Gardening: Keeping evil spirits away

The odor of ruta or rue is one of the most repellent in the botanical kingdom, rivaled only, perhaps, by the carrion flower, whose smell of rotting meat attracts pollinating flies.

Ruta graveolens 88 (photo credit: )
Ruta graveolens 88
(photo credit: )
I saw him standing there nervously, on the street corner, next to the stop sign, with his black hat and long white beard. It was clear from his gestures that he was trying to get a passing driver to give him a lift. It was Friday morning and he seemed terribly anxious, as if Shabbat was rapidly approaching, even though it was a number of hours away. I am hardly a saint and have not gone out of my way nearly enough to help others in need. But on this particular morning, why not? The old man got into my car and I drove him several blocks to his destination. On the way, he offered me, for a few shekels, a fragment of paper with a sprig of rue, both safely preserved in laminated plastic. For a few shekels more, he gave me a small jar of herbs, whose primary ingredient was ezov. Just next to the rue, on the paper fragment, there was a quotation from Rabbi Haim Yosef David Azulai (the Hida). Rabbi Azulai was a charismatic figure and major halachic authority who, 200 years ago, traveled throughout the Jewish world. His diary is one of the most captivating documents of his or any other era. Not only is it filled with details about life in the many Jewish communities he visited, but it is replete with Azulai's own unparalleled pearls of Torah-inspired wisdom. Born in Jerusalem, he spent many years in the Diaspora collecting funds to sustain the Jews living in Hebron at that time. The quotation I now possessed, taken from Azulai's book Kikar L'Eden, was written in 1806 and reads as follows: "I must make known to every generation that the herb which the Mishna calls pigam, also known as ruta, is beneficial in nullifying the evil eye. Ruta is a holy name and whoever carries this herb and has it in his thoughts will prosper." The odor of ruta or rue (Ruta graveolens) is one of the most repellent in the botanical kingdom, rivaled only, perhaps, by the carrion flower, whose smell of rotting meat attracts pollinating flies. In the case of rue, the malodorous foliar scent is mitigated by two other foliar phenomena: when rue leaves are crushed, they emit a pleasant fragrance of oranges, a clue to the plant's kinship with the citrus family; also, when rue leaves are chewed, they dispel bad breath. Rue is a powerful drug. It can be found in tablet form for relief of sprains and tendonitis. Rue is also used to alleviate problems associated with the genito-urinary tract, but should be avoided by pregnant women since it can lead to miscarriages. Most remarkably, it was reported in the October 2003, issue of the Journal of International Oncology that six out of seven patients with glioma brain tumors experienced complete tumor regression after receiving medications containing rue extract. Rue is a highly ornamental shrub that grows to around a meter tall. It has delicately lobed, blue-green leaves, and produces dense sprays of butter-yellow flowers during the summer. It is easily propagated from seeds and shoot tip cuttings. It can grow in almost any kind of soil, is cold hardy, and thrives in either sun or partial shade. Prune it with gloves since its sap is allergenic and known to cause severe dermatitis in some people. The jar of spices that I also acquired from the old man has a label that extols ezov, an ingredient of the mixture it contains, with two testimonials attached. According to Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, if you keep salt and ezov on your table, you will never be without food, while Rabbenu Asher, the great talmudist, holds that ezov keeps all manner of evil spirits away. What is ezov? Popular Bible translations render it as hyssop, but this is incorrect since hyssop is native to Europe, not the Middle East. Ezov (Majorana syriaca) is a kind of marjoram, strictly speaking, sometimes called za'atar, although this Arabic word is also a generic term for a number of different spices. Ezov is an herb whose taste combines the flavors of marjoram, oregano and thyme; all these herbs are in the mint family, along with rosemary, lavender and sage, and grow easily in sun or light shade with a minimum of irrigation. Ezov grows out of crevices and rocks throughout the Land of Israel. It is used locally, especially by Beduin, for flavoring bread. It might seem strange, at first glance, that Torah scholars would see the efficacy of certain plants in warding off evil, whether evil spirits or the destructive evil eye of jealousy. But who are we to say what people who attain an exalted level of holiness can see? When he walked in the fields around Safed, Rabbi Yitzhak Luria would stop and appear to make conversation with the trees. When asked what he was doing, the rabbi responded that he was communicating with the souls of people who had been reincarnated in a vegetative form. When Moses was tending Jethro's sheep, he came upon a burning bush. The Midrash relates that God chose Moses to be the leader after he turned to take a closer look at the flaming plant. In the words of Rabbi Elie Munk, "Many people pass by a miracle without ever noticing it. They are either simple-minded, dull or skeptical. Moses, who noticed the miracle and became enthralled by it, possessed the inner flame and faith needed to accomplish great things." Some day soon, let us hope, someone among us will once again see the miracles in little things, in shrubs and herbs, and lead us forward.