Za’atar

ON LANGUAGE

By Philologos

Published April 28, 2006, issue of May 19, 2006.
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‘We will,” Ismail Haniyeh, the new, Hamas-nominated prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, announced recently, “eat za’atar, grass, and salt, but we will not give in or renounce our principles.”

How long Haniyeh expects his voters to keep going on such a diet is unclear. Not that za’atar isn’t good for you. It has been shown by medical studies to have antioxidant properties, and also to stimulate antimicrobial activity against such pathogenic microorganisms as Salmonella typhimurium and Staphylococcus aureus. Still, I wouldn’t recommend eating it with only grass and salt. Although it has a lovely fragrance and by itself does not taste unpleasant, it is far better when mixed with other things — e.g., added to a salad dressing, or else sprinkled on olive oil and sopped up with a piece of warm pita bread. That’s been my regular breakfast for years, and together with a cup of strong coffee I can’t think of a better one.

But just what, you ask, is za’atar — or simply nonitalicized “zatar” or “zaatar,” as it is usually spelled when sold in America? There’s some disagreement about that, because recipes for making this Arab herbal mix, besides including ground sesame seeds and often ground sumac, also call for either ground dried thyme, ground dried oregano or ground dried marjoram, or for some combination of them. This isn’t actually so surprising, because thyme, oregano and marjoram — especially the last two, which are often confused with each other — are closely related Mediterranean plants of the Labiatae family, which also includes mint and sage.

Among Palestinian Arabs, in any case, the word za’atar refers to both the condiment and the wild oregano plant from which its local variety is made. Israelis call the condiment za’atar, too, although in some of the commercially packaged Israeli preparations of it, it is advertised as “hyssop” or “holy hyssop.” This is a word that, so the dictionaries tell us, comes from Latin hyssopus, which comes from Greek, which in turn comes from a word of Semitic origin that is either the same as, or closely akin to, Hebrew ezov.

Ezov is a word that occurs several times in the Bible. We first encounter it in the account of the paschal sacrifice in the book of Exodus, in which the children of Israel are told, in the language of the King James Bible: “And ye shall take a bunch of hyssop [ezov], and dip it in the blood [of the sacrifice]… and strike the lintel [of your homes] and the two side posts….” Elsewhere in the Bible, the hyssop is mentioned as a plant used in rites of purification. There is no reference to its having been eaten, although the New Testament Gospel of John does tell us that Jesus’ followers gave him a “sponge of vinegar” and “put upon it hyssop” to ease his thirst when he was dying on the cross. (Hence the adjective “holy” that Christianity attached to it.) They may really have done so, or else John was simply using the hyssop as a symbol of what is lowly and humble, as it is referred to by the Book of Kings when it relates that King Solomon’s wisdom encompassed everything great and small, “from the cedar tree that is in Lebanon even unto the hyssop that groweth out of the wall.”

But is hyssop really zaatar? Not according to the same dictionaries that derive it from ezov; for hyssop, they say, is “a woody Eurasian plant (Hyssopus officinalis)” having “aromatic leaves used in perfumery and as a condiment,” whereas oregano is defined as the “perennial Eurasian herb Origanum vulgare.” Although both belong to the Labiatae group, they therefore would appear to be distinct from each other.

But just a minute. Hyssop officinalis, which grows widely in Southern Europe, is almost never found wild in Palestine, whereas Origanum vulgare is extremely common. (So much so that it grows wild in my own garden.) Moreover, as an article on hyssop in the Catholic Encyclopedia points out, the ancient Egyptian word supho, which definitely does mean “oregano,” would seem to be connected to ezov. Very likely, then, even though the word “hyssop” derives from ezov, it does so by a botanical confusion, and the biblical ezov is in fact oregano — which is, to say, zaatar.

True, I never have seen a wild oregano growing from between the stones in a wall, whereas many other perennial Mediterranean shrubs, such as caper plants, will do just that. Indeed, this is no doubt the reason that in later, post-biblical Hebrew, the meaning of ezov changed entirely and came to refer to moss, the wall-growing plant par excellence in European countries. And yet the biblical ezov is clearly not moss, and if the Book of Kings says that oregano can grow from walls, who am I to argue with the wisdom of Solomon?

Still, even if it’s a misnomer, I must say that I like the sound of “holy hyssop.” It goes down well with my morning coffee. If I could go on drinking that, and Ismail Haniyeh would agree to add some olive oil and pita, his regime would be quite livable. At least until it’s time for lunch.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.






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