I went down to the nut orchard to look at the blossoms of the valley, to see whether the vines had budded, whether the pomegranates were in bloom.
Song of Songs 6:11
In the Biblical Garden, the seven year old almond tree has leafed out abundantly and bloomed for the first time. The grape vine has budded in its second season on the arbor, and the dwarf pomegranate, now outdoors again, is ready to gift us with more of its tiny orange flowers and miniature fruit. The spring color-riot of early flowers continues: narcissus, brilliant blue grape hyacinth, petite red cups of wild tulips, and (new this year) elegant Persian fritillary bells in gorgeous purple, all have bloomed and faded. Iris and poppies are in full display.
Now we watch for awakening of the fig tree which sleeps late each year, in the hope and expectation that it survived another winter. In May we assessed what we have gained versus what was lost or damaged due to the cold, and what to transplant, divide, and replace. We delight in “volunteers,” new plants self-seeded from last year’s ripened bounty: lupines and globe thistle, nigella and chamomile.
Religious School students have been busy in the garden, cleaning up, cutting back overgrowth, and patrolling for dandelions. Seventh grade gardeners planted cucumbers, grains and lentils, and started herbs in the raised beds – this year: dill, borage, fennel, parsley.
The 6th grade class secured fallen branches to the A-frame structure so the peas they have planted can climb. They have started seeds of sorghum (broom corn) which produces seed heads on stately canes 8-10 feet tall. In addition they planted chickpeas as they snacked on hummus and compared ingredients and recipes for that Middle Eastern staple. Todah rabah (many thanks) to Nate Finstein, Roxanne LaCroix, Sherry Feldman, Herb Katz, and Lily Wolfgang, along with teachers Sue Oclassen and Suanne Goodman, for helping to create another garden experience for our students.
As we nurture soil, plants and community, a garden is where we might meet nature half-way, on that “middle ground between the lawn and the forest,” as author Michael Pollan observes in Second Nature. It teaches respect for, and cooperation with the natural processes that enable us to live our lives on our local patch of ground, and it encourages us to be mindful of our human place in the sacred community of life on Earth.
Every spring in the Biblical Garden, religious school students sow two strains of ancient wheat, einkorn wheat, the ancestral mother of all wheat, and emmer wheat, the genetic source of modern wheat varieties. Wild einkorn often survives in sandy or rocky soils where other varieties of wheat fail. Emmer wheat has a higher yield with fatter kernels and more nutrients than einkorn. Rich in gluten, it was the variety commonly grown for bread-making throughout the eastern Mediterranean region and in Egypt during the Israelite sojourn there. The “bread of affliction,” the unleavened dough which the Israelites, in their haste, carried on their journey from slavery to freedom, was made from emmer wheat. Indigenous wild wheat grows today in the rocky soil of the Galilee and Golan Heights. The genetic sources of modern bread wheat stem from these ancient grains.
In our day, wheat provides 20% of the calories and proteins consumed around the globe. The impacts of population growth, political instability, and climate change are of urgent humanitarian concern. Scientists are investigating ways to improve the hardiness, nutritional value and yield of modern wheat as one way to address the hunger that stunts the lives of millions of children and adults. Much of this work is being done in Israel. The Wild Cereal Gene Bank at the University of Haifa’s Institute of Evolution provides a gene pool of over 3,000 wild wheat samples, sourced mostly from Israel. Scientists use this material in searching for useful genes that can be cross-bred into domesticated wheat to improve drought and disease resistance, protein content, and adaptability to varied soils and rainfall levels.
When we gather at our Passover seder tables, we raise our matzah, our “bread of affliction,” and read: “let all who are hungry come and eat.” We invite those who hunger to join us and be filled, and to hear the Passover story of our liberation from bondage in Egypt. Conditions of bondage continue to exist, as people in our community and millions more in our wider world struggle with food insecurity every day. The Passover message applies not only to this one night that is different from all other nights, but in every night when someone, somewhere goes to bed hungry. We can do more to support the local agencies and organizations that glean excess farm produce, collect and distribute unsold food from markets, operate food banks and supply soup kitchens. We can support organizations, such as Mazon, which advocates for the hungry and works to strengthen food and nutrition programs at the local, state and national level. We can enrich our Passover experience by being aware that our tables, laden with abundant and nutritious food can be shared through tzedakah and through actions that help meet the basic need for sustenance in our human family.
Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakai said: "If you have a sapling in your hand and are told that the Messiah has arrived, plant the sapling and then go to greet him."
Avot of Rabbi Natan B, chapter 31
In this month falls the minor holiday of Tu BiShvat (the 15th of Sh'vat), the “New Year for Trees,” in which Jewish tradition asks us to pay special attention to trees and ecological concerns both in Israel and the wider world. Many people now consider it to be the Jewish equivalent of Arbor Day, a day on which to celebrate nature and reconnect with the earth. In Israel it has become the national tree planting holiday, part of the decades-long effort to create productive land from desert and swamp. Many communities, including Temple Sinai, conduct a Tu BiShvat Seder, which is said to have been created by Rabbi Isaac Luria of S'fat. Modeled after the Passover Seder, the ritual gives special meaning to the fruits and trees of Israel. We enjoy eating fruits and nuts that grow in Israel, such as olives, dates, figs, apricots, almonds and walnuts, and we drink four cups of wine with appropriate blessings.
In the Biblical Garden, the fig tree, now wrapped under burlap for the winter, the grapevine and the almond tree now wait in anticipation of spring. The dwarf olive and pomegranate trees are in residence on a kitchen counter for the winter. And in the sixth grade Religious School classroom, a planter sits in a sunny window with over a dozen soil-filled paper cups. Emerging from the soil are little etrog (citron) trees planted two months ago, the yield of an etrog that was used in our Sukkot festival celebration last fall. Some will soon go home with students, and a couple will become Biblical Garden specimens, the “fruit of goodly trees” referenced in Leviticus 23:40. It’s a simple activity, to cut open a fruit, enjoy the marvelous citrus scent, pick out seeds from the pulp, plant and water them. As students cultivate seeds in the classroom and soon in the garden, they may also cultivate within themselves a more intimate connection with nature, and discover that their actions can make a difference: they can fully participate in the work of tikkun olam – repair of the world.
This year, the Tu BiShvat Seder at Temple Sinai will be held on Friday evening, February 10, at 7:00 PM following the 6:00 PM Shabbat evening service. Enjoy a blog post by Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser on Tu BiShvat at this link.
From the rising of the sun unto the going down thereof the Eternal One’s name is to be praised. Psalm 113:3
In these dark days, plants in the Biblical Garden lie bare, skeletal, with hollow stems and brittle, desiccated remains of leaves littering the frozen ground. Seed-heads are scattered across the waiting earth, their promise of new life at rest until brighter days awaken their life-force, and their pods or seeds split open under the warmer rains of spring. The bitter wind rasps the branches of the almond tree and the willow. The essential structure of the garden lies hidden beneath the snow and no visitors come to sit on the bench and listen to the birds chattering among themselves about nest-building days to come.
Once again it’s that liminal season when all is quiet, and as the daylight hours gradually lengthen, we reimagine what the garden can be in the growing season ahead.
Do we want to re-establish the dye-plants whose color-laden roots and blossoms made Joseph’s coat so vivid? Do we want to set aside a plot for wild plants we know as weeds, but which served as forage for Abraham’s flocks and added flavor to the stewpot bubbling on Sarah’s hearth? And should we relocate the Stachys byzantina, the lamb’s ear plants, with their soft, wooly leaves which were petted by third-grade Religious School students during last autumn’s exploration of the garden?
The Biblical Garden is a world of possibilities. To bring those possibilities to fruition, first comes observation and evaluation of the garden that was, then a plan takes shape to realize the “garden to be” in the longer days ahead. We can be grateful for this waiting season as we dream and imagine and plan for the warmer days to come.
While the garden is designed to be relatively low-maintenance, all gardens need an occasional helping hand. If you like to work with plants and can spend a couple of hours planting and tidying up this spring, please contact Catherine Walters at 401 419-7698, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
When Elisha returned to Gilgal, there was famine in the land. As the company of prophets was sitting before him, he said to his servant, "Put the large pot on, and make some stew for the company of prophets." One went out into the field to gather oroth and found a wild vine and gathered from it his lap full of wild gourds and came and cut them up into the pot of pottage, not knowing what they were. The stew was poured out for the men, but as they began to eat it, they cried out, "Man of God, there is death in the pot!" And they could not eat it.
2 Kings 4:38–40
The biblical oroth is garden rocket, an annual in the mustard family. Rocket, Erica sativa, flourishes in the hilly areas of Israel and throughout the Mediterranean. Also native to the salad aisle in the supermarket, we may know it as arugula. Buds, flowers and leaves were used as potherbs by pastoralist communities in ancient Israel. As with rocket, greens such as dandelion, wild carrot, dock, purslane and sorrel provided forage for flocks and herds, and were gathered for “pottage” (vegetable stews).
Something, however, is clearly amiss in the vegetable stew at Elisha’s hearth; the “death in the pot” was likely the wild gourd, Citrullus colocynthis, or bitter apple. A member of the watermelon family, it’s a ground-hugging vine which grows abundantly in dry conditions and bears round, yellow fruit with green spots and poisonous pulp. When consumed, it can be a violently purgative agent.
Foraging for wild vegetables is a basic survival skill that has long been forgotten in this age of large scale agriculture. Now that our modern diet relies on white bread, burgers and other processed foods, these wild potherbs, once relished, are marginalized. We view them as weeds, because they are hardy and tenacious, growing along roadsides and popping up in lawns.
But edible wild plants added robust flavor and valuable nutrients to the biblical diet. A source of vitamins A and C, rich in calcium, iron and potassium, they can be found in the Biblical Garden. Elisha’s stewpot reminds us that it’s best to know what’s in our salad and our pottage before we eat it, as his company of prophets regrettably discovered.
"And God said, 'Let the earth bring forth grass, and herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth': and it was so." Genesis 1:11
November again, the days are shorter, the air is chill. In the ripeness of autumn, plants have gathered a last burst of energy to produce seed and fruit for growing seasons to come, gifts for the future. It’s time to put the garden to bed for the winter, to remove the tall, stately stalks of Sorghum bicolor (broomcorn), cut back the brown, brittle stems of the sunflower, valerian, and mallow. There is beauty in the remains of summer’s rampant growth, evidence of lives fully lived, of completion, of shalom.
Seeds are collected to replenish the seed basket for next spring’s planting – barley, cleome, lupine, calendula, and pulses. The fig tree and the grape vine will be wrapped in burlap to protect tender branches from drying winter winds. Religious school students will lend a hand with the chores that maintenance of the garden requires.
This year there is a new task: gathering up the bulbs of the brilliant red Anemone coronaria, in Hebrew, kalanit, to be stored for the winter. Anemones carpet the northern Negev region of Israel in the spring and their blossoms are breathtaking in intensity of color and perfection of form. In the Biblical Garden, however, they require patience and persistence. After several seasons of unsuccessful attempts, fresh bulbs were planted by religious school students this past spring, and were (finally) brought to bloom in one of the raised beds. Perhaps the brightest of the “flowers of the field," they are members of the buttercup family, and, when encountered, elicit exclamations of awe and delight. Those who discovered them blooming in mid-summer, nestled among unruly tangles of cucumber and melon, might have stored up images of their vivid scarlet, to be recalled in the chill, grey days of winter to come, memories that refresh the spirit and warm the heart.
He made pomegranates in two rows encircling each network to decorate the capitals top of the pillars. He did the same for each capital. 1 Kings 7:18
The pomegranate (Punica granatum) is a small, bushy tree that grows about twenty feet high. Originally native to Iran, it travelled along some of the same trade routes that would later be associated with the silk trade, and spread across much of the ancient world.
One of the seven species of agricultural products associated with the Land of Israel, the fruit is a symbol of righteousness, because it is said to have 613 seeds representing the 613 commandments of the Torah. (The actual number of seeds varies, of course, with each fruit.) Pomegranates, in Hebrew rimonim, adorned the tops of the pillars in Solomon’s temple, and ornamented the robes of kings and priests. The fruits represent fecundity and, indeed, life itself; with their abundance of seeds and intensely red juice, they are messy, fragrant, sweet, and tart.
The pomegranate in the Biblical Garden is a dwarf variety that blossoms and grows lovely miniature fruits. Not winter-hardy in New England, it’s grown in a container and brought indoors after Sukkot.
Pomegranates are traditionally eaten on Rosh Hashanah by Jews all over the world as a symbol of abundant goodness and in the hope that the Eternal One will grant us health and happiness in the coming year. Before the fruit is eaten, this blessing may be said, “May it be Your will, Lord our God and God of our forebears, that our merits increase like the seeds of a pomegranate.”
Take us the foxes, the little foxes that spoil the vineyards; for our vineyards are in blossom.
Song of Songs 2:15
Centered and rooted between the posts of the grape arbor, the Biblical Garden grape vine at Temple Sinai has reached the topmost wires in our four-arm Kniffin arbor system. Inspection at every Saturday Minyan Breakfast reveals that its trunk is sprouting shoots which will become four canes branching sideways. Eventually, with watering and judicious pruning, we can hope for sweet fruit in years to come. The four-arm Kniffin is easiest to maintain and the most common system for American grapes like our Labrusca variety.
In biblical times one of the most important agricultural roles was that of the vinedresser, who planted, watered and pruned to assure a bountiful harvest of grapes for the winepress. Protection of vineyard and crop required the community to build and maintain hedges and fences, and a watchtower, manned against marauders (two- and four-footed) including the little foxes of Solomon’s beloved poem.
In the middle of a warm late-July weeding session in the Biblical Garden, this gardener received a lovely and unexpected gift. A congregant passing by paused and surveyed the garden, and commented that it reminds her of gardens she saw on the kibbutzim in Israel because they look so similar. Her gift of those words affirmed that the character of the Biblical Garden is transmitting exactly the message intended, that Temple Sinai is a congregation with our roots firmly planted in the soil of our heritage in Israel.
As we prepare for our spiritual homecoming on the High Holidays, we can be vine dressers who cultivate a harvest of personal and congregational renewal that will enable us to be inscribed yet again in the Book of Life, for a good and sweet New Year.
Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field.
Over seventy species of brambles, thistles, briers and other thorny, prickly plants grow among the flora of Israel. In the verse from Genesis above, God curses the ground as he expels Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, and sends Adam forth to till the soil.
As agriculture developed in the Middle East and ancient grains were domesticated, thistles and other weedy opportunists took advantage of newly-disturbed soil and established themselves, forming dense, impenetrable stands that competed with field crops and forage plants for precious water and nutrients. Thorns, prickles and sharp spines defended these plants from grazing by flocks of goats and sheep in Abraham’s time, as they do today.
The Biblical Garden includes colorful specimens of thorns and thistles native to Israel, including vibrant red barberry bushes, Centaury-thistles, and the Globe thistle beloved of goldfinches. This spring, Mrs. Carter’s 4th and 5th grade religious school class planted seeds of Silybum marianum, “milk thistle,” which have sprouted and are now transplanted into the garden. This herb is prickly indeed and has been used in Bible lands as a folk remedy for thousands of years.
Now as we complete the counting of the Omer and move toward Shavuot, the revelation of Torah at Sinai, our gardens call us to be busy with water and compost and the fragrant earth to plant new green life. We are reminded as well to be open to the wisdom given in our sacred texts.
Rabbi Janet Marder writes: Shavuot celebrates the moments when wisdom and truth come to us, in our own time, in our own way…Three thousand years ago our people stood in a vast and silent desert, at the foot of a mountain, and in the silence they saw and heard something that convinced them that the universe itself is no accident – that life has beauty and meaning and purpose; and that life must be lived as if it matters.
But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish in the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the Eternal has done this? In God’s hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.
Job 12: 7-10
Gardeners derive much spiritual sustenance from creating beauty, abundance and meaning as we till and plant and tend a patch of ground. In the Biblical Garden, and in our own gardens, we may even sense a connection with the land and the ancestorswho have passed down to us an immutable covenant with the Eternal. Yet it is also important to spend time in untamed nature, to discover what the wild places can tell us about ourselves and our place in the natural world.
It’s been observed that today’s children can recognize 100 corporate logos and fewer than 10 plants. Richard Louv, in his book The Last Child in the Woods reminds us that children, especially, need unstructured play outdoors. They need time to scramble over rocks, splash in creeks, collect bugs and runfreely along the shore, time to breathe and grow and connect with truths that only nature can teach.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that “Awareness of the divine begins with wonder.” Wonder is discovered and cultivated in nature. In the coming summer months, we can give our children, and ourselves, opportunities to look, really look, at the vastness of the night sky, to discover a woodland salamander under a rotted log, or watch an osprey dive into a river and come up with a fish. Take a child to a woodland, a seashore, a forest. Better yet, let a child take you. Be awe-struck. Be amazed.
Catherine Walters, who died in July 2017, was Temple Sinai's Biblical Gardener. She shared her thoughts and wisdom about discovering the Bible in leaf, root and stem right here each month.