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Israel Environment & Nature: Papyrus

The plant Cyperus papyrus grows in the swamps of Israel. It was formerly very widespread in Lower Egypt and in old Egyptian drawings symbolized the region.

The use of papyrus was very varied; it was employed for boats, utensils, shoes, and paper, and its soft stalks were also used as food. In the Bible it is called gomë (גׂמֶא) or eveh (אֵבֵה), and in the Mishnah papir or neyar. Gomë was used for making the ark of Moses (Ex. 2:3). Boats which sailed beyond the rivers of Ethiopia were made of it (Isa. 18:2). Together with the *reed (kaneh) it grew near marshes and swamps, and Isaiah (35:7) prophesied that both would grow in the desert. The Book of Job (8:11–12) notes that papyrus cannot grow without swamp, that it shrivels up in the winter when the grass begins to go green, and that then it is ready for harvesting. The Tosefta speaks of papyrus vessels being more valuable than those made of plaited wicker (Kel. BM 5:15). Papyrus barrels were also made (Kel. 2:5), as well as clothes, "a shirt of papyrus" (Tosef., Kel. BB 5: 2) serving as clothes for the poor (Gen. R. 37:8). The main use of papyrus was in the manufacture of paper, especially in the era of the Mishnah and Talmud. Paper was made from the stalk, which bears the inflorescence, and which was cut into fine strips and stuck together in length and in breadth with glue – the kolon shel soferim ("scribes' glue"; Gr. Κὸλλα, glue) which contained leaven and was therefore forbidden on Passover (Pes. 3:1, 42b). The Jerusalem Talmud (Pes. 3:1, 29d) notes that in Alexandria this glue was prepared in large vessels. According to Josephus (Ant., 14:33) there was a place called Papyron near the Jordan. Gemi is frequently mentioned in the Mishnah and Talmud as material for the making of baskets, mats, and ropes. It is possible that papyrus (gomë) is also included in this name (cf. Rashi to Ex. 2:3), though it seems that it generally also refers to the fibers of other plants. The Bible once mentions eveh ships as being light and swift (Job 9:25–26). This word is connected with the Akkadian apu, the name of swamp plants used for weaving, including the papyrus.

Nowadays papyrus has almost disappeared from lower Egypt. In Israel it used to grow over the large expanse of the Ḥuleh swamp, where the Arab villagers earned their livelihoods by weaving mats from it. With the draining of these swamps only a few acres of papyrus remain in the local nature reserve. The papyrus is a perennial, growing to a height of up to 15 feet. The triple shaft of the inflorescence is 2½–3½ inches thick at the base and from it the papyrus strips were made. The plant dies in winter, and the stalks rot. The peat in the Ḥuleh is formed from the layers of the rotted plants.

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