Wormwood and Self-Examination

(Self justification can lead us down the road from chet to zadon, from carelessness to willful defiance, from rosh to la’anah; September 2018)

Every year shortly before Rosh Hashanah, we read the Torah portion Nitzavim, which includes the following provocative metaphor for the danger of reviving the idolatrous and infanticidal religious practices of the Canaanites:

“If perhaps there is among you a man or a woman or a family or a tribe whose heart turns away this day from the Lord to go serve the gods of those nations, if perhaps there is among you a root producing fruit of rosh and la’anah.” (Deuteronomy 29:17)

What are ‘rosh’ and ‘la’anah’? There is virtually unanimous agreement that ‘la’anah’ refers to wormwood (Artemisia species), a potentially toxic drug plant and pasture weed. One species (Artemisia absinthum) is used to flavor absinthe and vermouth, and another (A. dracunculus) is the safely edible culinary herb tarragon. Judean wormwood (A. alba), an especially toxic species native to the Judean desert, is the most likely candidate for this metaphor.

The identity of ‘rosh’ is less clear. It also seems to be a poisonous or drug plant, and its name, meaning ‘head,’ suggests a round fruit. These clues point toward opium poppy (Papaver soniferum) or colocynth (Citrullus colocynthus), a toxic gourd that may be the species encountered by the prophet Elisha (II Kings 4:38-41). However, all Biblical uses of ‘rosh’ and ‘la’anah’ are metaphorical; the practical use of these plants is never mentioned. Furthermore, ‘rosh’ in the botanical sense is sometimes spelled differently from the word ‘rosh’ that means ‘head,’ so it is possible that these are two different words, as Briggs, et al.’s classic dictionary of Biblical Hebrew indicates. (See Brown, Francis, S.R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs. 1951. A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament. Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK. p. 912.). The name may originally have described the shape of the fruit, but in Biblical Hebrew generally, and in our verse in particular, ‘rosh’ may simply be a generic term for drug plants in general. For example, Amos 6:12 is consistent with the translation of ‘rosh’ as ‘drug plant:’ “For you have turned judgement to rosh and the fruit of righteousness to la’anah.”

Targum Onkelos, a Roman-period translation of the Torah into Aramaic, does not translate ‘rosh’ and ‘la’anah’ literally in our verse. Instead, it renders them as a sin in error (Hebrew ’chet’) and intentional sin (Hebrew ‘zadon’), respectively. How did Onkelos arrive at this interpretation?

A closer look at the plants involved can help to explain this reading. Wormwood is an invasive pasture weed. Because it is toxic to livestock, shepherds must abandon grazing lands that have been infested with this plant. These characteristics made it an ideal symbol of corruption and social decay to the early sheep-herding Israelites who first heard the Torah. It is easy to imagine Onkelos carrying this metaphor forward and seeing the aggressively spreading wormwood as a symbol of ‘zadon,’ or intentional sin.

The medicinal plants included under the category of ‘rosh,’ however, were grown or collected from the wild for various beneficial uses. Drugs derived from the opium poppy have long been used to relieve pain and enable sleep, and the colocynth is used even today in folk medicine as a treatment for diabetes. Like any drug, they can be misused or given at excessive dosages. According to one tradition, for example, Alexander the Great died of an accidental overdose of hellebore, an herb once used to treat heart disease. Thus, ‘rosh’ can represent ‘chet,’ an unintended offense resulting from carelessness or sloppy thinking or practice.

At this time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when we examine our deeds of the past year and look for ways to do better next year, we would do well to take the lessons of parshat Nitzavim and Onkelos’s interpretation to heart. It is all too easy to convince ourselves that we meant well, we only made a mistake, we haven’t really done anything wrong, and have no need to atone or apologize. This kind of self justification can lead us down the road from chet to zadon, from carelessness to willful defiance, from rosh to la’anah. Rather, at this time, we need to appraise ourselves humbly, critically, and honestly, without excuses. Only then can we know what we need to do to improve.

This article is based on an insight developed in collaboration with Dr. Avraham Becker.

September 14th, 2018 - Posted in Holidays, Nature in Biblical Metaphor, Yom Kippur | 5 Comments

5 Responses to 'Wormwood and Self-Examination'

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  1. Me'irah Iliinsky said, on September 16th, 2018 at 12:25 am:

    Shalom Jon! Good article. So far, it has humbled me more than anything else I have read about the holidays… I wish you had pictures of the plants accompanying the article, but I guess if no one is exactly sure of what they are, that would be hard. Thank you!
    G’mar Hatimah Tovah!
    Rabbi Me’irah Iliinsky

  2. Marion Stein said, on September 16th, 2018 at 9:58 am:

    Wishing you a ??? ????? ????
    Marion Stein
    PS Hope to make it to one of your lectures soon. Will be away on 10/21

  3. Jon said, on September 17th, 2018 at 8:29 pm:

    Thank you, Me’irah. I will try to add a picture of Judean wormwood or one of the other wormwood species.
    Gamar Chatiamh tovah,
    Jon

  4. Shani Paley said, on September 26th, 2018 at 1:59 pm:

    If “rosh” is a plant that produces mind-altering substances, then “head” is a very fitting name.

  5. Jon said, on September 26th, 2018 at 10:33 pm:

    Nice observation, Shani! Of course, not all of these drug plants are psychotropic. Some are poisons, or can be used to relieve pain or induce sleep, etc., but the conjunction of meaning in ‘rosh’ as a description of the shape of the plant and its effects is wonderful.

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