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Israel Environment & Nature: Wormwood

WORMWOOD, according to most commentators to be identified with the scriptural לַעֲנָה (la'anah). It indicates evil (Deut. 29:17; Amos 5:7; et al.) as does the drinking of the liquid extracted from it (Lam. 3:15; et al.). In Arabic it is called shi'ah and in Syriac shiha. Consequently the opinion has been expressed that the si'aḥ in the phrase עֲלֵי שִׂיחַ in Job 30:4 means "the leaves of the wormwood." The Peshitta identifies aḥad hasiḥim ("one of the shrubs") of the desert under which Hagar cast Ishmael with wormwood (Gen. 21:15).

Several species of wormwood grow wild in Israel in the sandy and desert regions. The most common is la'anat hamidbar ("desert wormwood"), the Artemisia herba-alba whose juice has a very bitter taste. It is possible that wormwood juice was extracted from it, as, despite its bitterness, it was regarded by the ancients as having therapeutic qualities. The Romans used to give it (absinthium) to the victors of the chariot races to drink since "health is an honorable prize" (Pliny, Historia Naturalis 27:45–46). In Greek, wormwood is called apsinthion (as the Septuagint translates la'anah). The Talmud (Av. Zar. 30a) mentions "bitter apsintin wine," i.e., wine to which apsinthion (wormwood) was added, not unlike modern vermouth, which is wine to which the species Artemisia absinthium has been added ("wormwood" is probably a corruption of the word vermouth).

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.