Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center
Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty
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Hyoscyamus aureus and its relationship to the
headdress of the High Priest
Prof. Yehuda Feliks
Land of Israel Studies; Botanics
The most detailed description of a plant in our ancient literature is found
in Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews. Just as Josephus described
with great precision the architecture of such places as Masada, so too, he was
precise in his botanical description of Hyoscyamus aureus (Heb.
shikhron zahuv) in his attempt to describe the headdress worn by the High
Although the headdress (heb. mitznefet) is listed among the eight
items comprising the vestments of the High Priest - "These are the
vestments they are to make: a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a fringed tunic, a
headdress, and a sash" (Ex. 28:4) - its description is sparse,
essentially not telling us at all how it was made. Later on the headdress is
mentioned again in connection with the description of how the frontlet (heb.
tzitz) was to be made: "You shall make a frontlet of pure gold ...
Suspend it on a cord of blue, so that it may remain on the headdress; it shall
remain on the front of the headdress" (Ex. 28:36-37).
What sort of headdress is a mitznefet?
The word is generally thought to be derived from the root tz-n-f,
referring to a piece of fabric that is wrapped around the head like a turban or
tarboosh. This hypothesis raises several difficulties, including the location
of the frontlet, which commentators have tried to resolve.
Earliest of all was Josephus, who described the covering on the head of the
High Priest both in The Jewish War
and in Antiquities of the Jews
His description in The Jewish War
"On his head the high priest
wore a linen mitre wreathed with blue and encircled by a crown of gold, which
bore in relief the sacred letters - four vowels" (from the Penguin
edition, trans. G. A. Williamson, p. 395). In Antiquities
the headdress in far greater detail, adding to the headdress a gold finial
resembling the petals of Hyoscyamus aureus
. This is in addition to the
gold frontlet mentioned in Scripture. He describes the garment as
For head-dress the high-priest had first a cap made in the same fashion as
that of all the priests; but over this was stitched a second of blue embroidery,
which was encircled by a crown of gold wrought in three tiers, and sprouting
above this was a golden calyx recalling the plant which with us is called
, [this is Hebrew shikhron
] but which Greek experts in
the cutting of simples term henbane.
there are any who, having seen the plant, never learnt its name and are ignorant
of its nature, or, though knowing the name, would not recognize it if they saw
it, for the benefit of such I proceed to describe it.
It is a plant which often grows to a height of above three spans, with a
root resembling a turnip...and leaves like those of the rocket. Now out of its
branches it puts forth a calyx closely adhering to the twig...this calyx is as
big as a joint of the little finger and resembles a bowl in contour.
...gradually converging with a graceful re-entrant curve, it broadens out again
gently near the rim, where it is indented like the navel of a
pomegranate...while the flower which it produces may be thought to comparable to
the broad petals of a poppy. It was, then, on the model of this plant that was
wrought the crown extending from the nape of the neck to the two temples; the
forehead, however, was not covered by the ephielis (for so we may call
the calyx), but had a plate of gold, bearing graven in sacred characters the
name of God. Such is the apparel of the high-priest.[On p. 399 of
Thackeray's edition there is a sketch of the plant].
The main difficulty in Josephus' description is that he includes a
gold finial (nezer) which is not mentioned at all in the Torah, but is
mentioned in Ben Sira: "A finial of gold, a headdress, and a
frontlet" (45.12, Kahana edition). It is possible that Josephus based his
writing on Ben Sira, but in view of his detailed description of the flower that
this finial resembled, it appears that Josephus, who himself was a priest and
had been in the Temple, had indeed seen the headdress and finial at close hand.
If this is indeed so, then the finial on the headdress must have been fashioned
like an inverted Hyoscyamus flower (pointed end up). Two of its pointy
lobes must have rested on the High Priest's forehead, with the frontlet
tied between them.
Book 3, ch. 4.172-179. Our translation
is taken from H. St. J. Thackeray, Josephus, in eight volumes, Jewish
, Books I-IV, The Loeb Classical Library, vol. IV, London, 1930,
pp. 399-403. On the flower itself, see my book, Olam ha-Tzomeah
, Tel Aviv, 1957, p. 198.
A plant whose scientific name is
. The Loeb edition identifies this plant with H.
, known in English as Henbane. Several varieties of Hyoscyamus
grow in Israel, but Hyoscyamus niger
grows only in Europe.
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