Streetwise: A flower in Tel Aviv

Back in the 14th century, Ashtori Haparhi was the first to document Holy Land flora and fauna.

rehov Ashtori (photo credit: David Deutsch)
rehov Ashtori
(photo credit: David Deutsch)
Almog, a very helpful woman at the Tel Aviv Municipality's spokesman's office, was trying to explain why Ashtori Haparhi had a street named after him in trendy North Tel Aviv. "The street was named Ashtori Haparhi," she e-mailed, "because he was deemed worthy of having a street named after him." That's a bit like saying that Paris Hilton is famous for being famous. And try finding something on the Internet with a name like that and a thousand different spelling possibilities. Eventually however Tel Aviv University's library came up with plenty of material about the 14th-century scholar who came from France via Spain and became the first person to describe the topography of Eretz Yisrael, its flora and fauna, its villages, towns and rivers. Nothing that I read about Ashtori Haparhi could be further from the image of the place where his street stands. If you drive into Tel Aviv along Rehov Ibn Gvirol from the north and turn into Rehov Basel, there's an excellent underground parking lot which even has a usable toilet, and whenever we go to demonstrate at Kikar Rabin, we always park the car there and walk about half a mile so as to avoid the traffic jams. During the day, fashionable people sit and drink lattes, and if the presence of a sushi bar is any indication of the local population, then the fact that there are two of them tells you just how ultra-trendy this area is. One side of the street is purely residential, but after the Basel intersection, the street is jam-packed with shops - clothing and shoes, beauty salons, a jazz disc store, a toy shop and several coffee shops as well as the aforesaid sushi places. So what do we know about this 14th-century adventurer who became the first topographer of the Land of Israel? Anything we do know about him comes from the preface to his magnum opus, Kaftor Vaferah, which he wrote over a period of seven years after he came to live in the Holy Land. Ashtori Haparhi (also spelled Estori Hafarhi) was born in France in about 1280 to a family originally from Florenza, Andalusia in Spain. Hence the name, Haparhi which is a literal Hebrew translation of the Spanish flor, a flower. As far as we know, he was born in the Touraine region of central France as he refers to himself, in the preface to Kaftor Vaferah, as Ish Tori, a man of Tours. We know that he studied in Montpelier and had a broad general education with some studies in medicine. The title of his book comes from Exodus 25:33 which describes the menora of the sanctuary, and "knop and flower" (Kaftor Vaferah) refers to the decorative motif on the menora but is also a modern term used to describe anything beautiful. It's a popular name for flower and haberdashery shops too. In 1306 an event happened which was to have a strong influence on his life. On the day after Tisha Be'av, the Jews were expelled from France. Historians estimate that 100,000 Jews were forced to leave and our man writes about it in his introduction. "They took me from my place of learning; they undressed me, clothed me in wanderer's attire and drove me from my father's home and the land of my birth. I was naked, wandering from country to country, people to people - finding no rest." According to Reuven Kashani, a historian who has written extensively about Middle Eastern Jewish communities, the trauma of being driven out of France was the main reason that Ashtori made aliya and frequently preached the necessity of settling in the Holy Land to Jews still in exile. The fact that the country was under Mameluke sovereignty at the time and still suffering from the aftereffects of the Crusades created difficulties for anyone following in his footsteps, but this he viewed as a sign of the imminent coming of the messiah. He apparently settled first in Jerusalem and began his research but was unhappy with the anti-Maimonides feelings there and moved to Beit She'an. It was a busy place, being a halfway point between Egypt and Syria and doubts were cast on its status as being truly a part of the Land of Israel. There was some discussion as to whether the laws pertaining to plants growing in the land applied to Beit She'an. Clearly Ashtori did not subscribe to these opinions. He made his living as a doctor and traveled around the country, spending two years in Galilee and five years in other areas. The entry in the Encyclopedia Judaica, 1973 edition, is written by Jacob Elbaum and includes the following: "The book gives the borders of Israel as presented in the Bible... it describes Jerusalem and the various regions of the country and presents a list of the biblical, talmudic and Arabic names of the sites... His ruling that the biblical and talmudic names of villages and rivers are preserved in the Arabic, with only slight changes, is accepted by modern scholarship... He investigated plants... he also described the appearance of Jewish dress in the Land of Israel." There is a segment of the present-day population who would take Haparhi as its poster-boy in view of his strongly held opinions. "The Almighty gave us this land, not as a loan or a deposit, but as a heritage for us - not for them." He died about 1355, but his burial place is not known.