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Thistles and Thorns


Israel, being a Mediterranean and partly a desert country, is rich in prickly plants, which in various locations dominate the landscape. The thorns protect the plant from damage through grazing and in many cases prevent it from drying up, because the prickly leaves or branches limit the surface of the plant and diminish the amount of evaporation. Thorns are found on trees, shrubs, and perennial and annual plants.

Many names are used for prickly plants in Scripture. The identification of the thorns of the Bible is more difficult than that of other plants, because some of the names are general ones and others synonyms. This is especially so with those prickly plants which are mentioned in pairs, such as koẓ and dardar ("thorns and thistles," Gen. 3:18), shamir and shayit ("briers and thorns," Isa. 7:24), and na'aẓuẓim and nahalolim ("thorns and brambles," ibid. 19). Koẓ ("thorn") is a comprehensive name for plants whose leaves or stalks have prickly projections which pierce anyone touching them (Ezek. 28:24) so that they cannot be taken in the hand (ii Sam. 23:6). Thorns of the wilderness (koẓei ha-midbar) were used for flagellation (Judg. 8:16). Thorns grow quickly in the fields and supplant the cultivated crop (Jer. 12:13), and only with great labor does the peasant succeed in eradicating them. This is the curse of Genesis 3:18–19, "Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee… In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread." The industrious peasant tries to uproot the thorns by plowing before sowing his crop (Jer. 4:3), while in desolate lands they spring up in masses (Isa. 32:13; Hos. 10:8). They catch fire easily and spread the flames to the fields of grain (Ex. 22:5). Thorns were used for fuel (Isa. 33:12).

In addition to those prickly trees or shrubs on which there are separate articles (*caper, *jujube, *acacia, *burning bush), the following may be noted. The hawthorn, Crataegus azarolus, is a prickly tree which is widespread in Israel. It is not mentioned in the Bible, but in the Mishnah is called uzrar or uzrad (Ar. Zaʿrūr). Growing freely in mountainous areas, it has fruit like a small apple, and fruit trees of its family, the Rosaceae (such as the apple, pear, and quince) can be grafted onto it. The Mishnah states that the *quince belongs to the same species as the hawthorn (Kil. 1:4).

The atad ("bramble") is mentioned several times in the Bible. In Jotham's parable of the trees approaching the fruit trees to appoint one of them as king, only the atad agrees, on condition that they take refuge in its shadow (Judg. 9:14–15). The reference is to the buckthorn bush – Lycium eopaeum – a wild shrub which is common throughout almost the whole of Israel, and is grown by some as a fence around gardens and the threshing floor (cf. Gen. 50:10). Its small berry is eaten by birds. Its thorns are very prickly and it catches fire easily (cf. Judg. ibid.; Ps. 58:10). One of the prickly plants exceptionally widespread in Israel is the lowly bush Poterium spinosum, the biblical sirah, sirim ("thorns"), a name derived from the potlike shape of the fruit (Lat. poterium, "pot"). It flourishes in desolate localities (Isa. 34:13) and densely covers fallow fields, especially in the mountains, in this way preventing soil erosion. It was used for firewood (Nah. 1:10) and for burning lime (cf. ii Sam. 3:26). While burning it makes a crackling noise: "As the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fool" (Eccles. 7:6). The Midrash (Yal. Eccles. 973) comments: "The sirim [which are lowly plants] when burning make a noise, as if to say: 'we too are trees.'"

Another lowly prickly bush – the Alhagi maurorum – which has long piercing thorns and whose tiny leaves fall off in the summer, grows freely in the vicinity of this plant. It apparently is the na'aẓuẓ, of which Isaiah (55:13) prophesied that the *juniper (berosh) would spring up in its stead along the path of the redeemed. The word is derived from נעץ ("to pierce"). In heavy soil this shrub is found together with a lowly shrub called Prosopis farcata. This is a weed among summer plants which cannot be uprooted because of its deep roots. According to Saadiah Gaon this is the nahalolim mentioned together with the na'aẓuẓim as the dwelling place of the fly and the bee to which the Egyptian and Assyrian armies coming to conquer Israel were compared (Isa. 7:18–19). Possibly the locality Nahalal in the inheritance of Zebulun was called after this shrub (Josh. 19:15, 21: 35). An exceptionally tall prickly bush that beautifies the forests of Israel in the spring with its yellow blossoms is the Calycotome villosa. This apparently is the ḥarul ("nettle") described as growing in neglected fields and vineyards (Prov. 24:31; Zeph. 2:9; Job 30:7). According to the Targum it is the higi, frequently mentioned in rabbinical literature, whose description fits the plant Calycotome. These three species as well as the Ononis leiosperma, which is apparently barkanim ("briers," Judg. 8:7), belong to the family of Leguminosae. The name barkanim is connected with shabraq, the Arabic name for this plant. It is recognizable by its pinkish blossoms and long thorns and is widespread in all districts of Israel.

All the thorns mentioned above are perennials. There are many annuals in Israel that burgeon in winter and are conspicuous in spring by their prickly leaves and large inflorescence. Most of them belong to the family of Compositae, including the dardar ("thistles," Centaurea) whose many species are common in the fields throughout Israel (cf. Gen. 3:18; Hos. 10:8). The ḥo'aḥ of the Bible is apparently Scolymus maculatus, a tall thorn which grows in heavy soil (cf. Job 40:26). Two species which flourish in fallow fields and are recognizable by their large leaves and whitish veins are the Silybum marianum, which is possibly kommosh (kimmosh, "nettles," Hos. 9:6), and Notobasis syriaca, the most common of Israel's thorns, which is possibly the koẓ of the Bible when mentioned alone. The plant Gundelia tournefortii, the biblical galgal, has a unique way of scattering its seed. At the end of the summer it detaches from the ground, and its prickly leaves, resembling sails, fly in the wind and scatter the seeds. This is galgal lifenei sufah ("whirling before the wind"; Isa. 17:13; cf. Ps. 83:14).


Loew, Flora, 1 (1928), 394–415: H.N. and A.L. Moldenke, Plants of the Bible (1952), index; J. Feliks, Olam ha-Ẓome'aḥ ha-Mikra'i (19682), 204–30. add. bibliography: Feliks, Ha-Ẓome'aḥ, 35, 50, 56.

[Jehuda Feliks]

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