THE WILD BUNCH
By Gil Marks
The parsha of Bo focuses on the immediate events preceding the Exodus from Egypt. Among the requirements imposed on the Israelites before the climatic moment was for them to, "Draw out, and take you lambs for your families, and slaughter the Passover sacrifice. And you shall take a bunch of eizov, and dip it into the blood that is in the basin, and strike the beam over the door and the two doorposts from the blood in the basin; and none of you shall go out the door of his house until the morning (Exodus 12:21-22)." Eizov subsequently played a role in several Jewish purification rites. It was an element of the enigmatic red heifer rite (parah adumah) used to remove the impurity of contact with death. "And the priest shall take cedar wood, and eizov, and scarlet wool thread and cast it into the midst of the burning of the heifer (Numbers 19:6)." It also formed an integral part of the ceremonial cleansing of lepers. "The priest shall command to take for him that is to be cleaned two live birds, and cedar wood, and scarlet wool thread, and eizov. And for the live bird, he shall take it, and the cedar wood, and the scarlet wool thread, and the eizov, and shall dip them and the live bird in the blood of the bird that was killed over the spring water (Leviticus 14:4,5)." The chatat water and the water of the leper were then customarily sprinkled with a bunch of eizov.
Rabbinical sources provide enough details to reconstruct the form and structure of the eizov. The Misnah (Parah 11:8-9), in discussing the laws of the red heifer, revealed that the eizov consisted of thin woody stems with stalks growing sideways, and containing at least three buds on top. Rashi explained (Exodus 12:22), "Eizov is a species of herb that has capsules." Although it was primarily picked wild, eizov was sometimes cultivated on a small scale for culinary and medicinal purposes (Maasrot 3:9). In addition, the Torah gave an indication of the growing conditions of this plant and its relationship to cedar, "And he (Solomon) spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon even to the eizov that springs out of the kir (I Kings 5:13)." The Hebrew word kir generally refers to a wall, but also pertains to various natural formations, most notably recesses and ledges in rocks and mountains.
Hyssop is the English cognate of eizov. It is, however, impossible for the biblical eizov to have referred to the plant currently called hyssop (hyssopus officinalis), since this native of southern Europe, so bitter it is rarely used in cooking, was unknown in ancient Egypt and Israel. Eizov cannot be a moss or lichen either, as it was translated in some European sources based upon a miscomprehension of the text in Kings. Nor is it a caper bush (Capparis spinosa), which although it certainly grows out of walls, has a different name in Hebrew (ab'ionah). All of these plants fail to meet the various physical criteria of eizov nor were they cultivated in Talmudic times on any scale for the culinary use of their foliage.
Ibn Ezra noted, "The Gaon (Saadiah) identified eizov as za'atar in Arabic and oregano in Old French, which is not the most important of spices." Unlike Ibn Ezra, who remained unsure of the identity of eizov, most Sephardic authorities, including Rambam, concurred with Saadiah's designation. Pointedly, the Greek word oregano means "joy of the mountain," a reference to it growing among the calcareous rocks and slopes of the region, certainly reflective of the description in Kings.
Yet the term oregano is not sufficiently specific in pinpointing the precise plant, a situation already evident two thousand years ago in the Mishna (Negaim 14:6 and Parah 11:7), which recognized that there were many varieties of eizov. This overabundance of hyssops stems from the very nature of the Labiatae (mint) family, which easily crossbreeds as well as spontaneously mutates, leading to the vast and frequently changing number of varieties and sometimes an unpredictability of flavor. Further adding to the confusion, the English terms oregano and marjoram are used interchangeably for any number of related and even unrelated herbs, although sometimes oregano refers to spicier varieties of marjoram. Similarly, the Arabic term za'atar/zatar (pronounced ZAT-ahr) is used in a generic sense to designate many members of the Labiatae family, including za'atar ach'dar (Greek "green" oregano), za'atar romi (thyme), and za'atar parsi (Persian oregano).
So which type of oregano is eizov? The plant that qualifies is Origanum syriacum (also called Majorana syriaca), known variously as white oregano, Syrian oregano, and Lebanese oregano in English, eizov matzui (common hyssop) in modern Hebrew, and za'atar in Arabic. A grayish-green member of the mint family, za'atar reaches a little more than a foot in height and has a pungent fragrance and a slightly minty, mildly bitter flavor, a bit spicier than its better known relatives Greek oregano and sweet marjoram (eizovit in Hebrew). This plant grew in Egypt and Israel since prehistoric times, is common to ledges and outcrops in mountains, and fits all of the physical characteristics of eizov. Its forked shape, like a brush, is certainly more suited for the role of sprinkling liquids than any of the other contenders. And liquid clings to the leaves, which then readily release it when shaken.
Za'atar, one of the most common kitchen herbs in modern as well as ancient Israel, is currently best known in the West as the main ingredient of a Levantine spice mixture, generally also containing sumac (a ground sour red berry) and sesame seeds, bearing its name. Ironically, wild za'atar is today a protected plant in Israel due to overexploitation, carrying a large fine if picked, and therefore, many commercial brands labeled za'atar actually substitute thyme or a mixture of cultivated herbs.
In ancient Israel, hyssop, along with savory (seeah in Hebrew) and thyme (korahnit in Hebrew), constituted the three predominant herbs, used in cooking and for various medicinal purposes. Some people, such as Rambam, add a little za'atar leaves to charoset. Yet hyssop was far from being among the most valued or important of the indigenous seasonings of the Levant, positions held by coriander and cumin. The leaves were generally not purchased in shops and bazaars, but rather gathered by individuals from wild plants or plucked from small home plots. It was the spice of the common man, plentiful and useful but rarely found at fancy occasions or in sophisticated fare or held in high esteem. A little eizov helped enliven a peasant diet consisting primarily of bread and gruels.
In fact, the rather modest status of eizov was the reason for its use in the three biblical sprinkling rituals. The Midrash Hagadol (Metzora 14) stated, "Rabbi Isaac bad Tavlai said: 'What is the significance of cedar wood and hyssop to the leper?' They said to him (the leper): 'You were proud like the cedar, and the Holy One, Blessed be He, humbled you like this eizov that is crushed by everyone." Another midrash (Exodus Rabba, 17, 2) followed this line of thought, "The eizov is a lowly plant and, because of this, God singles it out as necessary for the performance of important duties: for Passover, for the purification of the leper, and for the burning of the red heifer." In contrast to the noble cedar, which requires a plentiful supply of water, rich soil, and particular growing conditions, the eizov survives on very little, creeping up even in the cracks of rocks. Unlike the lofty cedar, the lowly eizov is "crushed by everyone," stepped upon as people go about their daily activities, unnoticed under foot, and used by the masses with little consideration or celebration. As the implement of applying the liquid during the sprinkling ceremonies, the eizov held a passive, secondary role, gaining importance only by means of the blood and action. Although not a tree in the botanical sense, the eizov's unique elongated woody stem as well as its comparison to the cedar made it, in Jewish tradition, the humblest of trees.
Thus in Jewish tradition, hyssop symbolizes humbleness. According to Rashi (Vayikra 14:3 derived from Erchin 15b), the leper brings a cedar branch "because leprosy is brought upon a person as a punishment for arrogance." Since haughtiness, particularly in the form of talking about another's shortcomings, is the primary cause of tzorat (biblical leprosy), a reminder of humility is vital in curing it. In this vein, King David pleaded to the prophet Nathan after the episode with Bathsheba, "Cleanse me with eizov that I may be pure; wash me that I may be whiter than snow (Psalms 51:9)." David, having acted in a highhanded manner, required adapting the persona of the eizov to be forgiven. The kick of eizov serves as a wakeup call to the arrogant.
The Torah never explicitly commanded the practice of humility, but instead imparted lessons through incidents and symbols that human beings can more readily consider and absorb. Humility is an attribute that cannot be developed via dictates and lectures. Nor is a group setting ideal for fostering this trait. Rather humility requires much personal reflection and solitary growth, and some poignant examples and denigrating experiences generally help. This is one side effect of the leper's quarantine, an opportunity to be alone and reflect on his deeds and lifestyle. Moses developed his meekness as a shepherd alone in the wilderness. Death is the ultimate solitary experience and most certainly a humbling event. Thus a single stalk of eizov was added to the two purification rites. In the case of the first Passover, on the other hand, the humbling was aimed not at the Israelites, who as lowly slaves hardly needed pointers on being humble, but rather at the Egyptians and their deities. Taking and killing a lamb, one of the chief Egyptian gods, was a conscious act on the part of the Israelites of severing themselves from idolatry, while sprinkling its blood with a bunch of obsequious eizov sprigs added insult to injury.
Besides humility, there exists another connection between the three biblical rites -- a theme of unity and community. The purification ritual allowed the leper, whose condition was due to a highhanded manner with others, to rejoin the community. The preparation of the ashes of the red heifer was performed outside of the city walls, while its effects purified the people in order to offer the Passover sacrifice. Not coincidentally, the Passover offering had to be eaten in a group, not by an individual. And the Passover offering was eaten together with matza and maror. Pointedly, the original Passover sacrifice required "a bunch of eizov," according to Rashi "three stalks," not a single stem.
The dispirited group of Israelite slaves needed to achieve a sense of unity in order to become a holy nation. But unity cannot be accomplished if egos get in the way. It is only when individuals sublimate their own needs and conceits for the greater good that unity is possible. On the other hand, unification based upon coercion or manipulation proves transitory and ultimately repressive. Misplaced and distorted unity can prove disastrous, as witnessed by the incident of the Golden Calf and the numerous cruel totalitarian governments from Pharaoh until today. Only when unity allows the continued practice of individuality can true brotherhood be achieved and the Covenantal Community fulfill its mission. The manna continued this motif of collective development. Generations later, of course, the lack of harmony led to the destruction of the Second Temple and the current Diaspora.
There is a poetic symmetry in the Passover story. Arrogance led the Egyptians to enslave their guests and then to a protracted refusal to let them go. In the beginning of the parsha of Bo, the Israelites were at their lowest point and the use of the eizov reflected that even an unassuming instrument could effect great occurrences. Moses, the humblest of men, provided the catalyst for the Exodus and the transformation of the Israelites from a heterogeneous assortment of slaves into a viable nation capable of receiving the Torah and becoming "a light onto the nations (Isaiah 49:6)." It was only the death of the first born that ultimately persuaded the Egyptians to free the Israelites and the drowning of their army in the Sea of Reeds to finally end it. Eizov, the humblest of plants, served as the agent through which the Israelites could physically disunite themselves from Egyptian society and its arrogant practices and, in the process, protect themselves from death and begin their journey to Sinai. Thus the eizov embodies the message of the historical Passover.
The presence of an herb in the Passover rite is also reflective of the renewal of spring and of Creation, "I have given you every herb bearing seed (Genesis 1:29)" and "and every herb of the field (Genesis 2:5)." Although the use of eizov was limited to the first Passover, it is memorialized in the contemporary Seder in the form of the karpas, generally parsley or celery, which is dipped into salt water. The impact that the seemingly insignificant act of dipping can make, especially in combination with other little things, is simply amazing.
Here are a few traditional recipes
containing members of the oregano clan.
(About ¾ cup)
Although the herb za'atar is used throughout most of the Middle East, the classic spice mix bearing its name is found only in the Levant. Some recipes add ground nuts, others ground dried chickpeas. Since it is so rare in the West, few recipes call for the actual Origanum syriacum.
1. Toast the sesame seeds in a dry skillet over medium heat, shaking the pan frequently, until lightly browned (2 to 3 minutes). Let cool.
Combine all the ingredients. Store
in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 months.
(3 to 4 medium breads)
Za'atar is commonly sprinkled over labneh (yogurt cheese) and hot flat breads and complements oily fish, various stews, soups, and salads. Another way of serving this combination is to dip pieces of warm bread into a saucer of olive oil, then into a plate of za'atar. Or the za'atar is stirred into the olive oil for dipping. In any case, olive oil, in particular, releases its flavor.
1. Dissolve the yeast in ¼ cup water. Stir in the sugar and let stand until foamy (5 to 10 minutes). Add the remaining water, salt, if desired, oil, and 2 cups flour. Gradually add enough of the remaining flour until the mixture holds together.
2. On a lightly floured surface, knead the dough until smooth and elastic (10 to 15 minutes). Place in a greased bowl, turning to coat. Cover loosely with plastic wrap or a towel and let rise until doubled in bulk (about 2 hours).
3. Punch down the dough, knead briefly, cover, and let rest for about 15 minutes. Divide into 3 or 4 equal pieces. Roll each piece into a thin round about 9-inches in diameter. Sprinkle ungreased baking sheets with cornmeal or flour, place the dough rounds on top, cover, and let stand until puffy (about 30 minutes).
4. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees (220 C).
Brush the tops of the dough rounds with a little oil and sprinkle
with the za'atar. Bake until
lightly browned (10 to 15 minutes). Serve
warm or at room temperature.
3 to 4 servings
Mushroom stews are common in many parts of Europe. As with much of Romanian cooking, this one reflects the synthesis of Ashkenazic and Sephardic influences.
1. If using small mushrooms, leave whole. Slice the big ones into large pieces with the stems intact.
2. Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and sauté until soft and translucent, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the mushrooms and sauté until slightly tender, about 15 minutes.
Stir in the paprika and sauté for 1 minute.
Add the tomatoes, oregano, salt, and sugar, bring to a boil, reduce
the heat to low, and simmer for 10 minutes.
Add the wine and chili and simmer until the mushrooms are tender and
the sauce thickens, about 20 minutes. Serve
warm as an accompaniment to mamaliga (cornmeal
mush) or pasta.
About 2 cups
This tangy dip was made with goat or sheep’s cheese, but you can substitute more readily available soft cheeses and add a little more lemon zest to simulate the original.
Combine all the ingredients. The mixture should be thick enough to maintain its shape. Serve with injera (Ethiopian pancake bread) or pita bread.
4 to 5 servings
Cooking foods in a thick, tart sauce is an ancient Mediterranean method for producing a moist, flavorful dish. Agra (sour grape sauce), the most ancient of these souring agents, is rarely used today as the arrival of rhubarb from China and later tomatoes from the New World created additional flavor dimension. Rhubarb has a refreshing, earthy, tart flavor. Tomatoes yield a less astringent dish.
1. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and sauté until lightly colored but not burnt. Add the tomatoes and sugar, cover, and simmer until tender, about 15 minutes.
2. Stir in the eggs, oregano, salt, and pepper. Cover and simmer until set, 3 to 5 minutes. If desired, serve over toast.
(About 1 cup)
This is based on the directions of Moses Maimonides in his commentary on the Mishnah.
1. Pour the water over the fruit and let soak overnight.
2. Bring the fruit and water to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer, stirring frequently, until the mixture forms a paste-like consistency.
3. Remove from the heat and stir in the vinegar and za'atar.
Gil Marks is the author of the James Beard Award finalist The World of Jewish Cooking, The World of Jewish Entertaining, and The World of Jewish Desserts. Send comments and requests to firstname.lastname@example.org.