Question #1: Hyssop
Is eizov hyssop?
Question #2: Multi-use Eizov
May an eizov be used more than once?
Parshas Bo includes the first reference in the Torah to eizov, in the following posuk:
And you shall take a bundle of eizov and dip it in the blood (of the korban Pesach) that is in the basin and touch it to the lintel and the two doorposts (Shemos 12:22).
The Bnei Yisroel were to take a bundle that contained at least three stalks of eizov (Sifrei, Parshas Chukas; Rambam, Peirush Hamishnayos Parah 11:9), although be’di’eved, if they found only two stalks, this would be sufficient to fulfill the mitzvah (see Parah 11:9). This requirement of using eizov stalk for the korban Pesach existed only that first Pesach, when the Bnei Yisroel were still in Egypt. Future korbanos Pesach did not require any eizov, nor was the blood touched to the lintel and doorposts, as stated in the Mishnah (Pesachim 96a).
Eizov is also essential for the performance of several other mitzvos, including:
1. Making a metzora tahor.
2. Purifying a house that is tamei tzaraas.
3. Processing the ashes of parah adumah.
4. Becoming tahor from tum’as meis.
To fulfill any of these mitzvos, it is required to use the specific species that the Torah calls eizov. Let us analyze and understand each of these instances.
There are two types of metzora who are tamei, one called a metzora musgar and the other called a metzora muchlat. There are several differences between them, but, for our purposes, we will focus on only two: how long they remain tamei, and how they become tahor (Mishnah Megillah 8b). A metzora musgar is tamei for a maximum of fourteen days, after which, depending on his symptoms, he either immerses himself in a mikveh and becomes tahor, or he becomes a metzora muchlat. On the other hand, a metzora muchlat will remain tamei for the rest of his life unless his tzaraas symptoms heal.
When a metzora muchlat’s symptoms heal, becoming tahor requires a complicated procedure described in the Torah in the beginning of parshas Metzora (Vayikra Chapter 14). One of the steps in this procedure requires the use of an eizov stalk, which is tied to a detached cedar branch with a thread of crimson red wool. The piece of eizov must be at least the length of a tefach (Niddah 26a; Rambam, Tum’as Tzaraas 11:1), which is approximately 3-4 inches, and the piece of cedar wood must be the length of one ammah (Nega’im 14:6), approximately 18-24 inches. This branch is then used as part of a very unusual dipping and sprinkling procedure, in which a specific kind of blood is applied seven times, either to the back of the metzora’s hand or to his forehead (Nega’im, 14:1). The tanna’im dispute which of these two places is correct, and the halachic conclusion is that it is the back of his hand (Nega’im, 14:1). This sprinkling is the first step in a long purification process necessary to make a metzora tahor again. Without an eizov branch, he cannot become tahor (Tosefta, Menachos 6:11).
Tumah on houses
There are several different stages of tum’as Nega’im that can affect a house, see Vayikra 14:33-53 and Mishnah Nega’im, Chapters 12-13. For some of these stages, the method of making the house tahor again involves the same process, utilizing eizov, cedar wood and crimson-red wool that I have just described. In this instance, the blood is applied to the lintel of the house (Nega’im, 14:1), since it is uncommon for a house to have either a forehead or a hand.
Processing parah adumah
One of the steps in processing the parah adumah is throwing into the burning pyre the same three items tied together that were used to make the metzora and the tamei house tahor – that is, an eizov stalk tied to a cedar branch with a piece of crimson-red wool (Bamidbar 19:6; see also Parah 3:10).
Becoming tahor from tum’as meis
Someone or something that became tamei from contact with a corpse requires the following procedure to become tahor: ashes of the properly processed parah adumah are sprinkled into spring water and then a tahor person takes an eizov stalk, dips it into the parah adumah/spring water mixture and sprinkles this water onto the utensil or person that needs to become tahor. This procedure needs to be performed twice; the first sprinkling is at least two days after the person or utensil became tamei, and the second at least four days later (Bamidbar 19:18-19). These are referred to as the third and seventh day of the purification process.To be kosher, the sprinkling must be performed with a stalk of eizov.
With a vov or without?
This author has noted that the word “eizov” is spelled in all places in Tanach with four letters, including the vov, with the exception of parshas metzora, where it is always three letters, missing the vov. I have searched, but thus far not found, any commentator who explains a reason for this curiosity. I have also thought about this question, without any satisfactory answer. If any of our readers locates an answer to this question, I will be grateful to hear it.
At this point, we can discuss the second of our opening questions: May an eizov be used more than once?
Of course, this question requires clarification: used more than once for what? Obviously, the eizov used in processing the parah adumah cannot be used more than once, since it was burned in the pyre of the slaughtered red cow. (Although it is popular to translate parah adumah as “red heifer,” I have written in other articles why “red cow” is a more accurate translation.)
The Mishnah states that an eizov used to sprinkle someone and thereby make him tahor from tum’as meis may still be used to make a metzora tahor (Parah 11:8), so we know that, in this situation at least, an eizov may be used for more than one type of purification. In addition, the Tosefta (Nega’im 8:2) states that an eizov may be used to make more than one metzora tahor. So, it would seem that an eizov may be used as many times as possible.
Is eizov muktzah?
As we will see shortly, the eizov was harvested sometimes for food, sometimes for (animal) feed and sometimes as firewood. The purpose for which it was harvested determines whether it is muktzah on Shabbos. If it was harvested for food or feed, it is not muktzah, but if it was harvested for firewood it is (Shabbos 128a).
What species is eizov?
All of this previous discussion does not explain what an eizov is. The word is always translated in English as hyssop, which, according to my desktop dictionary, has the following meanings:
1. “A woody plant, Hyssopus officinalis, native to Asia, having spikes of small blue flowers and aromatic leaves used in perfumery and as a condiment.”
2. “Any of several similar or related plants.
3. “An unidentified plant mentioned in the Bible as the source of twigs used for sprinkling in certain Hebraic purificatory rites.”
The word purificatory means “something used in an act of purifying,” which means that dictionary definition #3 is a perfect translation for the word eizov, except that I would use the word “stalks,” rather than “twigs,” as we will soon see. I suspect that the contributor to the dictionary has not spent as much time analyzing Talmudic sources on this topic as I have.
The dictionary itself notes that we do not know if Hyssopus officinalis is the original eizov that the Torah meant. The English word “hyssop” was derived from the Hebrew word eizov, via Greek, Latin and possibly French.
Readily available in Egypt and Eretz Yisroel
The exact identification of eizov was well known from the time of the Exodus from Egypt through the time of the Mishnah, a period of almost 1600 years. This we know because the Mishnah in several places refers to “eizov” without any need to explain what is intended by the term. At the time and place of the Mishnah, its identity was still widely known, but sometime during the time and/or place of the Gemara, uncertainty regarding its identity developed. This might mean that eizov grew commonly from Egypt through the area of Eretz Yisroel, but was less commonly available in Mesopotamia, a section of which we call Bavel, 550 miles further east, and with a very different climate.
Hints of eizov
The Tanach and the writings of Chazal contain the following hints that might help us identify which species is the true eizov:
Several midrashim mention that eizov was a very low-growing plant. The midrash states that Shelomoh Hamelech explained why purifying the metzora requires the use of the tallest among tall trees (a cedar) and the shortest of the short plants (the eizov). Since this individual may have been as haughty as the cedar is tall, he was humbled by being smitten with tzaraas. When he learns to humble himself as the eizov is short, he will be cured by the eizov (Bamidbar Rabbah, Chukas 19; see also Shemos Rabbah 12:7).
From a Mishnah we see that, occasionally, an eizov was so small that it was difficult to dip into the water containing the ashes of the parah adumah, but it was still large enough to use for sprinkling. To quote the Mishnah: “A short eizov can be extended with a string or a stick and immersed this way. Then the eizov itself must be grasped when used for sprinkling” (Parah 12:1).
Short is a relative term. Are we able to quantify the size of an average eizov plant?
Indeed, we can, because the Mishnah permits using an eizov for sprinkling, even if it was as small as the volume of an egg, as we see in the following Mishnah: “Someone who used a tamei eizov to sprinkle, if the eizov was the size of an egg, it made the water of the parah adumah tamei, and the sprinkling does not make the person tahor. If it was smaller than the size of an egg, it does not make the water tamei” (Parah 12:6). Thus, this information will help us identify potential eizov candidates.
We also know that the eizov was considered inexpensive (see Yalkut Shimoni, Shir Hashirim #986).
Grows on walls
From the pasuk in Melachim I 5, 13, we see that eizov sometimes grows out of walls, as it says that Shelomoh spoke about the eizov that grows out of the wall. Many plants can grow from the cracks between the stones of a wall; however most will not sustain themselves this way.
It is edible
Several Mishnayos indicate that the eizov, or some part of it, was commonly eaten. We also see that eizov was not harvested exclusively for food, but was often gathered or cultivated for feed or for firewood (Shvi’is 8:1; Parah 11:8; Tosefta, Shabbos 8:31). These usages of the eizov are reiterated in a Gemara (Shabbos 128a). We also know that it was eaten either raw or cooked (see rishonim to Shevi’is 8:1), implying that it was not eaten exclusively as a salad green.
A Mishnah implies that only part of the eizov plant is edible – there are parts too hard to be considered food, but are useful for holding the edible part of the eizov (Uktzin 2:2).
We also know that it had a medicinal use (see Shabbos 109b; rishonim to Shevi’is 8:1), since the Gemara states that shumshik was used to treat kukiyani. (See below for the identification of shumshik as a suggestion for eizov.) The Gemara mentions that kukiyani was caused by eating barley flour that had remained in storage for forty days (Shabbos 109b). Rashi explains that kukiyani was some type of intestinal worm.
From other Mishnayos we know that some type of berry grows on the eizov (Parah 11:7). There are varieties of marjoram, oregano and hyssop that have some type of cluster that grows on the stem, in addition to the leaves, and this is probably what is intended.
Different types of eizov
We see from the mishnayos (Nega’im 14:6; Parah 11:7) that there were various types of eizov, but most were identified by an adjective, such as “Roman eizov,” “blue eizov” and “desert eizov.” These other varieties were not kosher for use for any of the above-mentioned mitzvos, all of which required a species or variety that was widely known simply as “eizov,” without any adjective. To quote the Mishnah, “that which was called the Greek eizov (or eizovyon, there are two different texts to this Mishnah), the blue eizov, the Roman eizov, the desert eizov, and any other variety with a qualifying description is not kosher as eizov” (Nega’im 14:6; Parah 11:7). Dr. Yehuda Feliks, who devoted much research to identify various species mentioned in Tanach and Mishnah, suggested that “blue eizov” is Hyssopus officinalis, a variety of hyssop whose flowers are usually blue.
Does it have branches?
Regarding the requirement to use the eizov for making someone tahor from tum’as meis, the Mishnah (Parah 11:9) cites a dispute between the Tanna Kamma and Rabbi Yehudah, wherein the Tanna Kamma holds that one uses a bundle containing three harvested eizov plants each complete with its root. Rabbi Yehudah adds that each should have a main stalk and two side shoots. On the other hand, the Tanna Kamma rules that a single eizov plant containing a main stalk and two side shoots can be separated into three stalks and then bound together, and it is kosher, lechatchilah, as “three, bound eizov stalks.”
Tying three eizov stalks together is lechatchilah, but not essential, bedi’eved. It is also acceptable to use an eizov plant that contains two or three eizov stalks or branches, without separating the stalks. Furthermore, the stalks may be held together, rather than tied. It is even acceptable to use only two, rather than three, eizov branches. In all of these instances, a tamei meis who was sprinkled with spring water containing parah adumah ashes by someone using these lesser quality eizov stalks has satisfied the requirement of one sprinkling that is part of the process of becoming tahor.
Usually three branches
Since the Tanna Kamma and Rabbi Yehudah are not disputing what type of plant is an eizov, we know the eizov plant must commonly have branches. This factor is mentioned in the Gemara that I will quote, momentarily, as the basis for a dispute identifying the eizov.
Available in Egypt and Israel but not in Mesopotamia
As mentioned above, at the time of the Mishnah, identity of the eizov appears to have been common knowledge. However, by the time of the Gemara, its correct identification was uncertain, as demonstrated in the following passage (Shabbos 109b): “Rav Yosef said: ‘Eizov is what we call avarsah bar hamag, whereas the eizovyon of the Mishnah is what we call avarsa bar hineg.’ (Rashi mentions that the first type is a plant that commonly grows near reeds, and the second type is a variety that commonly grows near thorn bushes.) Ula explained eizov to be what was known in his day as ‘white marva’ (which some translate to be a variety of sage). Rav Pappi explained that it was shumshik (some identify this as marjoram). Rav Yirmiya of Difti ruled that this last approach was most likely correct, since the (above-quoted) Mishnah stated that an eizov should ideally have three stalks, each of which has three flowers, and shumshik is a species that grows this way commonly.”
Among rishonim, I found the following candidates suggested to identify the three differing opinions cited in this passage of Gemara: oregano, sage, marjoram, thyme and, indeed, the species today called hyssop, Hyssopus officinalis (see Rashi ad loc; Rambam, Commentary to Shevi’is 8:1 and to Nega’im 14:1; Aruch s.v. Shimshek; Ibn Ezra, Shemos 12:22).
(To correct a common error, marjoram and oregano are not two names for the same species. Marjoram’s botanical name is Origanum majorana, whereas common oregano is Origanum vulgare. The error comes from the fact that, in some places, oregano is called “wild marjoram.” Both oregano and marjoram are commonly used today as spices and herbs, and as natural herbal medicines for a variety of ailments.)
Another candidate is what is called today zatar, a commonly used spice that seems to fit the various descriptions mentioned above. Its scientific name is Origanum syriacum.
All of these candidates are small plants in the mint family that grow in the Middle East.
As with other mitzvos that require identification, there is a good chance that we will have to wait for Eliyahu Hanavi to provide definitive identification of this plant that has such halachic and hashkafic significance.
The midrash teaches that there are items in Hashem’s creation that look unimportant, and yet, Hashem commanded that they be used to fulfill many mitzvos (Shemos Rabbah, parshas Bo, 17:2,3). To quote the continuation of the midrash, “The eizov appears like nothing to man, yet its power is very significant to Hashem… this teaches us that small and large are viewed by Hashem with the same amount of significance. He makes miracles out of small items, and He redeemed the Jews with their use of the smallest of the tree family. …
“When the eizov is bundled, (Hashem says) I make you a bundle, just for Me, even if you are as seemingly unimportant as the eizov, as the posuk says, you will be My special treasure from among all the nations.”