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,
Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelekh 5762/ August 31,
"Sprouting poison weed and wormwood" (Deut.
Prof. Yehuda Feliks
Emeritus, Martin Szusz Department of Land of Israel
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.
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.
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.
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
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
to the utter ruin of [or: to augment] moist ---- and [or: with]
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.