It has been said that every passage in the Torah is like an enormous jewel with 70 facets. This is explained, in part, by the fact that each Hebrew word has multiple associations and layers of meaning. Almost any Hebrew word, in fact, has the power to evoke the emotions and the memories, the struggles and the yearnings that, for more than three millennia, have characterized the Jewish experience.
Take the word tziporen. In the Bible, it denotes the claw or talon of a bird, as well as a human fingernail. In the Mishna, tziporen is also the mysterious eleventh ingredient of ketoret, the incense mixture that was burned in the Holy Temple. In modern Hebrew, tziporen has the additional meanings of clove and carnation. Tziporen is also a military outpost on the Lebanese border near Kibbutz Manara, in close proximity to where Rav Ashi, the editor of the Talmud, is buried.
During the havdala ceremony that marks the end of Shabbat and begins the new week, tziporen takes center stage. The first havdala blessing is made over spices, which are typically cloves (tziporen). Cloves look and feel like nail-shaped pieces of wood, but are actually the dried, unopened flower buds of a tropical plant from Indonesia. The second havdala blessing is made over the light of a braided candle. After this blessing is recited, it is a customary to gaze at one's fingernails (tziporen) in the glow of the havdala candle's flame.
Both tziporen rituals have to do with perpetuating or recalling an elevated spiritual state. The sweet smell of cloves is inhaled to savor and prolong the spirit of the just-departed Shabbat; this transfixing aroma also serves as consolation for loss of the special "extra soul" that inhabits the body during the day of rest.
We look at our fingernails to remind ourselves of the highly refined spiritual condition of Adam before he sinned. Exiting the safe and holy confines of Shabbat, we find ourselves on the cusp of a new week, with its many opportunities to go astray. This is the moment to remind ourselves of the holy light that glowed from Adam before he ate the forbidden fruit. According to Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, the 16th-century leader of the kabbalists in Safed, Adam initially glowed with light as though his entire body - not just his fingernails - was covered with tziporen. The Hatam Sofer compares the Jewish nation to a fingernail which, although it may show nicks, flaws, and discoloration on the outside, remains unblemished underneath.
Of the 11 ketoret or incense mixture ingredients that were burned twice a day on a golden altar in the Holy Temple, the identity of tziporen has created the most controversy. Rashi considers it to be an aromatic root, shiny like a fingernail. Other scholars equate tziporen with the operculum, or protective organ, that is found at the base of the shell of a sea mollusk and has the shape and texture of a fingernail.
Still other sages have identified tziporen as the rock rose (Cistus), a Mediterranean shrub with a strong musky scent whose flower petals display fingernail-like markings at their base. Rock roses, which have no botanical relationship to the common garden rose, have crepe-textured blooms in salmon, pink, lavender, purple or white. They can subsist on winter rain alone, although they will flower more heavily with an occasional soaking during the spring and summer months. Just make sure you water during the day, as night time watering of Mediterranean natives may activate soil fungi that are lethal to them.
Although nothing flowers more prolifically than a rock rose, it is short-lived and will be lucky to survive in any garden for more than a decade. In their habitat, rock roses are seen growing against rocks or boulders; water collects under the rocks during the rainy season and then, during the dry season, is taken up by the roots of the adjacent plants.
Rainbow or Chinese pink (Dianthus chinensis) is a relative of the carnation, with smaller but more tightly clustered flowers, and is much easier to grow. Its fringed blooms are available in pink, red, violet, or white, with some varieties having patterned, multi-colored petals. This sturdy bedding plant flowers throughout the year.