Tzarich Iyun: The Sabra

Misconception: The sabra, a symbol of a native-born Israeli, is indigenous to the desert areas of Israel.

Fact: The sabra is native to the desert areas of Mexico and southern United States.

Background: The sabra is known in Hebrew as tzabar,[1] in English, as the prickly pear or Indian fig. Scientifically, it is in the family Cactaceae, binomial name, Opuntia ficus-indica. It is native to the desert areas of what is today known as Mexico and southern United States. The sabra plant is a shrubby cactus that grows as high as five meters (sixteen feet) and can have a three-meter (ten-foot) spread. The fruit is an ovoid that grows on flat, fleshy pads after the appearance of flowers, in an array of dazzling colors.

The sabra plant, which can exist in a staggering range of environments, quickly spread from the New World to the Old. It was introduced by the Spanish and spread throughout the Ottoman Empire. It was widely planted, most likely for dying purposes as well as for its fruit and ability to function as a natural fence. Because it is so hardy, it is found today in many areas of the world and has become the most widespread cactus in the Mediterranean.

Because the sabra plant, when grown in clusters, can form a barrier of spiny pads, for several hundred years it has been utilized by the Arab population to repel intruders. The misconception that the plant is a native of Israel may have arisen because today both cultured and wild sabra plants grow all over the country.

Jewish doctors ascribed medicinal value to the plant as early as the seventeenth century. Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620), the leading disciple of the Arizal, listed it among the known drugs and prescribed it to combat sciatica. Jews in Yemen used it to treat ringworm and back pain.[2] In modern times, products derived from the fruit and the plant have been used to treat a variety of illnesses including urinary ailments, diabetes, hyperlipidemia and obesity. The sap from the pad can be used to soothe wounds and burns, similar to the way the aloe vera plant is used. The melon-flavored sabra, which can be eaten fresh or cooked to make jelly, is low in fat and calories and high in fiber and complex carbohydrates. In Mexico, the pad of the fruit is also eaten.

Over the last three centuries, Jewish writers have attempted to identify the sabra in traditional sources, sometimes