Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Tetzaveh 5768/ February 16, 2008

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 Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



Saadiah Gaon’s Identification of Shesh


Dr. Zohar Amar


Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology


Shesh, an important component in weaving the garments of the High Priest (Ex. 28:5, 39, and elsewhere), is mentioned numerous times in this week’s reading.  Sometimes Scripture uses the word shesh synonymously with bad (=cotton cloth) or butz (=fine linen), so that the depictions in the Bible give the impression that these are expensive garments.   For example, we read that Joseph was dressed by Pharaoh in garments of shesh (rendered as “fine linen,” Gen. 41:42), and royal robes of butz (=fine linen) were worn by King David (I Chron. 15:27) and Mordechai (Esther 8:15).

Scholars and commentators generally identify shesh and butz, as mentioned in the Bible and the writings of the Sages, with a sort of fine woven fabric made of white linen, and today this assumption goes unchallenged.  However, it turns out that in the Middle Ages it was not accepted by all. [1]

The greatest halakhic authority among those who believed shesh was some sort of linen appears to have been Maimonides:   “Wherever the Torah mentions shesh or bad, it means linen, which is butz.” [2]   In his commentary on the Mishnah (Kilayim1.9) he noted:  Shesh is linen…  Do not be misled by the phrases ‘a tunic of bad (=cloth)’ and ‘pants of bad,’ which occur in several places in the Torah, since there the word bad also means linen.”  A close reading of his remarks leads us to understand that there were some who mistakenly thought something else, and it is they whom he criticized by intimation.   The picture is further clarified by the commentary of Maimonides’ son, Rabbi Abraham, on Exodus 25:4:

Shesh is fine linen, … and the proof that shesh is linen comes from its Aramaic translation:   butz.   Likewise, a “tunic of bad” is rendered as a tunic of butz, … and this contradicts what Rabbi Saadiah Gaon said, translating it as ussur. [3]

Indeed, examining Saadiah Gaon’s translation of the Torah (Tafsir), we see that whenever the words shesh or butz appeared in the Torah he systematically rendered them as ussur.   Rabbi Joseph Kapah, redactor of Saadiah Gaon’s work, and other scholars did not relate to this term, perhaps because they did not understand what he meant by it.

Close investigation reveals that there were other exegetes, such as the linguist Yehudah ibn Koreish, [4] Rabbi Nathan Head of the Yeshiva, and Tanhum Hayerushalmi, [5] who, like Saadiah Gaon, explained that butz or shesh is Arabic ussur.   Ibn Ezra, in his interpretation of the word shesh (Ex. 25:4), explained:  “This is a fabric made of a sort of flax found in Egypt alone, which only comes in white and is not dyed.”  Further on he added, “The Gaon (Saadiah) rendered it in Arabic as ussur, and it is known to this day.”  According to these sources, it turns out that this was not a lone opinion, rather it was the opinion of an entire school of exegesis that suggested an alternative to identifying shesh or butz with linen.

The question arises, what is this ussur that Saadiah Gaon identified with shesh and butz, and was this an original interpretation of his own, or did he know of an ancient tradition identifying these fabrics?

Medieval commentators [6] have discussed the sources of Saadiah Gaon’s identifications; it is still a matter of dispute whether he had an ancient tradition for certain terms or whether he was presenting his own original ideas.  In any event it is clear that Saadiah knew of a plant called ussur, having described it in detail in his commentary on the Torah:

Whenever shesh or bad is used it refers to a sort of flax, known [in Arabic] as al-ussur (in the manuscript a corrupted form appears:  al-usnuz).   Much of it grows in Egypt.   I know nothing softer than it, nor do I know anyone who uses it, since people say that it is poisonous.   The type of poison in it is the force of coldness in it.  Perhaps that which our forefathers used was of this type, for they wisely discerned that it is flawless. [7]

Ussur has been known in Arabic literature for centuries, and is identified with the plant known in our day as Great Desert Wick [8] (Calotropis procera), or by the more popular name Apple of Sodom.

It is a tree or bush of familia Apocynaceae.   This plant is widespread in Israel, particularly in oases of the Jordan River Valley, the Dead Sea Rift Valley, the Aravah and Sinai.  Isolated specimens can also be found along the coastal plain, apparently having been planted there by human beings.  The plant grows to a height of 2 to 6 meters and has large rounded leaves.   It has a thick bark made of a layer of cork, and all parts of the plant contain a poisonous milky liquid.   The fruit is shaped like a large green ball, similar to an apple but with a spongy texture inside.   Inside the fruit are many seeds, each with a tuft of thin hairs, long and white, resembling silk.

Moslem sources from the ninth and tenth centuries (the time of Saadiah Gaon) note that it is a vesiculose fruit containing fibers similar to cotton, used for stuffing pillows.  Ibn Al-Bitar, from the thirteenth century, remarked as well on the substance inside the fruit being used for stuffing pillows and cushions as well as for kindling fires. [9]

Two important sources provide testimony about fabric having been woven from the fibers in the fruit of the Desert Wick.   The first source is Gregory of Tours, from the sixth century, who wrote that in the Jordan River Valley, in the vicinity of Jericho, grow trees bearing apple-like fruits that have a hard shell and are filled inside with wool.  He attests that even in his day one could see the fine, delicate white fabric made from the fibers of this plant.  We can conclude from his remarks that in his day fabric made from this plant was exported from the land of Israel to Europe. [10]   The second source is a Jewish doctor, Cohen Al-Atar, who lived in the thirteenth century and is better known by the name of Al-Mena Al-Israili.  He wrote:

This is a plant that bears fruit, green on the outside and white on the inside, there being white wool inside, finer than silk; and in the past it was used to make the garments of the imam (=high priest) who served in Jerusalem (Beit al-Makdas). [11]

Incidentally, some of these uses of the plant were common in the modern era, as well.  For example, it is known that the Bedouin in the vicinity of Jericho used to make head coverings from the fibers of this plant.

In accordance with the sources which we have cited, the identification of this plant by Saadiah Gaon appears quite reasonable, and perhaps comes from an ancient tradition.  Close examination of the midrashic material of the Sages hints at this.  For example, the words, “caught up by cords of fine linen (butz) and purple wool” (Est. 1:6) was commented on by Rabbi Samuel bar Nahman:  “Come see the tallit of that wicked man (Ahasuerus); what everyone else hangs with cords of wool and flax, this wicked man does with cords of butz and purple wool” (Esther Rabbah, 2).   From this we may conclude that butz was not considered a sort of regular linen, rather something finer and more expensive.  Ruth Rabbah comments:  The families of the linen (butz) factory (I Chron. 4:21) – this was Rahab the harlot, who hid the spies in butz, as it is said, ‘she had … hidden them under some stalks of flax [lit. “flax of the tree”]’ (Josh. 2:6).”   According to this midrash, butz is identified with flax and the butz factory is ascribed to Rahab, who lived in Jericho.  Recall our remark above that around Jericho in the sixth century expensive goods were woven from the Apple of Sodom (Desert Wick) which grew in the area.   Identifying butz with “flax of the tree” could well be an allusion to this substance.

Flax, as we know, is a stalky annual plant, and to call it a tree is quite peculiar.  According to all botanical definitions, modern as well as ancient, it is not clear why it would have been included among the variety of trees.   Even the Sages wondered about this with regard to the following passage from the Mishnah, Tractate Shabbat:   “One does not kindle with anything that comes from trees, save for flax” (2.3).  This difficulty was resolved in the Talmud (Shabbat 27b) on the basis of what is written in Joshua 2:6.  We can offer a different explanation that fits in well with the logic of the Sages’ homilies that associate butz with “flax of the tree.”   Namely, that this did not refer to flax itself, rather to a woody plant that was included among the varieties of flax, and the Desert Wick which grows around Jericho would fit this definition.

In a previous article we suggested a connection between butz and the famous fine linen goods from Beit She’an in the time of the Talmud, the expensive byssus fabric mentioned in Roman sources and described in the writings of the Sages.  For the sake of brevity, we shall not elaborate on this subject here. [12]   Publication of our findings aroused skepticism on the part of some rabbis and scholars as to the possibility that the shesh of which the priestly garments were made was indeed derived from the Apple of Sodom.  Therefore, we continued our research by attempting to reconstruct a woven fabric from this plant.

Our research included studying the precise season when these fruits were picked and developing a technique for extracting the fibers in a controlled manner.  The raw material was given to Ms. Tony Friedman of Kibbutz Nir Etzion, an expert in textile spinning and a member of the Israeli Association for Fiber Arts.   After many months of experimentation, Ms. Friedman succeeded in weaving a piece of fabric made of Desert Wick and another of a blend of linen and Desert Wick.   The fabric made of pure Desert Wick was thin and extremely delicate, like a one-time garment.   Perhaps this explains the talmudic descriptions of the garments of the High Priest, which we know to have been made of butz. [13]   Here we shall only give two examples.  The story goes that Rabbi Eleazar ben Harsom’s mother wove him a tunic but his priestly brothers did not let him wear it, “since he looked naked,” or, according to another version, “he looked naked under it.”  This was so even though each thread of the garment was spun six-ply (Yoma 35b; JT Yoma 3.6).  In other words, the fabric was extremely fine, almost transparent, so that the contours of his body could be seen through the garment made of it.  This depiction is better matched to fabric made of pure Desert Wick than of fabric blended with linen.  The garment worn by the High Priest was extremely delicate and therefore could not be worn more than once.  This apparently explains one of the reasons that the priest’s garments were handed over to be put in a genizah after the worship on the Day of Atonement (Yoma 24a).  In contrast, the fabric made of a blend of flax and Desert Wick is more durable, while the Desert Wick fibers in it add a measure of beauty, shine, and pleasant smooth feel.

The conclusions of our experimentation show that the quantity of fibers gathered from any large tree suffice for spinning enough thread to weave up to two square meters of fabric, depending on the thickness of the thread and the type of weave.  Likewise, we can state unequivocally that it is possible to obtain large quantities of raw material from the plant, perhaps even sufficient for commercial production.  The plant grows wild in the vicinity of the Jordan Valley and it can easily be grown as a cultivated plant since it does not require any special care.   In ancient times the fiber was extracted by cheap manual labor, easily obtained in those times.

In conclusion, the identification presented by Saadiah Gaon is realistic and fits in well with ancient sources.   Over the years this identification came to be rejected, be it because the technique of weaving cloth made of this plant became forgotten; or because the original butz or shesh was indeed made of pure linen, and the theory about using Desert Wick comes from a later interpretation with no founding in the reality of the period of the Bible and the Second Temple.  Be that as it may, according to Saadiah Gaon there was no contradiction between the Sages’ tradition that shesh was linen and the identification with ussur (Apple of Sodom), since according to his interpretation, that was included as a type of linen.  As he put it, “Whenever shesh or bad is used it refers to a sort of linen, known [in Arabic] as al-ussur.”  It seems that this description, which appears in Saadiah Gaon’s commentary on the Torah, and not in his more widespread Tafsir translation, was not read by the commentators who criticized him.   We have seen that his description is quite plausible and also has a foundation in the Sages’ remarks describing the clothing of the High Priest.



[1] This identification appears as far back as the writings of the Sages and Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews, (trans. into Hebrew, A. Shalit), Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 1944:  “Over this the [priest] used to wear a garment of cloth (bad), double-woven of butz, and it was called a tunic (=ketonet), which means a garment made of cotton; for linon is called by us coton” (III.7.2).

[2] Hilkhot Klei ha-Mikdash, 8.13.

[3] Perush ha-Torah le-Rabbenu Avraham ben ha-Rambam, on Genesis and Exodus (Weisenberg ed.). London 1958.

[4] D. Becker, ed., Ha-Rasalah shel Yehudah ben Koreish, Tel Aviv 1984, p. 225.

[5] Published by El ha-Mekorot (translation by Rabbi Kapah, and notes by Rabbi Mordecai Zaks), in his commentary on the Mishnah, Tractate Kippurim 3.6; and see Tanhum Hayerushalmi (Toledano ed.), under butz, p. 49, s.v. yesh omerim.

[6] For further reading, see Z. Amar, Mesoret ha-Of, Tel Aviv 2004, pp. 17-19.

[7] Y. Ratzhabi, Perushei Rav Saadiah Gaon le-Sefer Shemot, Jerusalem 1998, p. 152.

[8] The modern name stems from the identification of this plant with the Desert Wick, which was declared unfit for use in kindling Sabbath lights (Tractate Shabbat, 2.2), but this has no substantiation in ancient traditions of identification; also, its successful use as a material for lighting candles attests to a difficulty in this identification.  Cf. Z. Amar and א. שוויקי , Bameh Madlikin, Elkana 2003, p. 57.

[9] Abu Hanifa al-Dinuri, Kitab al-Nabat, I, B. Lewin edition, Beirut, 1974, p. 249; H.M. Said and R. E. Elahie (eds.), Al-Biruni’s Book on Pharmacy and Materia Medica, Karachi, Pakistan, 1973, p. 27; Ibn Al-Bitar, Al-Jama למפרדאת אלאדוייה ואלאע'ד'יה , בולק 1874, p. 123.

[10] Patrologiae cursus completes, Series Latina, vol. 71, p. 72.

[11] Abu Al-Mena Daud ibn Avi Netzer Al-Israili, Minhaj ak-Dikan wal-Dastur al-a’ian, Egypt 1940, p. 238.

[12] Z. Amar, “Le-Zehuto shel ha-Butz,” Sinai, 114 (1994), pp. 252-260.

[13] For further reading, see Z. Amar and T. Friedman, “Arigei Petilat ha-Midbar ba-Tekufah ha-Kedumah,” Et ha-Da’at 3 (2000), pp. 121-130.