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Israel Environment & Nature: Myrtle

MYRTLE (Heb. הֲדַס; Hadas), Myrtus communis, a shrub, and occasionally a tree, possessing fragrant and glossy leaves.

It grows wild on Mount Carmel and in Upper Galilee, and its use as a decorative shrub is widespread. The leaves usually grow in series of two and opposite each other. Some have leaves arranged in groups of three. Burning the shrubs produces a higher proportion of the latter form. The plant flowers during the summer months and later bears black berries. There are other varieties whose ripe fruit is white and whose small leaves are arranged in groups of four or more. The plant is called asu in Akkadian and asa in Aramaic. The eẓ avot, twice mentioned in Scripture, refers, according to rabbinical tradition, to the myrtle. It is one of the Four Species (Lev. 23:40). The Book of Nehemiah, however, refers to both hadas and eẓ avot, in connection with the observance of the Feast of Tabernacles (Neh. 8:15). In consequence some scholars think that the name eẓ avot applies to any tree whose branches are closely braided together (avotim, "compact"). The rabbis explain that hadas refers to the wild myrtle branches gathered for covering the sukkah, while eẓ avot refers to the twigs of three-leaved myrtles which were "with the lulav" (Suk. 12a). They explained that eẓ avot means a tree "whose branches cover its trunk… is shaped like a plait and resembles a chain" (Suk. 32b). The leaves of the *oleander are of similar form but were declared invalid on the grounds that it is poisonous (ibid.). To satisfy the regulation concerning Tabernacles "a myrtle producing groups of three leaves from a single node" is necessary; there was a dispute concerning the validity of those varieties of myrtle, like the Egyptian myrtle, which produce many leaves from a single node (Suk. 32b–33a).

The myrtle is an evergreen (Targ. Sheni, Esth. 2:7), and the rabbis thus compared it with the good qualities of Esther whose Hebrew name was Hadassah ("myrtle"). Its aromatic branches were used for preparing the bride-groom's wreaths (Tosef., Sot. 15:8). They were used in festivities and betrothal celebrations, and some of the sages would juggle with myrtle branches, throwing them up and catching them (Ket. 17a). The leaves of the myrtle have the shape of the eye (Lev. R. 30: 14). Its fruits, called benot Hadas ("myrtle products"), were occasionally eaten, but are tasteless (TJ, Or. 1:1, 60c–d; Suk. 32b). Some recommended myrtle leaves as a remedy for blood pressure in the head (Git. 68b). The custom still obtains in some places of pronouncing the blessings for spices at the Havdalah on the termination of the Sabbath over myrtle leaves. According to *Bet Hillel the benediction over the myrtle takes precedence over the benediction over aromatic oil (Ber. 43b).

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