his lips are as lilies" (ibid. 5:13) refers "to scent and not to appearance," that is, not to the red color of the lips but to their sweet odor. The other descriptions of the word in the Bible fit in with "lily" (Song 6:2–3; 4:5; 5:13; 7:3). Previously doubt was cast on this identification on the grounds that it was not proved that in ancient times the lily grew wild in Ereẓ Israel, but this large, beautiful, and scented bloom is to be found in woods in the Carmel and Galilee areas. To see the lily's lovely fragrant flowers blooming at the beginning of summer among the various thorns that then dominate the landscape is an enchanting experience, and hence "as a lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters" (Song 2:1–2). It is this passage that was responsible for the incorrect identification of shoshannah as a rose, having been explained as referring to a rose amid its thorny stems. The rose was not found in Ereẓ Israel in biblical times, however, and although two species of rose grow wild in the country, they are neither beautiful nor fragrant, nor do the name shoshan and its biblical description fit the rose. It must, however, be pointed out that its identification as a rose already appears in the Midrash which speaks of the "red shoshannah" and of "a shoshannah of a rose" (Lev. R. 23:3; Song R. 7:3, no. 2).

Although the identification of shoshan/shoshannah as a lily is almost certain, it is difficult to identify the shoshannat ha-amakim mentioned with it in the Song of Songs since the white lily does not grow specifically in valleys. Of the many suggestions put forward in identifying it, the most likely appears to be the narcissus (Narcissus tazetta), a fragrant flower with six enveloping petals that flourishes particularly in valleys with a heavy soil. Ḥavaẓẓelet ha-Sharon is mentioned in the same verse (Song 2:1) and also in the vision of the flowering of the desolate land which shall "blossom as the ḥavaẓẓelet" and to which "the excellency of Carmel and Sharon" shall be given (Isa. 35:1–2). The ḥavaẓẓelet, as also the shoshannah, is identified by the Septuagint as κρίνον, that is, a lily. The Targum on Song of Songs identifies it with a narcissus, while various exegetes have identified it with the country's beautiful flowers, such as the iris or rose (Ibn Ezra), the colchicum (Loew), the tulip, as well as other flowers of bulbous plants, since the word is very probably connected with baẓal ("bulb"). lt is generally accepted that ḥavazzelet ha-Sharon is to be identified with the Pancratium maritimum, a bulbous plant with white, highly scented flowers which blooms at the end of summer in the coastal lowland; thus it appropriately symbolizes the flowering of the desolate land and its transformation into "the excellency of Carmel and Sharon."

[Jehuda Feliks]

Ceremonial Use

Man's awareness of the fragrance of flowers is an occasion for him to say the blessing, "Blessed art Thou, O Lord … who createst fragrant plants" (Ber. 43b). Yet flowers and plants were not generally used in synagogal or Jewish home ceremonies. On *Shavuot , however, it is customary to decorate the synagogue with fragrant grass, flowers, and branches. A threefold reason is given for this custom: the branches are a reminder that Shavuot is also the "Day of Judgment" for trees (RH 1:2); the fragrant grass is symbolic of the people of Israel assembled around Mount Sinai for the giving of the Torah (Ex. 34:3); and the flowers are a symbol for the betrothal of Israel to the Torah. The decorating of synagogues with flowers on Shavuot was opposed by some authorities on grounds of its similarity to the Christian practice (see *Ḥukkat ha-Goi ). In modern times on Shavuot, synagogues are sometimes also adorned with sheaves of wheat, etc., symbolic of Shavuot as the festival of the wheat harvest and the offering of the *first fruits (bikkurim; see also Bik. 3:3). In the U.S. the custom has grown of having flowers at most family events, On Simḥat Torah in some congregations, a ḥuppah ("bridal canopy") made of plants and flowers is placed on the bimah ("platform"), and on Sukkot, the sukkah is embellished with fruits, flowers, and plants. Traditional Jewish mourning customs admit neither wreaths nor flowers at funerals or on tombstones (although in modern times, this custom is frequently disregarded). The planting of trees and shrubs around the synagogue building was the cause of heated debates a century and a half ago. Orthodox rabbinical authorities strongly objected to the landscaping of synagogue grounds, based on Deuteronomy 16:21 (see also Maim. Yad, Avodat Kokhavim 6:9). This objection, motivated by fear of innovation and reform, subsided in the course of time and yielded to the desire for an aesthetically appropriate setting for the synagogue.


Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.