THE SAP IS RUNNING
By Gil Marks
In the parsha of Miketz the famine predicted by Joseph was ravaging the land of Canaan. Having finished the provisions that his sons had procured during their first expedition to Egypt, Jacob requested that they return for more food. Judah eventually convinced his father to send the youngest brother Benjamin with them, as demanded by the imperious Egyptian vizier, who unbeknownst to them, of course, was actually Joseph. Jacob, after discerning the best way to approach this potentially dangerous situation, instructed his sons (43:11), "If it be so now, do this: take of the choice of the land in your vessels, and carry it down to the man as a present, a little tzree, and a little devash, nekhot and loht, botnim and shekadim."
Jacob's advice to his sons, repeating a strategy that had worked so successfully in pacifying his brother Esau, was to send presents to the man in power in Egypt. There is, however, a marked difference between these two sets of gifts. As Soforno explained, "If one brings a gift to a rapacious individual, it must be a vast amount to satisfy his inordinate desire, as was the manner of gift sent to Esau. However, when a gift is sent to a magnanimous, high-placed person who wants for naught, it is better to bring a smaller gift of eminent quality, a choice, rare item, which he will appreciate. This was the kind of gift recommended by Jacob." Jacob sent choice objects, a term in Hebrew literally meaning "to sing the praises," of the land. What were Jacob's six choice items and why specifically them?
In reference to botnim, Rashi noted, "I do not know what they are." Then, referring to the no longer extant early 11th century dictionary Alef Beit shel Rabbi Machir (written by Machir ben Yehudah, the younger brother of Rabbeinu Gershom, the "Light of the Exile"), Rashi continued, "I have seen botnim defined as pistacias, which seems to me to be peaches." Rashi's citation of peaches may have derived from a similarity between the French word peche with pistacias or a familiarity with almonds (Prunus amigdalus), which, as the nut matures, is enveloped in a green leathery case that looks like an unripe peach (Prunus Persica).
Sephardic commentators, unlike Rashi who never glimpsed a pistachio in his life, knew botnim to be the pistachio (Pistacia vera), a small pale green nut covered with a papery skin and hard ivory shell that splits open when mature. The 20-foot tall deciduous pistachio tree, which originated in Persia then spread throughout arid regions of the Near East, thrives under high heat with little or even no rainfall and is capable of living more than 700 years. Too much moisture or humidity, on the other hand, proves detrimental. These nuts, discovered in some of the earliest dated archaeological sites in Iraq, were found wild in areas of Canaan during the days of the Patriarchs. Pistachios, although they did not yet grow in ancient Egypt, were much beloved in that country, according to legend the preferred snack of the royal harem. Today, they remain favorites in the Middle East.
Besides the two kinds of nuts and the honey, objects that we can still appreciate as welcomed gifts today, the remaining items are now rather obscure except, perhaps, to botanists, food scientists, and pharmacists. With more than a little irony, these three items are eerily reminiscent of Joseph's descent to Egypt, "A caravan of Ishmaelites was coming from Gilead, their camels carrying nekhot, tzree, and loht (37:25)."
The identity of tzree is relatively easy to ascertain, as it was mentioned frequently in the Torah (such as Jeremiah 46:11). Tzree, along with honey, olive oil, and wheat, constituted the important exports of Israel during the first Temple period (Ezekiel 27:17). The recipe for the Pitum HaKetoret (incense), listing tzree first, is still recited during prayer services, ending with the Talmudic explanation (Keritot 6a), "Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: tzree is simply the sap that drips from the tapping of the wood of balsam trees." The sap of balsam (Commiphora apobasamum), a non-spiny small tree/shrub indigenous to the Levant, is commonly referred to as balm. In antiquity, the balm that came from Gilead was greatly esteemed for its fragrance and as a medicinal salve (Jeremiah 8:22).
Gilead is the section of Israel lying to the east of the Jordan River that was occupied by the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh, and, not coincidentally, the location from which the spice caravan that carried Joseph to Egypt was traveling.
The remaining two objects are a bit more ambiguous. The wording of the text "nehkot v'loht," however, indicates that these two items share the same grouping, just as the ensuing "pistachios and almonds" are both nuts. In all likelihood, tzree, nekhot, and loht are all types of resins. Gum resins are plant substances, frequently strong smelling, derived primarily from the bark of various trees and shrubs as well as sometimes from the roots, stems, and leaves, used in medicines, soaps, perfumes, makeup, varnishes, paints, and occasionally food, all of which were highly desirable commodities in ancient Egypt. Tellingly, resins, unlike many plant products, generally remain plentiful or at least available during times of drought.
Rashi stated that nekhot is a generic term for spices, citing Kings II 20:13, although others explain "beit nekhotah" as "house of his treasures." This is actually no contradiction, as until relatively recently spices were deemed treasures by Europeans and generally safeguarded in high towers of the castle, hence the traditional tower shape of Ashkenazic besamim (spice) boxes for Havdallah. Targum Onkelos (2nd century CE), however, who had direct access to these objects, translated nekhot as gum/wax. Thus a more specific and likely translation of nekhot, based on Semitic cognates and in accord with Onkelos, is tragacanth (from the Greek for "goat horn"), a basically odorless, slightly yellowish sap of the Astragalus gummifer, a thorny shrub of the legume family. Tragacanth was commonly used as an application for burns and to make a gummy paste similar to gum arabic, ideal for mixing with insoluble powders to formulate medicinal lozenges and confections. One other notable point in conjunction with the events of this parsha, tragacanth is recognized to exude in abundance when subjected to extremely hot and even parched conditions.
There are several viable candidates for the true identity of loht. The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 91) asserted that it was the pale yellowish resin of the mastic tree (Pistacia lentiscus), a small tree/shrub of the eastern Mediterranean. Mastic was once widely valued as a protective dressing for wounds and to fill cavities in teeth, hence the instruction of the Tosefta (Shabbat 12:8) that mastic may not be chewed on Shabbat as it is a medicine. Rashi identified loht as the Talmudic era lotem (such as Sheviit 7:6), but construed it from his 11th century Alsatian vantage point, "Our teachers explained it as the root of an herb and its name (in Old French) is aristolochia (aristoloche in modern French and birthwort in English)."
This medicinal herb, a native of southern Europe that by Rashi's time was already well-established as far north as England, has a grayish exterior and yellowish-brown insides with a bitter odor when fresh. Nevertheless, the strongest contender -- based on Semitic cognates, its presence in Canaan, and its value to ancient Egypt -- is labdanum/laudanum. This soft, dark, aromatic resin, secreted from the stems of rockrose bushes (Cistus ladanifer), is used as a flavoring agent for baked goods and confections as well as a scenting agent for perfumes. Indeed, labdanum is the only plant-based material that replicates the fragrance of ambergris, a whale derived substance common in many perfumes. To this day, labdanum is also valued for its anti-microbial properties.
You may notice that loht, derived from the Hebrew word meaning "to adhere/cover" or "talk secretly, shares the same name as Abraham's nephew, who at one point adhered closely to him (or, like labdanum, exuded a strong fragrance), but later, after their stay in Egypt, drifted away (or his fragrance faded).
Contrasting with Jacob's six choice products "of the land" are the Seven Species with which the land of Israel is blessed (Deuteronomy 8:8), "A land of wheat and barley and the vine and figs and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and date honey." The Seven Species are all trouble prone agricultural items, reliant on the whims of nature and much tender loving care on the part of the farmer. Insufficient rainfall or the arrival of hamsin (hot winds) from the south as well as idleness or mistakes by the farmer could individually spell doom for the extremely dependent Seven Species.
Both olive oil and date honey necessitate processing, not to mention that dates are the most labor intensive of all produce. Since so much effort was necessary to generate the Seven Species, they carry the potential that a person will think "it was my power and the might of my hand that have brought me this prosperity (Deuteronomy 8:17)." Indeed the Torah ominously ends the section of the Seven Species with a warning, "If you forget the Lord your God and follow other gods and serve them and worship them, I warn you this day that you shall surely perish (Deuteronomy 8:19)." Because it requires a partnership between God and man to yield the Seven Species, only they are brought as the bikkurim (first fruits) in the Temple.
On the other hand, Jacob's gifts, which also represented the bounty of the Land of Israel, can be, and at his time were, all culled from the wild. Unlike the Seven Species, which require cultivation and have the potential to lead to the abandonment of God, Jacob's choice items require little or no human effort to produce in abundance. Pointedly, despite the continuing famine that devastated Canaan, Jacob had the six choice products on hand to send to Egypt. The three resins were extracted from wild trees and were not cultivated and considered fruit, as reflected in the decision of the Talmud (Sheviit 7:6) that "the law of the Sabbatical year does not apply to the balsam tree."
Almond trees, which grew wild in ancient Israel, bear their nuts before some of Seven Species have even blossomed, and, like pistachios, still yield produce during droughts. Indeed, all of Jacob's gifts came from plants that yield crops even in times of famine, requiring relatively small quantities of rain, even wild flowers. In fact, many flowers emerge earlier and in greater abundance than normal when subject to drought conditions, nature's way of ensuring the next generations by hastening and abetting reproduction. The primary difference between the Seven Species and Jacob's gifts, the latter being from uncultivated sources and those that yielded during droughts, supports the intent of bee honey here rather than from dates. Fruit would be in scarce supply during a famine, while wild flowers grew in profusion and, in Jacob's time, bees were not yet domesticated in Canaan, so honey required locating a wild hive and risking a few stings. The upshot is that Jacob's six choice items, as a group, manifest a different nature and meaning than the Seven Species.
Jacob, perhaps recalling tales of Egypt from his grandfather Abraham and reports from his sons, understood the value of various resins in a society that so treasured its perfumes, soaps, makeup, and medicine. Even more important in ancient Egypt, a society obsessed with death so much so that its bible was called The Book of the Dead and an substantial amount of its wealth was dedicated to building massive mausoleums, was the use of these resins in the embalming process. In this vein, bee honey, which comes ready-made from nature and never spoils, symbolizes immortality and truth, and thus many ancient people embalmed or buried their great leaders with honey. Nuts also possess a dual symbolism. It was once a custom to shower the path of newlyweds with nuts as a token of fertility (Berachot 50b) and Sephardim still offer Jordan almonds at weddings and other life-cycle events. Yet almonds also serve as a symbol of the fulfillment of imminent doom (Jeremiah 1:11-12) as well as an allegory of death (Ecclesiastes 12:5). In ancient Persia pistachios were among the special foods featured on their New Year (Nowruz), symbolizing the dualities of the culture, including birth and death. In addition, an allergic reaction to nuts, an otherwise nourishing food, can result in death.
Thus Jacob, based upon his previous strategy of sending tributes to Esau while at the same time preparing for war, was relaying an implicit warning to the Egyptian prime minister through his calculated selection of gifts, offering a choice between healing and death. In a similar vein, the presence of these three resins at Joseph's descent to Egypt portend the deadly intent of his brothers and the healing that Joseph would some day effect on his family and the world.
Here are a few recipes utilizing gum resins or pistachios.
Asafetida (also spelled asfoetida), from the Farsi aza (gum) and Latin foetida (stinking), is a dried yellowish gum resin made from the rhizomes of a variety of fennel. Although native to the Middle East and mentioned in the Talmud (chiltit), today it is primarily found in Indian cooking. Indians believe that asafetida is good for the digestion and commonly add it to legume dishes to help their digestibility. Asafetida is available in lump or powdered form: Raw it has an unpleasant flavor and stinking odor; cooked it develops a garlicky flavor and truffle-like aroma which complements other foods. Use in small amounts in curries, stews, and dried bean dishes.
Takari in an Indian method of cooking vegetables in their own juices. The vegetables are enlivened with typical Indian seasonings.
1. Heat the ghee in a large skillet or wok over medium heat. Add the cumin seeds and sauté until they begin to crackle. Add the chilies and, if desired, ginger and sauté until lightly colored. Add the turmeric, coriander, and, if desired, asafetida.
1. Leave yogurt or sour cream at room temperature overnight.
Most leafy greens in India contain too many insects to eat raw. As a result, Indian salads primarily consist of marinated non-leafy vegetables. Since bugs can be more easily removed from cabbage, it became one of the few widespread Indian greens. The flavor of this cabbage salad is very different from the European coleslaw.
1. Combine the cabbage, tomatoes, coconut, peanuts, lemon juice, sugar, and salt.
In the Middle East pistachios are used like almonds in pilafs, sauces, and desserts such as baklava, ma'amoul (filled cookies), and various puddings. Although Westerners are familiar with almond paste and marzipan, Middle Easterners also make a similar mixture using pistachios. Since this delicate mixture is more expensive than almond paste, however, it is usually reserved for special occasions. The recipe can be doubled, tripled, or quadrupled.
In a food processor, finely grind the pistachios, sugar, and salt. If desire, add the rose water. Add enough egg white to make a cohesive paste and knead until smooth. Wrap and refrigerate for at least 24 hours to mellow. (Pistachio paste can be stored in the refrigerator for at least 3 weeks and in a freezer for up to a year. If the paste hardens, microwave on HIGH for several seconds until pliable.) Substitute for almond paste in baking.
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.