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Iyar Herbalism: Harvesting as Prayer
It’s spring, and I’m in the forest. The grasses are newly green and fresh with the last melting snow, I can smell the sun mixing with the pine needles underfoot, and the wet musk of the earth in the forest. I hear the birds, they are louder than I remembered, and beautiful after a quiet winter.
I am walking in the forest. As I am walking in the forest I see my favorite spring flower: pulsatilla. The flower that symbolizes the end of winter. The flower that opens my heart when I see it, cracks it open, thaws it, like meeting an old dear friend after many years apart. The flower that reminds me of all the wonders alive in the forest.
I kneel down to be with the flower, and then I am sitting on the forest floor. I take a long moment to appreciate the beauty of this flower, and feel the joy it brings me. Breathing in the fresh air and feeling the warmth of the sun on my face.
As I gaze at the flower, I feel shifts in my mind and body, as I release tension and open myself to gratitude, reverence, relationship in the forest. From this place I ask permission to harvest a few flowers from this stand for medicine.
I slowly, reverently begin to harvest. And I know this will be good medicine, but I’m also remembering, that:
sometimes, gathering the medicine is the medicine sometimes, gathering the medicine is the medicine
Around this time in Colorado I start to remember these things, I wake up to the beauty of being in relationship with our green friends again. Spring is a yearly invitation to the profound delights found in wildcrafting, or just sitting with plants.
As I’ve been slowly tuning myself to the Hebrew calendar, I’m grateful for the wisdom I stumble upon almost everywhere. We’re in the month of Iyar right now, known as the healing moon, or the month of natural healing, and we learn from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov that this month is also associated with healing herbs and is a particularly good time to harvest medicinal plants. This is the time of year when the earth gives its power most to trees and plants. The Rebbe shares that this is why the Hebrew letters of Iyar אִייָר are the same as the first letters of the words “Ani Hashem Rofecha”-- I am G!D your healer (Exodus 15:26).
In agricultural time, Iyar is located entirely between the barley and wheat harvests in ancient Israel, so it is a season of literally being in the midst of harvest. The 7 weeks between these harvests is referred to as the Omer, which means sheaf and comes from the tradition of bringing the first sheaves of the harvest to the Temple in an offering of gratitude. Counting of the Omer is a way to bring intention and awareness to the significance of harvest. The mystical level of the counting of the Omer is often thought of as a time of spiritual harvest.
This month of Iyar, learning more about the counting of the Omer, and my yearly springtime remembering has me examining my own practices around harvesting and herbalism. Similar to the important grain harvests, harvesting medicinal plants is a sacred and relational act. While there are many ways I sit with and pray with plants, I’ve been wondering lately what it would look like to incorporate my Jewishness into my harvesting practices. I want to speak Hebrew words in wilderness.
And so I posed the question to my rabbi brother Jay: “Is there a Hebrew blessing/prayer I could say before harvesting herbs? If not, how would you go about crafting something like this?”
Herbal Text Study with Jay
Once Ben shared his desire to use a Jewish harvesting blessing, I set about poking through the ancestral texts. One blessing kept coming up related to herbs: Baruch atah havayah, eloheinu melech ha’olam, borei isvei b’samim. “Blessed are You, God/Being, sovereign power of the world, who creates the fragrant grasses/herbs.” Instead of simply being the answer to our quest for a blessing, though, it raised a number of new questions for me.
Question #1: Why “fragrant” (or “aromatic”) herbs? What about non-fragrant herbs?
Answer: This blessing is for smelling herbs! Every source that I’ve found so far assumes when we talk about herbs, we are talking about smelling them.
Question #2: If this blessing is intended for smelling herbs, what do we do about other ways herbs are used? The outline below walks through my attempt to bring some order to Jewish blessings for herbal use, highlighting both where traditional language exists and where it does not.
What is the Hebrew word for herb?
Esev - grass (and basically all plants. In plural, asavim, in construct with another noun, isvei). The broad distinction is between tree-like plants and non-tree-like plants. This is the latter.
Tavlin - spice. There is a talmudic passage that says Torah is a tavlin (remedy?) for the yetzer hara (our harmful or ego-satisfying instincts).
Besamim - spices/aromatics. Used in the havdalah blessing at the end of Shabbat.
Samim - spices / medicinals (sometimes translated as elixir, potion, drugs… Torah is sometimes referred to as a sam chaim, spice/elixir of life. Also, Torah is sometimes referred to as a sam mavet, an elixir of death - if used incorrectly.)
Terufah - medicine (presumably herbal medicine back in the day. In Midrash Devarim Rabbah 1:1, this word is punned with torah and peh “mouth” to teach that Torah heals the tongue.)
Isvei tavlin or Tzimchei tavlin (mostly for kitchen herbs. Tzemach is a growing thing.)
What is the category of an herb?
Food - a subset of vegetables (pri ha’adamah).
Jay asks: “Ben, what is the technical definition of an herb? In practice, does it include spices, mushrooms, and other non-vegetal things?”
Ben replies: “Yes, in practice the category of medicinal herbs include barks, mushrooms, spices, even rock exudate (shilajit).”
Jay says: “This is a category problem for Jewish perception - our typical use of the word herb crosses the bounds of the various categories of things blessed. Or every non-vegetable herb would just be lumped under the category of medicine.”
Medicine - something you might ingest or use other ways, but wouldn’t ordinarily eat for the sake of basic nutrition or gustatory satisfaction (i.e. it tastes good).
What blessings do we have that encompass the various ways we interact with herbs?
Planting seeds - none
Tending to the herbs - none
Harvesting the herbs - none
Smelling the herbs (Mishnah Torah, Hilchot Berachot 9:1; Talmud Bavli Berachot 43a-b)
borei atzei b’samim for trees and tree-derived products
borei isvei b’samim for plants and plant-derived products
borei minei b’samim for general, mixed, or unclear
Seeing flowering trees - (ibid.) shelo chisar ba’olamo kloom v’vara vo bri’ot tovot v’ilanot tovot l’hei’anot bahen b’nei adam. Who didn’t cause anything to be lacking in the world and in it created good creations and good trees to be beneficial/pleasurable for humans.
Eating herbs as food
Borei pri haadamah
Shehakol (the general blessing for food)
Ingesting herbs as medicinals
Flavored - Shehakol
Unflavored - none but you can say a blessing like Yehi ratzon l’refuah- May this be for healing. (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 61:4)
Using herbs topically - none. Although there are blessings on oil (see Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Berachot chapter 9).
Singing to the herbs / with the herbs - With our rich tradition of niggunim (wordless meditative melodies) and these beautiful words from Rebbe Nachman, I suggest spontaneous, ecosystem-informed singing as both an offering and a prayer:
Each and every shepherd has his own special melody,
according to the grasses and specific location where he is grazing…
His melody is dictated by the grasses and place he pastures.
Each and every grass blade has a song which it sings.
And from the grass’s song,
the shepherd’s melody is created.
(Likutei Moharan 63:1:2)
Weaving Our Prayer Basket
The creative use of what is here and the thoughtful addition of what’s not here in the various elements laid out by Jay are a good starting place as we develop a personal language for sacred herbalism from a Jewish perspective.
I am drawn to the prayer most often mentioned in the texts, borei isvei besamim. I actually love that it’s primary intention is all about smell, as scent is such a potent sense for me when in the woods or harvesting, and scent helps me drop out of my head and into my body and heart.
As a way of expanding the blessing isvei besamim beyond smell, as well, we could use David Abram’s exploration of synaesthesia in The Spell of the Sensuous. We are open systems, our diverging senses converge on the herb (in this case) and complete us (re-integrate us). We encounter the herb as an animate other.
Or said another way, by the late herbalist Stephen Harrod Buhner in his book The Lost Language of Plants: “That we take plant words in through our nose or our skin or our eyes or our tongue instead of our ears does not make their language less subtle, or sophisticated, or less filled with meaning.”
I’ll start with this prayer, but modify it slightly to include the Hebrew word for the divine-embodied-feminine, Shekhinah, who in the mystical Jewish tradition is, at times, considered the Earth Mother. I’ll also include one of my favorite words for Spirit, Ruach, because this Hebrew word means spirit, but also wind and breath, reminding me that my breath and my prayer said aloud are profoundly connected to the breathing of the forest and the wind that is unseen but felt and smelled. I also like Yehi ratzon l’refuah– May this be for healing– as a way to keep my intention on the medicine and who I plan to share it with. My prayer might look like:
בְּרוּכָה אַתְּ יָה שְׁכִינָה רוּחַ הָעוֹלָם בּוֹרֵא עִשְׂבֵי בְּשָׂמִים יְהִי רָצוֹן לִרְפוּאָה
Brucha at Yah Shechinah, Ruach ha’olam, borai isvay besamim. Yehi ratzon l’refuah.
Thank you, Earth Mother, Great Spirit of the world, who creates aromatic plants. May this be for healing.
In saying this prayer next time I harvest, perhaps I will continue to connect with my Jewish ancestors and continue healing the part of me that doesn’t always see a place for my Jewishness alongside my earth-based spirituality. Just as our ancestors harvested herbs and grains, so too can we harvest– with respect, intention, and reciprocity.
sometimes, gathering the medicine is the medicine
How would you construct a Hebrew prayer for harvesting herbs? Do you have one already?
What changes for you, if anything, when you pray in Hebrew?
Know that when a person prays in the field, then all of the grasses/plants together come into the prayer, and they help him, and give him strength within his prayer. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, (Likkutei Moharan 2:11)