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Poppy in Jewish Herbalism
A Guest Post with Herbalist Naomi Spector
I’ve had the delight of getting to know herbalist, plant historian, and educator Naomi Spector over the last year. She is a skilled researcher and wisdom holder and when I heard she was working on a book, The Jewish Book of Flowers, I couldn’t wait to read it.
After 3 years of writing, this book is ready to be published! Naomi is choosing to self-publish, which gives her more control over her work, but the cost of printing is quite high. Please consider pre-ordering her book to support its release. She also just launched a beautiful Jewish Flower Card Deck. A further way to support her work is through her GoFundMe.
She has graciously shared an excerpt from her book with us, please enjoy part of her chapter on Poppy:
Poppies grow wild over Spain, where part of my family lives, and across much of North Africa, Southwest Asia and the Mediterranean. Each time I see their vibrant blossoms dancing in the wind I am reminded of my childhood, and my soul feels comforted.
Shoah survivor Uriah Katzenelenbogen connects the poppy with memories of life in the shtetls of Lithuania in a Yizkor book:
“As if a wild fire, the poppy flowers of the familiar fields chase you. And you remember the cut, thorny fields and the puddles in the shtetl.”
The poppy represents Jewish survival. Jews around the world cook and bake with poppy seeds. On Purim in particular, many Jews enjoy poppy seed desserts, from Ashkenazi poppy seed hamantaschen to Persian nan-e berenji.
Jews eat poppyseeds on Purim to honor Queen Esther, a young Jew who was forced to join the harem of the mighty Persian king Ahasuerus. While the king liked Esther and admired her beauty, he had no idea she was Jewish. In order to keep kosher but avoid revealing herself as a Jew, Esther survived on a diet of legumes and seeds, including poppy seeds, while she lived in the palace.
Esther learned from her cousin Mordecai that the king’s top advisor, Haman, had received Ahasuerus’ permission to kill all the Jews in the land. Esther decided to take a great personal risk and reveal herself to the king, and beg him to spare her people.
She knew that she was forbidden to approach the king without permission, upon pain of death. She was also painfully aware that the last Queen, Vashti, had been dethroned because she had once disobeyed an order from the king. Yet Esther summoned all of her courage and declared: “I shall go to the king, though it is contrary to the law; and if I am to perish, I shall perish!”
King Ahasuerus was so enamored of Esther and moved by her words that he reversed the decree, and the Jews were saved. To this day, Jews celebrate her bravery by eating poppy seeds on Purim. The humble little poppy seed sustained and nourished Esther so that she could survive to fight for the survival of her people.
May we be as numerous as poppy seeds, and as great
Many years later, legendary mystic and healer Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, also known as the Baal Shem Tov, spoke of the poppy in the days leading to his death.
Baalei Shem were healers that worked with Kabala, psalms and herbs. Baal means owner and shem is name. They worked with the names of G-d to bring healing.
During the years of his life in 18th-century Ukraine, many Jews believed the Baal Shem Tov had been sent to them to guide and support the community during a time of heightened oppression and violence. He knew this, and must have been keenly aware that his people were terrified to lose him.
The Baal Shem Tov gathered his loved ones around his deathbed, and spoke these words of hope to them: “The righteous souls that come after me will be as the leaves on the trees. The Tsadikim will be as numerous as poppy seeds, and as great.”
Who was the Baal Shem Tov?
This poem, translated by Murray Citron, is an early sonnet by Yiddish poet Itzik Manger (1898–1968). The subject of the poem, legendary mystic and healer Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, was affectionately known as the Baal Shem Tov, meaning “One with the Good Name.” The Baal Shem was beloved as a Tzadik, a righteous soul. He was a powerful healer who was deeply knowledgeable of plants and animals, famous for his tremendous wonder of and reverence for the natural world.
Baal Shem The Baal Shem marvels at the village edge. The evening tugs his cloak. And fireflies And planets, stars and comets light his eyes– A golden sight across the somber sedge. A golden vision on the field of night. Three times holy. He goes down on his knees And drinks its spirit in like melodies Blown down the steppe from the far mountains’ height. And drunken with the colors and the glory, He waits until a prayer lights his face, Alone with the night, three times beautiful, And rushes back to town to tell the story. He calls in darkened streets his words of praise: The world is holy and three times three times cool.
The poppy in Jewish herbalism
The poppy seed is a beautiful symbol of the fertility and longevity of the Jewish people.
Indeed, in Jewish tradition, the poppy seed is believed to enhance fertility and is associated with babies and infants. In addition to sunflower and flax seeds, poppy seeds were taken in Ashkenazi communities to treat infertility.
Ashkenazi Jews would give poppy seed tea to babies to soothe them if they were unable to sleep or were crying. Yemenite Jews used the fruit of the poppy to make a soothing and sleep-inducing tea. According to Maimonides, poppy is a soporific, meaning an herb that helps you fall asleep. This connects to the name for poppy seed in Judezmo, the language of the Jews of Spain, which is dormidera, meaning ‘sleeper,’ or ‘one that helps you sleep.’
Shabbetai Donolo, a famous Greek and Italian Jewish doctor and astrologist (born in Italy in 913 AD), named poppy one of the important resins for the pharmacist in preparing medications, mainly to treat malaria and poisoning. Opium, the extract of the poppy, was known to be dangerous in large amounts but was used by Jewish communities across Southwest Asia and North Africa in varied medicinal ways, for example to ease tooth extraction.
The seed pod, which is the part of the plant used for opium, is the strongest for making a pain-relieving poppy tincture. Some of the traditional Jewish remedies discussed in this chapter feature the poppy seeds, and others the seed pod. If you buy dried poppy seeds at the store, they may be nourishing and delicious, but they will not have the same pain-relieving potency as using the fresh plant.
Maimonides wrote a lovely profile of the poppy seed and its properties:
“Poppy seeds are cold, edible, harmless, induce sleep, and help to reduce a fever.”
To continue reading…
It is my hope in writing this book to inspire fellow Jews to relearn and reclaim the plant traditions of our ancestors as we attempt to heal our relationship with the Earth. In this time of devastating climate change, we must look inward to recognize and uproot the sick belief so many of us hold that the Earth can be endlessly exploited for our benefit. Many faith traditions teach that people are responsible for caring for the health of the land, ensuring the flowers and the pollinators can do their vital work and continue to feed us. We have a responsibility to tend to the land as shomrei adamah, or guardians of the land. Learning about our ancestors' plant traditions and how they healed with plants, the songs they sang about plants, and the stories they told about them, can ground us and deepen our connection to the Earth. — Naomi Spector