The Secret Sage-Scented History of the Menorah

On successive trips to Israel beginning in the 1980s, I became enchanted with the country’s native wild salvias, thought to be the inspiration for the biblical menorah described in Exodus (37:17-24). In my travels I saw them growing by the roadside, on hillsides, and in the Negev desert, as well as at Neot Kedumim, the 620-acre Biblical Landscape Reserve between Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv founded by Ephraim and Hannah Hareuvenis’ brilliant son, Nogah (the older Hareuvenis were its inspiration).

Once, I was riding in a bus traveling southward with a group of other plant and herb enthusiasts from around the country when our trip leader, the late botanist and my mentor, Avinoam Danin, signaled for us to stop. Everyone got out and tasted the small apples, actually plant galls, that grow on some salvia species, like the three-leafed sage, also known as Greek sage (Salvia fruticosa), before us.

Caused by the sting of wasps, the galls do no great harm, but they alter the plant’s growth. This results in a slight deformity that echoes the biblical description of the menorah, having knobs that grow directly out from the stem as though “of one piece with it.” In ancient times these apples were an item of brisk trade between Cretans and Israelites, as suggested in the Hebrew word for knob, kaftor, also thought to be the ancient name for Crete, where three-leafed sage is common. Even today, dried plant galls are sold in Crete, often preserved with sugar, and are highly regarded as a sweetmeat with healing properties.

How green is the description of the first menorah?

We have only to look at the Bible itself. Hammered out of a single piece of gold by Bezalel, a craftsman of the first order, “Its stem and branches were of hammered work; its calyxes, knobs and flowers were of one piece with it. There were six branches stemming from its sides: three from one side, three from the other …

The text has such a botanical air about it that it seems reasonable to assume a real plant, growing from real dirt, served as a model for the biblical seven-branched menorah on which our Hanukkah menorah, or more properly, hannukia, was modeled. The only difference is that the holiday one adds two extra branches for a total of nine: four branches on each side of a main stem. This is to accord with the Talmud’s prohibition against copying the original menorah, which later stood in the holy Temple.

It was not until the early 20th century, however, that Ephraim and Hannah Hareuveni came up with likely floral candidates as the model for the menorah. In their conviction that the plants of the Bible could be found growing in the soil of Israel, they pioneered a new approach to the entire subject of identifying biblical flora. Botanists who emigrated from Russia to the yishuv (settlement in Palestine) in the early 1900s, the Hareuvenis were driven by the belief that these plants were green artifacts that continued to hold the answer to their biblical identity long after Jews were dispersed to many lands and the plants’ names and symbolism had been largely forgotten.

They searched the countryside, on hillsides, in valleys and in the desert for a likely plant model for the menorah as described in Exodus. They discovered that Israel is rich in salvias or sages (over twenty types), and that several among them bear a remarkable resemblance to the basic design of the bible’s menorah, not only when dried and pressed (when the calyxes, the envelope that holds the blooms, are very prominent), but even when the plants are growing in the ground.

Salvias are members of the mint family, which means they have square-sided stems and are usually strongly aromatic, their leaves rich in essential oils. The menorah salvias are perennial small shrubs, growing from two and half to three feet tall and are often heavily musk-scented, attracting bees to their blooming flowers. These are small and two-lipped, ranging in color from light yellow to pinks, lilacs and violet-purple, growing prolifically around the plant’s stem in showy whorls from distinctive calyxes. Leaves, usually rough in texture and tapered, occur mainly at the base of the plant. This allows the branches to show off their esthetically pleasing menorah-like design without distractions. The Hareuvenis gave the native salvias the Hebrew name moriah for the hill country, land of Moriah in the Bible, where they flourish and where Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22:2).

As a group, salvias represent a virtual pharmacopeia of herbal uses. Their Latin genus name, Salvia, is derived from salveo, meaning “I save.” From ancient times, sage was employed to treat everything from snake bites and warts to infertility and amnesia. The salvia whose ‘apples’ I tasted is widely used among Israeli Arabs and Jews from Arab lands to treat, among other ailments, stomachache and earache, and as a diuretic. Herbal doctors in the Middle East use this sage to regulate menstruation, enhance fertility, strengthen the muscles of the womb before and after childbirth and to treat problems associated with menopause. Possibly anti-bacterial in action, salvias may have other, yet undiscovered, applications.

My favorite salvia among the natives is Salvia dominica, pungent sage. It grows, among other places, in batha, a Hebrew term meaning “desolation,” derived from the Book of Isaiah to describe deforested areas in the hill country with thin, rocky soil. Such habitats provide satisfactory growing conditions for a surprising number of native plants in Israel, including shrubby herbs like my pungent sage. This is a stunning presence, even when fleetingly viewed from a car window, as I first observed it among high cliffs as a strong silhouette outlined against a blue sky. When backlit on a sunny day the entire plant glows from the presence of many silky hairs on all its parts, a truly brilliant candelabra! Its leaves and calyxes are gray-green and silvery, its April-to-May flowers are light yellow and white — the total effect, dazzling.

It is not difficult to imagine this plant as a model for the Tabernacle menorah. In common with the other menorah-like salvias, it has a history of medicinal use. Its galls are called “little peach” in Arabic. My good friend Avinoam presented a stem of it to me on my second trip to Israel. It became for me a floral symbol of the land of Israel as well as a tribute to our friendship, through which I was encouraged to pursue the study of biblical plants.

I have grown some of the frost-tender native Israeli salvias as annuals in my cold northern Zone-4 garden from seeds sent to me by friends in Israel. Common cooking sage, Salvia officinalis is, fortunately, super hardy, reappearing each spring as an overwintered small shrub in my flower border. Although it lacks a menorah-like candelabra of branches, its rough-textured foliage — apple green when young, silvery in maturity — its strong scent, and small lilac blooms are nearly identical to the closely-related menorah salvias, especially to three-leafed sage, whose small green fruits I had tasted along the roadside in Israel. The leaves of this menorah sage are so similar in taste to hardy cooking sage that they are often used as a substitute. So even if you can’t see the menorah sages in the flesh, as it were, you can experience their beauty and herbal qualities through ordinary cooking sage, readily available in markets and as a plant to grow in your garden next season, unless you are lucky enough to already have it.

Gardeners in Zone 8 or warmer, moreover, can grow the beautiful hybrid Salvia officinalis x S. fruticosa, a cross between three-leafed sage and cooking sage, sold as Salvia Newe Ya’ar after the research station in Israel that developed it. It tolerates heat, humidity, and drought and is a hefty floriferous plant. Its leaves are reported to have better flavor than either parent and stay green when cooked. Plants are available from Plant Delights Nursery in Raleigh, North Carolina.

We may never know whether sage plants inspired the design for the ancient menorah, but the fact that they grow in many places in Israel today and answer so well to the Exodus description is very suggestive. Whatever plant, or plants, the author of the biblical text had in mind, the botanical puzzle reaffirms, in a most graphic way, the close ties between the people of ancient Israel and the plants of their everyday landscape. The very idea that the menorah, the oldest symbol of the Jewish people, actually springs from the soil, from a living and useful herb, gives the holiday fresh meaning.

Here’s to a green Hanukkah!

Sage-Inspired Recipes for the Hanukkah Season

The familiar tapered leaves of cooking sage are widely available from supermarkets and specialty stores, usually sold in small fresh bunches of young leaves (these have the best flavor, slightly camphoraceous and pungent). You can add its taste and soothing properties to the Hanukkah season by incorporating them into latkes, in a delicious herbal jelly to spread on challah, and in a soothing herbal tea.

Jo Ann’s Easy Latkes

Makes about 7

These are very light and hold together without adding flour or other thickening, other than the natural potato starch that you make yourself from grating the potatoes. If you like onion, grate some into the batter.

1 large potato or two medium-sized, grated on the largest holes in a hand-held grater
1 egg, well beaten
½–1 fresh sage leaf, well chopped
Salt and pepper
Cooking oil

1) Peel potatoes or not, as you wish. Grate potato into a medium-size bowl, then pour the grated potato into a thin, clean dish towel. Twist and squeeze it hard over a large measuring cup so as much of the liquid as possible is saved (important!). When the starch—like a thick white paste—settles to the bottom of the cup, discard the top liquid, then spoon the starch back into the grated potato.

2) Stir in the rest of the ingredients.

3) Heat what amounts to about ½-inch cooking oil in a heavy, preferably cast-iron, frying pan. When this is hot, drop in the potato mixture by tablespoonfuls. Cover the pan and turn down the heat. Fry latkes to a golden brown on one side, then flip to the other side.

4) Drain on brown bag paper and serve with apple sauce and sour cream for a dairy meal or with chicken or beef for a meat meal.

Sage-Apple Herb Jelly

Makes enough for about 5 8-ounce jelly jars or 10 4-ounce jelly jars

1½ cups fresh chopped sage leaves
2 cups apple cider
3 cups sugar
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 pouch liquid pectin

1) Pour the apple cider into a medium-size saucepan. Stir in the chopped sage. Cover, bring just to the boiling point, then quickly turn off the heat.

2) Let mixture stand about 10 minutes, occasionally bruising the leaves with the bottom of a glass to release their flavor.

3) Strain the mixture, adding water, if necessary, to bring the total amount to 1½ cups.

4) Stir in the sugar and vinegar, and bring to a rolling boil that can’t be stirred down. Stir in the liquid pectin and bring the mixture to a rolling boil once more. Continue boiling, stirring all the time, for 1 minute.

5) Remove pot from heat, let mixture subside, skimming if needed.

6) Pour into hot, scalded jelly jars and seal at once with hot, scalded lids and rings.

Adapted from my book Living With Herbs (1997, 2014).

Sage Tea

Makes one cup

Sage tea is not only relaxing and a natural digestive, but according to tradition it is regarded as a “brain herb,” fortifying and strengthening mental powers, surely a good reason to savor this herbal brew.

I gather fresh sage leaves as long as I can from my flower border to make this tea. Foliage is tough, lasting through mid-winter (I pick leaves through the snow, then cut off a branch or two to dry).

You will need:

Enough broken foliage to really stuff a tea ball (about 2-3 teaspoons)
Boiling water
Sliced lemon

1) Pour water over tea ball and sliced lemon. Let brew a few minutes, then remove the tea ball to a saucer. Let the tea ball steep a little longer for a stronger flavor. Add honey if you like. I also sometimes add a very small handful of dried chamomile flowers to the tea ball if I have them. This gives sage tea a mild sedative effect and adds a somewhat pineapple flavor to the brew.

Jo Ann Gardner is a writer living in the Adirondacks. She writes about herbs and gardening. Her latest book is Seeds of Transcendence: Understanding the Hebrew Bible Through Plants. She may be reached through her website joanngardnerbooks.com

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