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Israel Environment & Nature: Onion

ONION (Heb. בָּצָל), the Allium cepa, one of the earliest cultivated plants.

It is mentioned only once in the Bible as one of the vegetables eaten in Egypt for which the Israelites longed when they were in the wilderness (Num. 11:5). Onion growing was widespread in Egypt and drawings of it are found on the pyramids. The onion, with its concentric skins, symbolized in Egypt the stellar and planetary system, and was an object of idol worship, some swearing by its name (Pliny, Historia naturalis, 19:101). The word appears in family names. Among the Nethinim (see *Gibeonites and Nethinim ) who went from Babylon to Ereẓ Israel, a family of the children of Bazluth is mentioned (Ezra 2:52), and the Jerusalem Talmud (Ḥag. 2:2; 77d) mentions a Miriam bat Alei Beẓalim ("onion leaves") which may be a reference to Miriam the mother of Jesus.

The onion is frequently mentioned in rabbinic literature. R. Judah used to say "Eat baẓal [onions] and sit ba-ẓel [in the shade], and do not eat geese and fowl" (Pes. 114a), i.e., do not desire luxuries but be content with little. They made a distinction between "rural onions" (TJ, Shev. 2:9, 34a) and "urban onions which were the food of city folk" (Ter. 2:5). A species very near to the onion was called beẓalẓul (Kil. 1:3), which is possibly the shallot, the Ashkelon onion, and therefore sometimes called "scallion" which was praised by Theophrastus, Strabo, and Pliny. The onion was usually pulled up before it flowered and some of the plants were left to flower and produce seed (Pe'ah 3:3 and TJ, Pe'ah 17c). Many species of Allium of the same genus as the onion grow wild in Israel, where the climate and soil are very suitable for onion plants. To the Liliaceae family of onion belong some of the most beautiful of Israel's flowers.

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