By Rabbi Moshe Bloom
Torah VeHa’aretz Institute
In this week’s haftarah (Yeshayahu 6), the prophet sees a distant ray of hope emanating from the bleak darkness of the Temple’s destruction:
וְעוֹד בָּהּ עֲשִׂרִיָּה, וְשָׁבָה וְהָיְתָה לְבָעֵר, כָּאֵלָה וְכָאַלּוֹן אֲשֶׁר בְּשַׁלֶּכֶת מַצֶּבֶת בָּם, זֶרַע קֹדֶשׁ מַצַּבְתָּה.
“But while a tenth part yet remains in it, it shall then regress and become barren — like a terebinth (elah) and the oak (alon) which, when shedding [their leaves] still have vitality in them; [alternatively: whose stumps are left even when they are felled] its stump shall be a holy seed” (Yeshayahu 6:13).
This is a metaphor taken from the flora indigenous to the Land of Israel, emphasizing the hearty nature of the terebinth and oak whose trunks, even after being burned and even after all of its leaves had fallen during autumn, can renew itself, blossom, and produce new fruit.
The trunk, called here matzevet (from the root י.צ.ב., connoting standing firm and erect, as well as endurance), is bestowed with special sacred seed, which holds the secret to its stubborn survival. The tenth part in the verse is the ten percent of the Jewish population that created a continuum of Jewish presence in the Land of Israel throughout the generations.
The alon and elah, whose names testify to their hearty nature, symbolize our rootedness in the Land of Israel. Various IDF divisions as well as local councils throughout Israel have adopted these trees as their symbol. The trees, with their many varieties, also are the dominant component in the Mediterranean forests and shrubbery surrounding Mediterranean shores and in other areas with similar climates.
Elah and Alon in Tanach
The elah and alon are mentioned often throughout Tanach as trees with ample shade. Avraham lived in Elonei Mamre (the Terebinths of Mamre); Devorah, Rivkah’s nurse, was buried beneath the alon (Bereishit 35:8); the elah in Shechem, the alon at Beit El during the time of Yaakov Avinu (Bereishit 35: 4,8); the elah in Ofra in the time of Gidon (Shoftim 9:6); Avshalom’s hair became entangled in the branches of an elah (II Shmuel 18: 9); and the alonei ha’bashan are mentioned in Yeshayahu, Yechezkel, and Zechariah. Amos mentions them in a negative light, as the wood of these trees were exploited to carve idols and various pagan rituals were performed under the trees themselves.
Elah, the Pistacia
There are three main varieties of pistacia trees in the Land of Israel. Two are deciduous—the Terebinth (Pistacia palestina) and Atlantic pistacia (P. atlantica). The third, the Mastik tree (P. lentiscus) is an evergreen shrub and a source of the plant resin mastic. The first is the most prevalent in the Mediterranean flora, while the Atlantic pistacia grows in the open expanses of the Negev and Northern Jordan Valley. Both of them at times can grow for hundreds of years and can reach a massive height, making them the perfect markers for holy graves throughout Israel (this saved them from the axe). One Atlantic pistacia, the most ancient of its kind in Israel, is massive and approximately 450 years old. It is mentioned by Rambam (Hilchot Shabbat 12:8): “One may not chew gum (mastechi) on Shabbat … when one intends it for medication. But if he intended it [against] bad breath, it is permissible.” Jews of Morocco called it mastika and would chew it like chewing gum (called mastik in Hebrew). The terebinth is especially beautiful when its leaves turn brilliant hues of orange and red in early autumn. All of the varieties are resilient and drought resistant.
Alon, the Oak
The oak is represented in the Land of Israel by two deciduous varieties: the Mt. Tabor oak and the Aleppo oak. Only the Palestinian oak is an evergreen. The last mentioned features prominently in the low hills as a major component of the shrubbery, together with the Palestinian oak. Its trunk and treetop are wide, thanks to which it was also used as a marker for holy graves and thus saved from the ax. One particularly ancient Palestinian oak (declared officially dead in 1996), called Abraham’s Oak, grew in Chevron and was estimated to be 1,000 years old!
The oak varieties are famous thanks to their nutty fruit, the acorn, which provides food for wildlife and can even be eaten by humans in extenuating circumstances, roasted. The Palestinian oak excels in its ability to renew itself even after being ravaged by a forest fire or being partially chopped down.
The Mt. Tabor oak in the past comprised the forest that covered most of the western Israel, mountains, valleys, and even the Golan and Gilad. Just like its counterpart, the Palestinian oak, it was mostly chopped down in most areas in Israel, and only few remnants survived in the Judean forest and Golan, in the Tivon-Alonim and in Tal forests in Hula. It reaches 20m and can live for hundreds of years. Aleppo oak loves the cold of the Upper Golan Heights, Judean Mountains, and Golan, and often we find it near the Palestinian oak.
In the Hermon area, we find another two deciduous varieties not as prevalent in the Land of Israel — the Look oak and Lebanon oak.
Shmuel Cohen, Parashah Eretz Yisraelit and Wild Flowers of Israel. Translated and adapted by Rabbi Moshe Bloom, Torah VeHa’aretz Institute.
Rabbi Moshe Bloom is head of the English department of Torah VeHa’aretz Institute. Torah VeHa’aretz Institute (the Institute for Torah and the Land of Israel) engages in research, public education, and the application of contemporary halachic issues that come to the fore in the bond between Torah and the Land of Israel today. For additional information and inquiries, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 972-8-684-7325.