Discover more from Rabbi & The Herbalist
Nettle: Of Bloodlines and Milk Lines
Urtica spp.— סִּרְפָּד / Sirpad
Smoke enveloped me, a slow piercing chant was the sun coming through clouds of tobacco smoke. I was stripped down to my boxers and the elderly healer started hitting me with a bundle of nettles. The intensity jumped with every touch— stinging, exhilarating, clearing. My body sang and tingled for hours. I was in Ecuador to learn from an indigenous Kichwa community in the Amazonian jungle, and this was a limpia, a traditional cleansing ritual meant to remove spiritual and energetic blockages.
When tribes throughout the Amazon are asked some variation of, “How do you know these plants are good for these health issues”, they often respond that Ayahuasca told them. Ayahuasca is a psychedelic brew made from cooking the vine of Banisteriopsis caapi with DMT-containing leaves from either chakruna (Psychotria viridis) or chaliponga (Diplopterys cabrerana). As an herbalist fascinated with plants and plant communication, I had already been drinking Ayahuasca for several years with elders visiting the US, and now I was finally in Ecuador and in the jungle.
In many ways, I found a spiritual home in the cultures that pray with Ayahausca. A friend once shared with me an old Celtic idea that we have both bloodlines and milk lines. Bloodlines are our direct ancestry, while milk lines are traditions that aren’t tied by blood, but that feed, nourish, and raise us nonetheless. I was firmly engaged with this South American milk line, while largely neglecting my bloodlines.
For almost a decade, the extent of my Jewish involvement was a few years of participation in a Jewish goat co-op. I’d fallen fully in love with herbalism, plant medicine, and earth-based spirituality, and let my Judaism wither away in the garden of my heart.
During the last of our four all-night Ayahuasca ceremonies, Ayahuasca clearly communicated a message and a feeling, along the lines of “Keep walking this path, this is a good path, but you need to find your roots. You need to engage with your Judaism.” It was unexpected, and I even had some resistance to the idea. But I also sensed that perhaps there is only so far we can go inside of ourselves before we have to turn around and face our ancestors. This was the beginning of my turning, my teshuvah.
סִּרְפָּד— Nettle in Hebrew
Nettles, which started my first trip in Ecuador, already felt like a dear friend and was one of the first wild plants I ever harvested. Nettles also became a part of my reclamation of Jewishness. As I learned later in the wonderful book Ashkenazi Herbalism, the deliberate and medicinal flogging with nettles, called urtification, is also an Ashkenazi practice that was widespread throughout the Pale of Settlement where the majority of Eastern European Jews lived, and it was used to stimulate bloodflow and to treat body aches, colds, arthritis, and more. This plant I already loved deeply, suddenly felt like kin.
Jewish knowledge of nettles goes far back, beyond Eastern Europe. Nettles also can be found growing in the lusher parts of Israel. We find a naming convention across cultures and languages for nettles. The latin name Urtica derives from the Latin urere meaning "to burn, singe”. The German is brennnessel, meaning burning nettle. And similarly, the Hebrew name for the plant— סִּרְפָּד/sirpad— comes from the root ש-ר-ף, meaning “to burn” (I’m guessing the shin ש and the samech ס are interchangeable here because they both sound the same).
סִּרְפָּד is only found once in the Torah, Isaiah 55:13:
Instead of the brier, a cypress shall rise;
Instead of the nettle, a myrtle shall rise.
These shall stand as a testimony to the Lord,
As an everlasting sign that shall not perish.
I don’t need Rashi to tell me this verse does not cast nettles in a good light! Most commentators compare the brier and nettle to the wicked and the cypress and myrtle to the righteous. Or as Ibn Ezra simply states, “The fir is undoubtedly better than the thorn.”
I also came across a fun Yiddish story that echos the prophecies of Isaiah. Called Of Nettles and Roses, the story follows a beautiful princess and her evil step-sister. Of course the magical pond they encounter gives the princess many gifts, including roses that spring from the ground she steps on. But for the not-so-lucky step-sister, nettles grow from her path.
These two rather maligning written accounts are balanced by the very real food and medicinal uses this herb was known for back then and still today. While some folks see only a stinging nuisance, those of us that know see a powerful medicine and nourishing wild edible. As for me, I would gladly take a nettle plant for every step I place!
Nettles as Food and Medicine
Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) and it’s cousin burning nettle (Urtica urens) grow wild over large parts of the US, particularly abundant in places with plenty of rain like the Pacific Northwest and the East Coast. With shade and water they also grow easily in gardens almost everywhere.
For the last several years I’ve tended a patch of nettles in a corner of my garden in Colorado, where they are the first perennial to pop up as the snow melts in the spring. Nettles are a highly nutritive and delicious spring green that I sauté or add to soups or pesto. Green soup or green borscht is a popular Ashkenazi and Eastern European soup made from nettles and other wild greens.
I also enjoy fresh nettles juiced or blended— this may be the most potent method of taking nettles because none of the incredible chemistry in the needles is degraded by heat. Nettles are also used fresh or dried as a tea or tincture, often for allergy and asthma relief.
I prefer to use them fresh because there’s more potency than when they’re dried, but make sure to harvest your nettles before they go to seed, or regularly trim them to prevent flowering. Kidney-irritating cystoliths begin to accumate in the leaves once they’ve reached this stage.
Even after this stage, you can continue using this plant for medicine by harvesting the seeds, which are considered trophorestoritive— nourishing and balancing— to the kidneys and adrenals. And the roots reportedly increase hair growth, though I have no personal experience here.
There are so many ways to medicinally employ nettles that herbalist David Hoffman famously said— “When in doubt, use nettle.” But my favorite way to use this versatile plant continues to be for urtification— as a stinging balm for my stiff neck and back or for a coworker’s arthritic hands.
Beyond being a connection to my ancestors and the Old World, nettles are also a personal symbol for me of the work we’re all doing to explore, rediscover, and connect with the beautiful ways Judaism is/was/can be a deeply earth-based spirituality. On hikes with my Kichwa friends at their lodge deep in the jungle, I witnesses for the first time a culture still integrated with the land and the land’s other-than-human inhabitants. It’s not just their knowledge about, but their relationship with the plants and animals, the bodies of water and the stones, that brought me to tears. It’s no longer a surprise to me that their medicine connected me back to my roots. Ayahuasca is a Kichwa word that means Vine of the Soul, or Vine of the Ancestors.
How does our connection to our culture, our roots, our bloodline change how we interact with other cultures? Particularly cultures we are drawn to spiritually?
Does our relationship with a plant change when we learn that our ancestors also had a relationship with this plant? If so, how and why?
A recipe for Ukrainian nettle soup
A truly great podcast about nettles with one of my herbal heroes, David Winston
Thanks for reading Rabbi & The Herbalist! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.