(This post went out a little earlier than planned. I pressed the wrong button! My mistake. I’d originally planned for it to appear about five days from now, a week before erev Tu b’Shvat.)
FIGS, DATES, LAUREL, AND MYRRH
Lytton John Musselman
forward by Garrison Keillor
Timber Press, © 2007; US $24.95
The holiday of “Tu b’Shvat” begins this year (2013) on Fri. night, 1/25 (which is also erev Shabbat) and continues until sundown, 1/26. For more information about the holiday itself, see:
For now, it’s enough to say that an alternative name of the holiday is “The New Year of the Trees,” commemorating the period in Israel when the sap begins flowing, signaling the earliest moments of the return of Spring and the growing season.
The Bible (both TaNaCh and the uniquely Christian Scriptures) mentions numerous plants, fruits, flowers, etc. Some years ago, I found myself wondering why Torah clearly states that “acacia wood” ["atzei shittim" in Hebrew] is required for the building of the Mishkan. No reason is given. Yet, it’s clear that no other wood can be used; there must have been a reason at the time.
I started looking into it. I even called the Bronx (now “New York”) Botanical Gardens to see if anyone could give me an explanation — even of what “acacia wood” actually is! I read several different books about the Mishkan, each of which gave some useful details that could provide parts of a possible explanation.
That further led me to an interest in other plants, fruits, etc., that are mentioned in Scripture. I thought it would make a good book. Of course, it turns out that there are several already.
“Figs, Dates, Laurel and Myrrh” is a recent book, listing and describing plants “of the Bible and the Quran” in alphabetical order from “acacia” to “wormwood.” The text is over 300 pages (not counting preface, introduction, etc.), so there’s plenty of information to be gleaned from it. The author, a professor of Botany, comes to this project with a substantial background. He also demonstrates strong knowledge of both Biblical texts and the differing interpretations of them (I can’t judge his knowledge of the Quran, but I’m sure it’s comparable).
As informative as this book is, it’s written for the general public. It’s readable; the information is “accessible.” While it could be used in a class, I wouldn’t — strictly speaking — call this a “text-book,” with all the negative implications that can sometimes have.
Each chapter is accompanied by color photographs of the plants being described.
Is a “botanical” knowledge of the Bible or Quran absolutely necessary for devotional purposes? Probably not. One can love G-d without knowing that much about flora. But awareness of details, in deepening our familiarity with Biblical texts (I’m sure this is true of the Quran as well), can become part of our personal involvement with them. The details help us create clearer mental images of what the texts are describing to us. They can “bring us further in” to the texts and bring the texts further “into” us.
The rabbis discussed these things for the spiritual and moral lessons that could be drawn from them. But, as Rabbi Joseph Gelberman, z”l, used to say, “Never ‘instead of’. Always ‘in addition to’.” So, “botanical” knowledge of the texts doesn’t preclude homiletic or “midrashic” understanding of them, and vice versa.
Who might find this book particularly useful?
Those involved in religious education — Jewish, Christian and/or Muslim. It might be a book read by students, or one from which teachers can create individual lessons. Especially with students who already have a general interest in trees, plants, flowers, etc., educational activities about these things can help attract students’ interest and attention. Rabbis and other clergy could certainly draw on the book for instruction and interpretation. Artists might find use for it in the illustration or decoration of texts.
It might also be an interesting part of an “interfaith” curriculum, or one in which members of one faith explore the literature and references within another.
This is a highly informative, useful, interesting book.
 A. albida (species of acacia), also called Faidherbia albida — the type of wood used in building the Mishkan/tabernacle; image from