The Faculty of Jewish Studies
The Office of the Campus Rabbi
Parashat Vayera 5756
The Broom Usually Grows in the Wilderness
In the story of the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael by Abraham, we read: "and she went forth and wandered in the Wilderness of Beersheba; and the water from the bottle was finished and she cast the child under one of the shrubs"(Genesis 21, 15-16).
In some midrashic sources the word "sihim"(=shrubs) was elaborated as "sihah" (= talking) or prayer: "the place where one of the angels spoke (hisiah) with her" (Tanchuma, Vayera 5) or in another version "under one of the sihim - there the ministering angels spoke (hesihu) with her" (Bereshit Rabba 43,13). However, the simple meaning of the verse refers to some kind of plant though the Bible, as it does in many cases, omits any indication of the type of plant in question (this is also true about the identity of the tree of knowledge, and of the tree which sweetened the bitter water of Marah in Exodus 15,25)
According to a version which appears in Sefer Hayovelim (17,10) Hagar cast Ishmael under an olive tree. This is a problematic identification since the olive tree grows in a Mediterranean environment while the story of Hagar and Ishmael takes place in the wilderness.
Other attempts at identifying the plant, more suited to the environment in which the incident took place, can be found in midrashic literature. According to one opinion "he went and threw himself under the wettles (Lat. - urtica) of the wilderness" (Yalkut Shimoni - 94; Pirkei d'Rabbi Eliezer, 30). The most accurate, most acceptable definition can be found in the words of Rabbi Meir: "Rabbi Meir says, this is the rotem (ý= broom) which grows in the desert... for the broom usually grows in the desert" (Tanchuma, Vayetze 5; Bereshit Rabbah 53,17).
It becomes obvious that Rabbi Meir arrived at his conclusion by means of a comparison to the story of the flight of Elijah from Jezebel (First Kings 19, 1-6); both stories having taken place in the wilderness around Beersheba. Of Elijah it is similarly said that he "went into the wilderness", until the danger of dehydration became life-threatening, and in both stories an angel of G-d came to assist them. However, while Ishmael lay "under one of the shrubs", of Elijah we are told specifically that he rested "under a broom tree (rotem)".
The broom of the wilderness (Retama roetam) is one of the most common shrubs which characterize desert plant life in the Land of Israel. Due to the scarcity of plant life in the desert it is one of the most important plants in the area as far as man is concerned. It provides shade, food and fuel. In the book of Job (30,4) we are told of impoverished desert-dwellers that make use of: "the roots of broom for warmth" (= "lachmam" which should be read as "l'chamem", in the sense of heating). In fact, many sources indicate the long-burning qualities of coals made from broom (= gechalei retamim - Psalms 120,4): "and not like just any coals but like gechalei retamim. Because all other coals become extinguished inside but gechalei retamim even when they are extinguished outside, still burn within" (Bereshit Rabbah 35,19). Talmudic literature provides numerous stories which mention the heat retentive capacity of "gechalei retamim" which can last as long as twelve months (Bereshit Rabbah, ibid., Bavli, Baba Batra 74b; Midrash Tehillim 120,9).
Yitzchak Ibn Broun, who lived in the twelfth century and did a comparative study between Hebrew and Arabic brings an interesting explanation for the word "rotem", which he heard from his Beduin - Arab contemporaries, we quote the section in its entirety since similar traditions are known even today among the Beduins, the desert dwellers of Israel:
Rotem - a plant, a type of thin tree, "rotem hamerkavah" - the harness of the chariot (Micha 1,13) is like rotem in Arabic: connection. "Rotem" or "ritmah" in Arabic defines a string tied around the finger as a reminder. It is said that rotem designates a ribbon which the Arabs tie before embarking on a journey. If, upon their return they find the ribbon as they left it, they assume from this that their lovers have not been unfaithful, if the oposite is true - it is a sign that she has betrayed him. It is said that the ribbon is tied only onto a plant called rotem (Ritma). This is whence its name is derived, And I have already seen such ribbons at the junctions of many roads tied to such a plant. When I asked, I was told the explanation the Arabs have for it. Obviously this story comes only to confirm the definition (of rotem) and explain its source. (it makes no difference) whether the story is true or false (Abu Ibrahim Yitzchak ibn Broun, Katab Almuaznah Al'lagah Alibraniyah Velarbiah, P. Kakovtzov Edition, St. Petersburg, 1890, p. 95).
|Rotem genus Retama
Rotem of the -species- R. raetam
Rotem of the Wilderness
Drawing taken from Flora Palestina
Dr. Zohar Amar
Department of Land of Israel Studies
Translated by: Phil Lerman,