Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelekh 5762/ August 31, 2002

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
Prepared for Internet Publication by the Center for IT & IS Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il


Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelekh 5762/ August 31, 2002


"Sprouting poison weed and wormwood" (Deut. 29)

Prof. Yehuda Feliks
Emeritus, Martin Szusz Department of Land of Israel Studies

The words Rosh ve-La'anah, rendered in the JPS translation as poison weed and wormwood, occur in the Bible as symbols of evil conniving, as causing suffering to those who eat or drink them. There have been many attempts to identify rosh, which occurs in combination five times in the Bible. Twice it occurs without the accompanying word la'anah, in the sense of a snake's venom: in Deuteronomy 32:33, "the pitiless poison of vipers," and in Job 20:16, "he sucks the poison of asps." The rest of the occurrences of rosh, however, clearly do not refer to the poison of snakes, but to plants or to the bitter or poisonous juices of certain plants.

The imagery is of plants that take root and flourish: "stock sprouting poison weed and wormwood" (Deut. 29:17; further elaborated below). The fruit of these plants is alluded to by the verse, "Yet you have turned justice into poison weed [rosh], and the fruit of righteousness to wormwood [la'anah]" (Amos 6:12). Rosh by itself is mentioned as a common weed of the fields: "And justice degenerates into poison weeds, breaking out on the furrows of the fields" (Hos. 10:4). As a fruit-bearing plant, it occurs in Deuteronomy 32:32: "the grapes for them are poison." Below we shall investigate what plants are referred to by these phrases.

A. Rosh

It follows from the passages cited above that we are dealing with a poisonous plant that was eaten or from which a poisonous liquid harmful to humans was extracted: "For the Lord our G-d has doomed us, He has made us drink a bitter draft" (Jer. 8:14). Another scriptural passage reads: "They give me gall [rosh] for food, vinegar to quench my thirst" (Ps. 69:22), using rosh to refer to a poisonous plant. In all of these instances rosh is spelled resh - aleph - shin. Only in one occurrence is it spelled resh - vav - shin: "The grapes for them are poison, a bitter growth their clusters" (Deut. 32:32).

Several identifications have been suggested for the plant rosh. The most likely, in our opinion, is the identification with Conium maculatum, known in English as poison hemlock. It is an annual or bi-annual grass that grows wild in the Mediterranean climes of Israel, in untended areas by the side of fields and houses. It is a tall plant, bearing a white umbel (flower stalks spreading from a common center). Perhaps the name rosh, meaning "head," derives from this shape of the plant (characteristic of umbellates). The spreading branches of these plants form a sort of hedge, hence the phrase, "All around me He has built misery [rosh, taken here as equivalent to resh] and hardship" (Lament. 3:5). The tall blossoms of this plant indeed make it prominent on the landscape. The phrase, "And justice degenerates into poison weeds [rosh], breaking out on the furrows of the fields" (Hos. 10:4), perhaps relates to the height to which this plant grows, or to the numerous sprouts that it sends out. This plant contains a poison known as coniine, which acts as a powerful sedative. It also grows in Greece and according to tradition was in the lethal potion given to Socrates.

B. La'anah

La'anah is mentioned in the scriptural passages cited above, along with rosh, as a source of bitter or poisonous substances. It also appears in Scripture by itself or in different combinations. La'anah is referred to as a food (Jer. 9:14), and as a drink, parallel to bitter herbs: "He has filled me with bitterness, sated [Heb. hirvani, with the meaning of quenching thirst] me with wormwood [la'anah]" (Lament. 3:15). It is explicitly mentioned as being "bitter as wormwood" (Prov. 5:4).

According to most of the classical translators and commentators, la'anah refers to plants of the genus Artemisia (in modern Hebrew also called la'anah), of which four species containing bitter substances grow in Israel. The most common one is known in Hebrew as la'anat ha-midbar (A. herba-alba Asso) - a low shrub belonging to the composite family, with grey jagged leaves, a sharp aroma, and extremely bitter taste. This species is very common in the Aravah region of Israel. A miniscule amount of Artemisia juice added to wine turns the flavor bitter.

Such wine - called bitter apsinthion (Gk.) wine - is known to us as absinthe, following the Vulgate rendition of la'anah in the Bible. According to the Roman historian Pliny, the victor in chariot races was given absinthe to drink. He notes that this was a bitter but healthy drink, and "health is an award of honor" (Pliny, Natural History 27.6). Indeed, the juice of this plant or the parts of the plant that are eaten are extremely bitter and even dangerous, just as other bitter greens which, when eaten in large quantity, cause those who consume them discomfort. Hence the scriptural phrase, "He has filled me with bitterness, sated me with wormwood [la'anah]" (Lament. 3:15).

Contrary to the inclination to identify rosh and la'anah with specific plant species, some scholars believe these terms to refer to an entire group of bitter or poisonous plants. According to such an approach, this expression would refer to a pair of plants, as in "thorns and thistles" (Gen. 3:18), "briers and thistles" (Is. 5:6), or "reed and rush" (Is. 19:6), which do not necessarily denote specific species, rather they indicate a group of plants having similar characteristics. On balance, however, it seems to us that Scripture indeed meant Conium maculatum by rosh, and Artemisia herba-alba Asso by la'anah.

Bearing in mind these specific identifications of the plants helps us arrive at a better understanding of the meaning of the following text, from Deuteronomy 29:17-19, in which Moses admonishes the Children of Israel:

Perchance there is among you a stock sprouting poison weed and wormwood..., he may fancy himself immune, thinking, "I shall be safe, though I follow my own willful heart" - to the utter ruin of moist and dry alike [Heb. le-ma'an sefot ha-ravah et ha-tzme'ah]. The Lord will never forgive him...

Many interpretations have been offered for these verses. Here, we suggest an innovative view based on the natural attributes of the two plants, rosh (poison weed) and la'anah (wormwood). As described above, rosh is a common plant in Israel, growing in moist soil, in areas with significant precipitation. In contrast, la'anah grows in arid soil, in the Aravah region of Israel. The verses under discussion have a parallel structure:

Shoresh poreh rosh   ---- ve-la'anah
stock [or: root] sprouting poison weed   ---- and wormwood

le-ma'an sefot ha-ravah   ---- et ha-tzme'ah
to the utter ruin of [or: to augment] moist   ---- and [or: with] dry

Rosh (poison weed) parallels moist, while la'anah (wormwood) parallels dry.

This leads us to the following interpretation: perchance there is among you someone who disguises himself as a cross-breed of rosh-la'anah, a single root sprouting both poison hemlock and Artemisia - a plant that one might expect to flourish in any habitat. Such a person might say to himself, "I shall be safe, though I follow my own willful heart" - i.e., both in moist as well as dry conditions I shall do well, le-ma'an sefot ha-ravah et ha-tzme'ah. So that the ravah - the moist - can augment, add to, help out (as opposed to the translation of sefot above, where it is related to sof, meaning end or utter ruin) the tzme'ah, the thirsty, dry plant. In other words, the juicy stalks of the rosh will assist the desert la'anah, supporting it by sending their liquid down to the plant's common root. In return, the rosh will receive from the la'anah the ability to withstand arid conditions. An opportunist - one who bases his view of life on symbiosis between the bitter la'anah, which grows in dry soil, and the moisture-loving rosh - regarding such a person it is said, "the Lord will never forgive him." This plant, even though it seemed to guarantee itself against all threats to its survival, nevertheless is doomed, for the Lord will cause its soil to be "devastated by sulfur and salt, beyond sowing and producing, no grass growing in it" (Deut. 29:22).