What is the eshel tree that Abraham planted [1] and why did he select it over other trees? In many places in the vicinity of Beersheva a certain tree stands out. From afar its thick crown looks like grey-green pillows. Its heavy shade attracts passersby, shepherds and their flocks. One of its Arabic names in athal, very much like the Hebrew eshel; in Latin Taramix sp.; in English tamarisk.

Anyone sitting in the morning shade of the tamarisk feels its pleasant coolness. If the sojourner raises his eyes to the tree's branches, he will be surprised to discover shiny droplets of water on the thin branchlets. These droplets, most plentiful after a humid night, evaporate towards noon. A lick of the tamarisk's branches reveals its secret: tiny salt crystals are exuded by the tree into the leaves. At night as the moisture increases in the cooler air, the water vapor adheres to the hygroscopic salt particles and condenses into droplets. With morning, as the sun warms the air, the water evaporates and so cools the tamarisk's branches.

And he planted an eshel in Be'er Sheva, and he called the place in God's name — El Olam. [1]

It appears that the Patriarch Abraham did not simply plant any tree upon arriving in Be'er Sheva for a lengthy sojourn. He chose a tree whose shade is cooler than that of other trees. Moreover, the eshel can withstand heat and long dry spells by sending roots deep down to find underground water. Not surprisingly, the eshel remains to this day in the vicinity of Beersheva, its ancient biblical name preserved by both nations sprung from Abraham: the descendants of Ishmael and the descendent of Isaac.

It does not take great flights of fancy to assume that Abraham planted more than just one tamarisk. A tamarisk branch planted in damp soil, especially if that soil is sand or loess (as is the case in the vicinity of Be'er Sheva), will quickly send out roots and branches. If water is available during the first growing season , the roots will continue to seek out the damp soil strata and the tamarisk will continue to flourish without additional irrigation. Thus we can imagine that were Abraham settled he planted not one tree, but rather several trees, perhaps even a grove. The modern reader who can imagine an entire grove from the one word "tamarisk" still cannot compete with the rich imagination of the creators of the midrashim. The tamarisk, for all of its pleasant shade, is not a fruit bearing tree. The midrashic commentators therefore, wondered what refreshments Abraham had to offer his guests in the shade:

Reish Lakish said: "This teaches that he created an orchard and planted all sorts of choice fruit therein." [2]

Rabbi Judah says: Eshel means orchard. Ask what you will of it: figs, grapes and pomegranates. [3]

Rabbi Nehemiah really lets his imagination go, saying that the sojourner received from Abraham whatever his appetite desired: a loaf of bread, meat, wine and eggs." [4]

The delightful shade of the tamarisk is responsible for its widespread planting in other parts of Israel, Today, tamarisks are frequently grown as shade trees, especially in parks and along the boulevards of Israel's coastal cities.

The sages commonly used the expression "large tamarisks" as a nickname for the greatest of the tannaim[5] of the first generations, in whose shade the amoraim[6] saw themselves taking shelter. When an amora cited one of the early tannaim, it was said that he "suspended himself from the large tamarisks"[7], i.e., cited the higher authority of the tannaim. This same metaphor led the amoraim to say: "The great and respected tamarisks (the leading scholars) of the Diaspora are themselves equal only to the young chicks (the least) among the scholars and the Sages residing in the Land of Israel."[8]


[1] Genesis 21:33 [back]

[2] BT Sota 10a.  Reish Laksish (Rabbi Simeon ben-Lakish): one of the greatest amoraim [6] of Israel in the second generation (250-290 CE); head of the Academy at Tiberias together with Rabbi Johanan. He was a gladiator in his youth. He was so highly esteemed for his personal integrity that if he were seen talking to anyone in public, that person would be lent money without any witnesses.[back]

[3] Bereshit Rabba 54:6.  Rabbi Judah (bar Ilai) was one of the greatest tannaim [5] in the fourth generation (135-170 CE); one of Rabbi Akiba's disciples.[back]

[4] Bereshit Rabba 54:6.  Rabbi Nehemiah was a fourth generation tanna (see below) (135-170 CE); worked as a potter; laid the foundation for the composition of theTosefta; one of Rabbi Akiva's last pupils.[back]

[5] Tanna (plural tannaim): those Sages mentioned in the Mishna or living in the Mishnaic period, i.e., from about 20 CE to the final redaction of the Oral Law (the Mishna) circa 200 CE by Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi. These two centuries are divided into five generations, a useful frame of reference that has been used since it was introduced in the second half of the twelfth century. [back]

[6] Amora (plural "amoraim") Those sages mentioned in the Gemara or active from the early third century (when the Mishna was codified) until the completion of the Babylonian Talmud at the end of the fifth century CE. It is customary to divided the amoraic period into eight generations although many scholars span two successive generations. The first five generations consist of both Palestinian and Babylonian amoraim. The last three generations, however, are limited to Babylonian amoraim since the Jerusalem Talmud was completed about a century before the Babylonian. The tile "Rabbi" or "Rabban" is given not only to all of the tannaim, but also to the amoraim who resided in Israel. The title Rav or the absence of a title indicates amoraim of the Babylonian Talmud. [back]

[7] Babylonia Talmud, Beitza 27a; Babba Batra 31b [back]

[8] Jerusalem Talmud, Babba Metzia 1,8 [back]

Nogah Hareuveni, Tree and Shrub in Our Biblical Heritage, translated from the Hebrew and adapted by Helen Frenkly,
Neot Kedumim, Ltd. Kiryat Ono, 1984; used with permission of Neot Kedumim, the Biblical Landscape Reserve in Israel.

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