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Israel Environment & Nature: Plants in Israel

Research into the flora mentioned in the ancient Hebrew literature is grounded on the basic assumption that within historical times no fundamental changes have taken place in the country's climate. This assumption, which allows conclusions to be drawn from present-day plants about the floral landscape of bygone days, is particularly important for identifying the flora of the Bible and of talmudic literature. The overwhelming majority of them can be identified with those of today, but, as with all the terms of biblical and talmudic realia, many and varied identifications and interpretations have been suggested for them. Modern botanical and philological studies have, however, helped greatly in arriving at a correct identification.

In the Bible

The Bible mentions about 100 names of plants, the bulk of them of Ereẓ Israel, the others being trees of Lebanon and tropical plants that yield an aromatic substance or were used in incense. (See Table: Plants in the Bible and Mishnah.) These names refer to specific plants, but some are generic names, such as koẓ ve-dardar ("thorns and thistles") and shamir vashayit ("briars and thorns"). Although the biblical plants are chiefly those which were economically important, they are to a large extent mentioned fortuitously. The carob, for example, although undoubtedly grown at that time, is not mentioned in the Bible, while specific vegetables are mentioned in one verse only of the Bible; and these are the vegetables of Egypt for which the children of Israel longed during their wandering in the wilderness (Num. 11:5).

In Talmudic Literature

The Mishnah, the Talmuds, and the Midrashim add hundreds of names of plants to those mentioned in the Bible. They are particularly numerous in the Mishnah of Zera'im which treats of laws connected with agriculture. In the aggadic Midrashim, too, many plants are mentioned in simile and parable. In all, the ancient literature on Ereẓ Israel mentions close to 500 names of flora. The Babylonian Talmud refers to scores of plants of Babylonia and its neighborhood. In the Table: Plants in Bible and Mishnah, only one identification is given. Alternative suggestions of identification will be found in the individual articles.