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October 10, 2015 | 27th Tishrei 5776

Hyssop season

Galilee Diary #227
April 3, 2005
Marc J. Rosenstein

This week was Shabbat Parah, the Shabbat before the Shabbat that proclaims Rosh Chodesh Nisan. The special Torah reading, from Numbers 19, describes the strange ritual of the red heifer, for purification from contact with a dead body. The ritual makes prominent use of hyssop, a well-known herb that grows wild in the mountainous areas of Israel. According to the instructions in the Torah, it is both burned with the sacrifice and used to sprinkle the purifying solution where needed. Apparently, hyssop was seen as some kind of spiritual disinfectant:

“Purge me with hyssop till I am pure; wash me till I am whiter than snow.” [Psalm 51:9]

Hyssop, eizov in Hebrew, is the common name of Syrian marjoram, which has small gray-green leaves on a woody stem, grows about a foot high, and grows wild in the same environment as sage, oregano, and peppermint, all of which bear a certain resemblance to each other. It has a distinctive, pungent aroma, released when you brush past the plant and bruise the leaves. Just now, as the rainy season is ending, these plants are at their peak; by the end of spring they seem to disappear, keeping a low profile until next winter.

Like so many wild herbs – especially those with a strong fragrance – hyssop is reputed to have many medicinal qualities, and the inhabitants of the region use it to cure everything from nasal congestion to heart disease. In fact, it does contain biologically active compounds, and an extract of the leaves is used in various antifungal and antiseptic ointments, mouthwashes, etc.

This plant is best known, however, by its Arabic name, za’atar. It is used as a seasoning in just about every middle eastern recipe, generally as the chief ingredient of a mixture – also called za’atar – containing salt, sumac, sesame seeds, and a few other herbs. This mix is sprinkled on pita moistened with olive oil, on labaneh (yoghurt cheese), on humus, salads, meat etc. It is one of the characteristic tastes of middle eastern cooking.

The central Galilee apparently has perfect conditions for the growth of hyssop, and it is easy to find anywhere you hike in this season. Indeed, our mountainside here at Shorashim seems to be known as a prime source for the herb (this year, a couple of very healthy specimens have come up in our back yard). In Palestinian Arab village culture, one of the main agricultural tasks of the early spring is to comb the open areas outside the villages, collecting various seasonal wild herbs and vegetables. This is often a project of the whole family – the parents drag the gunny sacks, and the kids fan out over the green mountainsides with knives and hoes to harvest the spring greens. Since hyssop and other herbs have a short season, one needs to harvest a lot, to dry a whole year’s supply.

Unfortunately, this traditional folk idyll has run up against modernity in a couple of ways: The land around the villages is no longer just open space – much of it is now occupied by Jewish communities, who do not always look with favor upon visitors digging up the vegetation. Moreover, because of the increase in population, the shrinking of habitats (and, apparently, the market for Galilean hyssop in the Persian Gulf), there is a real danger to the plant population, so Israel has declared it an endangered species; i.e., forbidden to pick. An obvious solution would seem to be cultivating hyssop – it isn’t hard to grow. But the cultural conflict here is deeper, relating to the Arabs’ traditional lifestyle, and their utilization (not necessarily legal ownership) of the resources of the commons, the open land.

I wonder if the messianic Jews and evangelical Christians busy trying to breed red heifers have given thought to insuring a stable supply of hyssop.

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