Fine Linen on Simchat Torah—A Symbol of Social Change

(Why does it matter that Rachav hid Joshua’s spies under piles of flax? August 2020)

Much has been written about the idea of linear and circular conceptions of time. Judaism incorporates elements of both. The calendar marks the progression of circular time, as the phases of the moon repeat each month, and the holidays, seasons, and parshiyot repeat year after year. On the other hand, we mark unique moments such as birth, marriage, and death in each life and view the unidirectional movement of our history as the course of our collective relationship with God, moving toward redemption and the messianic age. On Simchat Torah, the Torah and Haftarah readings reflect both linear and circular time. We complete the reading of the Torah and immediately begin the cycle again from the beginning. Then we read the haftarah, the beginning of the book of Joshua, which follows the Torah in linear chronological order.

Continuing on this linear path brings us next to the second chapter of Joshua, where we read the story of the spies whom Joshua sent to Jericho, and Rachav who hid them under the flax stalks that she was drying on her roof (Joshua 2:6). The book refers here to these stalks as pishtei etz, literally ‘flax trees’ or ‘flax wood.’ The Talmud (Shabbat 27b) takes this verse as evidence that the flax plant is a type of tree. This conclusion appears in Mishnah Shabbat 2:3, as part of a discussion of what materials may be used as wicks and fuel for the Shabbat lights. Ironically, this chapter of the Mishnah is read every week as part of Kabbalat Shabbat. Linear time brings us back into cyclical time, in this case the week.

The flax plant (Linum usitatissimum) is the source of linen fibers. It has a slender stalk no more than four feet tall and is usually grown as an annual plant that lives only a few months. It does not look like a tree. However, in regions with warm winters, it can regenerate after cutting to produce a second crop, although this is not usually done today. The outer part of the stalk is somewhat woody, which also supports its halachic classification as a tree.

Why does the book of Joshua tell us the detail that Rachav hid the spies under the drying flax? Wouldn’t the purposes of the narrative be served just as well by stating simply that she hid them, or that she hid them on the roof? To understand the significance of this information, we need to know how flax is processed into linen.

The first step in flax processing is called retting. It consists of laying the stalks on the ground in the field where they were harvested to allow soil bacteria to break down the tissues that surround the fibers. The stalks are then dried and the brittle rotted material is removed from the linen fibers. This is done by crushing the stalks between grooved metal rollers and knocking any remaining debris off of the fibers. The flexible fibers pass through the rollers undamaged and are then combed to ensure that they are straight and parallel. After this, they can be spun into yarn and thread for manufacturing linen fabric. In earlier times, the stalks were retted by soaking in water. Once the retted stalks were dry, wooden presses and other hand tools were then used to crush them and remove the rotten tissues before combing and spinning the fibers.

It is clear that when the spies arrived, Rachav had finished retting her flax and was now drying it before crumbling the rotten tissue, leaving only the linen fibers. Several of the classic commentators, including Rashi and Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi) confirm this and explain that this is why the text uses the term pishtei etz. It indicates that the fibers were still enclosed in the stalks (or sticks).

The Malbim, an early nineteenth-century commentator, says that the spies sought out Rachav’s house because she was a prominent citizen and a confidante of the rulers of Jericho. She would have seen the city’s panicked reaction to the arrival of Israel, the reports of their unstoppable power, and the miracles that God had performed for them. Her occupation as innkeeper or prostitute also would not arouse suspicion as just-arrived travelers went there for food, lodging, and recreation. Rachav’s plea to the spies to spare her and her family shows that she recognized the imminent crumbling of Canaanite society. Much earlier (Genesis 15:16), God had promised Abraham that his descendants would inherit the land of Canaan, “but the sin of the Amorites is not yet full.” Now it was full. The drying flax is a metaphor for this critical stage in the collapse of Jericho: The rot is complete, and now the decadent society will crumble. The metaphor is extended and fulfilled as Joshua’s Cohanim blow their shofarot, the Israelites shout, and the city walls collapse. The cycle of life in the decrepit, idolatrous, child-sacrificing Canaanite society falls away like rotten flax, and the continued struggle to develop a society based instead on the life cycle of God’s Torah persists like a linear thread of pure linen.

It is interesting to note that flax plants have the ability to respond to stressful environments by reorganizing their DNA, which can change the plants’ characteristics. This increases the chance that at least some of the plants (or their offspring) will be better equipped to survive the stressful conditions that they are experiencing. Although this survival strategy was not discovered until modern times, it seems very appropriate that flax not only symbolizes, but physically embodies the capacity for change as sudden and dramatic as the one it represents in the book of Joshua.

1 comment

  1. Beautiful!
    I love your connection between the plant stages and the Jericho city moral stages ..this past simchat Torah’s atrocity makes it even more poignant
    Thank you for your insights

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