(Identity and symbolism of ‘chatzav’; August 2007)
An article in Torah Flora no. 1 (“The olive tree, the post-Chanukah period, and Jewish unity”) described Tu b’Av, the fifteenth of the Hebrew month of Av, and its commemorative and religious significance. This day marks the middle of summer and the time when olives in Israel begin to accumulate oil. The ripening of olives is nearly simultaneous throughout Israel’s geographic and climatic regions. In fact, the local Arabs refer to this day as Olive Day. For this reason, and because of several historical events that occurred on Tu b’Av, both the day and the olive tree have become symbols of Jewish unity. This year, Tu b’Av fell on Monday, July 30.
The timing of flowering and ripening in olives are unusual in their relative insensitivity to climate. The white squill (Urginea maritima; in modern Hebrew, chatzav matsui) flowers during the olive ripening. Like the olive, it has accumulated a good deal of lore because it flowers at the same time throughout the land of Israel. This plant grows mostly in dry, sandy soils from its large, onion-like bulb, sending up a single narrow stalk covered by many small, white flowers. An example of this plant can be seen at http://www.tau.ac.il/~ibs/album/urginea.m.html.
The resemblance to onions is not a coincidence. In fact, one of its many English names is sea onion. Most botanists place white squill in the lily family, along with onions, garlic, chives, scallions and shallots. However, some split the lily family in two, placing white squill and some other species in a hyacinth family. Many members of the lily family contain unusual chemical compounds with interesting biological properties. For example, certain sulfur compounds in onions and garlic give them their pungent flavors and irritating effects on the eyes of cooks. White squill is no exception. Its bulb, which can weigh several pounds, contains steroid-like compounds that have been used as rat poisons and heart drugs since ancient times. The effect on the heart is similar to digoxin (found in digitalis extract), though much better and safer heart drugs are available today.
The ability of white squill to regenerate from its bulb after cutting or drought may have inspired its use as a planting to mark property lines. Indeed, the Talmud (Baba Batra 55a) describes this as a common practice, and states that Joshua planted it to delineate the borders of the tribes of Israel after the apportionment of the land (Baba Batra 56a). The toxic compounds in white squill can cause blistering irritation of the skin after handling the plant. This effect would discourage malicious individuals from uprooting the plant to obscure property lines, as forbidden in Deuteronomy 19:14.
The Hebrew name ‘chatzav’ given to this plant has the same root as the words for axe and hewing of wood or rock. This may reflect its ability to force its way into rocky soil by expanding its roots and bulb into small cracks, further breaking up the rocks. An example of this growth habit can be seen in this photo of white squill growing out of a rocky outcrop in the Negev desert: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:UrgineaMaritima.JPG
However, some scholars of Aramaic, including Marcus Jastrow and Immanuel Low, have suggested that the chatzav of the Talmud is not white squill, but an unrelated plant, the rockrose, which also grows on rocky, dry ground. Some support for this idea comes from the homiletic statement that attempts to uproot chatzav that has been planted along a property line are thwarted when it grows back from its deep roots. Rockrose shrubs can produce much longer, deeper root systems than the shallow bulb of white squill.
But if the chatzav of the Talmud and the chatzav of modern Hebrew are not the same plant, how did this confusion arise? The identities of many biblical plants, animals, and rocks are uncertain. When Hebrew returned to use as a daily language in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, these names were assigned to common species in the land of Israel, in some cases with little evidence that the words were being used in their original senses. Chatzav may be one such word. If the fields and borders of Israel were originally marked by a hedgerow of chatzav plants, the ambiguous meaning of this plant name in modern Hebrew becomes a beautiful realization of the metaphor of Song of Songs 7:3, which describes the beloved (homiletically interpreted as the people of Israel) as “a pile of wheat surrounded by shoshanim.” What are shoshanim? This term is variously translated as roses or lilies, so either the rockrose or the white squill would satisfy the language of the verse. Take your pick, but not from your neighbor’s fence row!