The planting of an orchard, or center of hospitality, could be a whole episode, or maybe an entire series, in a serial story. Within the plot-heavy Torah portion Vayera, ([“And he saw”]: Gen 18:1-22:24 — see My Jewish Learning), however, this bit of narrative can be easily overlooked or dismissed — it seems so small, in context, and maybe a diversion from the main events:
And Abraham planted an eshel in Beer-sheva, and called there on the name of YHVH, the Everlasting God, “El-Olam.”
וַיִּטַּע אֶשֶׁל, בִּבְאֵר שָׁבַע; וַיִּקְרָא-שָׁם–בְּשֵׁם יְהוָה, אֵל עוֹלָםGen 21:33, translation adapted from Mechon-Mamre (1917 JPS)
Each of the two actions in this verse are expressed with highly unusual language. Deciding to look up these words led me on an adventure, part of which I shared in the recent post, “Reading Wrong.” This post presents the details I promised there about the word “eshel,” along with some things I learned about planting and about God.
“Eshel” appears only in Gen 21:33 in the Torah and then twice later in the Tanakh (1 Sam 22:6 and 31:13). Early rabbinic discussion suggested the eshel might be an inn, an orchard, or a specific kind of tree.
“El-Olam,” — “Everlasting God” or “God of the Universe” — appears only in this passage, although the similar, and equally unusual, “Elohei Olam” appears in Isaiah 40:28 (see notes in Everett Fox’s Five Books of Moses and the URJ’s The Torah edited by Gunther Plaut).
The verb “va-yitta” (first word in the verse, from the root: נָטַע) can mean “to plant,” as a tree; “to pitch” as a tent; or, figuratively, “to establish.”
There is a great deal of commentary on this tree-orchard-or-inn planting, usually emphasizing a relationship to hospitality (see “Earliest Discussion” below). Later scholars, based on similarity of this word to an Arabic term, began to translate “eshel” as “tamarisk” or “tamarisk-tree.” Still later, some authors take pains to point out that this is, or is not, the same kind of shrub used as a wind-break (and considered an invasive species in some places). NOTE: “Tamarisk” was used by the 12th Century CE, at least, see Ibn Ezra; for horticultural notes, see Plaut (1981, but see note about this and related sources) and this post at JHOM.
In Jastrow’s Dictionary, eshel [אֶשֶׁל] is listed as a masculine noun meaning: 1) tamarisk, symbol of strength and eminence;** and 2) plantation, pleasure-garden, tent (citing the Sotah 10a — see “Earliest Discussion” below). The root (alef-shin-lamed) is given as “to be firmly rooted.” There is also a link to an older root, (√אש) alef-shin, meaning “fire” and associated with the longer Biblical Hebrew root, אָשַׁשׁ, alef-shin-shin, meaning 1) to glitter, be polished, and 2) to be thick, substantial, to be pressed, dark. In it’s pi’el (“intense”) form, אִישֵּׁשׁ, the word means “to make firm, found.”
After exploring some of the commentary over the ages on the first part of the verse and looking at the second half of the verse, with it’s odd “God of the Ages,” we’ll return to the glittering roots of this word.
Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Neḥemya disagreed.* One said “eshel” means orchard [pardes], arguing that the verb supports this kind of planting; the other said that it means an inn [pundak], citing Daniel 11:45 wherein the same verb is used for “setting up the tents of his palace.”
Reish Lakish said Abraham made an orchard [pardes] and planted in it all kinds of sweet things. He further taught that the verb “and he called” [vayikra] (on the name of God) should be read as “and he caused others to call” [vayakri], saying that if someone who ate from the orchard rose to bless the host, Abraham would use that as a teaching moment:
He said to them: But did you eat from what is mine? Rather, you ate from the food of the God of the world. Therefore, you should thank and praise and bless the One Who spoke and the world was created. In this way, Abraham caused everyone to call out to God.B. Sotah 10a, via Sefaria (Davidson translation in bold, crowd-sourced additions in regular font)
*I’ve also read this same disagreement attributed to Rav and Samuel, another (later) pair of great teachers of the Talmud.
Later Elaboration on the Theme
A later comment says that eshel (אשל) is an acronym for eating (אכילה akkilah), drinking (שתייה shetiyah) and escorting one’s guests (לוייה levayah) (see Breishit Rabbah 54:6 and Rashi for Sotah 10a). Related word-play scrambles the letters of eshel, alef-shin-lamed, to shin-alef-lamed, reading “sha’al שאל,” which means to ask — so folks could ask whatever they desired and Abraham would give it.
…please note all of this commentary focuses on Abraham alone, never mentioning Sarah or anyone else in the household; rather than expanding what was written, I leave these comments as is, leaving room for more imagination and interpretation…
Rabbi Bachya ben Asher wrote:
Seeing that such agricultural activities when undertaken by a righteous individual such as Avraham (who was a shepherd by profession) are merely a preparation for spiritual activities in their wake, the Torah immediately testified to this by writing ויקרא שם בשם ה’, “He called out there in the name of the Lord.”composed in Spain, roughly 1290-1310 CE
Everett Fox notes that the tamarisk is rarely mentioned in the Bible, adding that “it may indicate a holy place, similar to the oaks where Abraham dwells earlier” (Five Books of Moses, Schocken 1997).
Additional views on what Abraham was doing in this verse reflect concerns of their age and place as well as individual teaching goals. For example:
Robert Alter tells us: “The cultic tree is planted “at” rather than “in” Beersheba because it is evident that the site of the oath is a well in the wilderness, not a built-up town (Norton, 2004).
Targum Onkelos (Aramaic translation of the Bible) uses an expression that means to plant but can also be interpreted as “to set up a monument.” Contemporary commentary adds that the translator “may have been concerned that their readers would think that Abraham improperly planted a center for tree worship…and substituted ‘set a monument’ for Scripture’s ‘planted a tamarisk'” (Drazin & Wagner, Onkelos: Genesis, Geffen 2006 — this is an English translation of the Aramaic, with additional commentary plus the Hebrew and Aramaic texts).
Radak (Rabbi David Kimhi, 1160–1235 CE, France) said that planting the tree near the well was “testimony that the well belonged to him” (Onkelos, Geffen 2006).
Sefer HaYashar (circa 1300 CE, Spain) said: “These verses are to let you know that every place that Abraham went he would call on the name of the Lord and would occupy himself with service to Him. He was not restrained from doing so by the fear of the nations of the world.”
Whatever Abraham was planting in the first half of the verse is often linked to the second half of the verse, in which he calls on/in “the name of YHVH [the four-letter name], El Olam.” Beginning with that Sotah 10a pasage cited above, there is a strong suggestion that the orchard and its produce are meant to evoke God as Creator. And that evocation is used for a variety of spiritual and teaching purposes, in the commentaries above.
Although “olam” can mean “world, universe, cosmos” in later Hebrew (Mishnaic and Modern), it’s meaning in the Bible is about time and duration, usually translated “everlasting” (See, e.g., Klein Dictionary: “In the Bible, with the possible exception of one case, Eccles. 3:11, עוֹלָם never has the meaning ‘world’). The word “olam” is very common in the Bible. As noted above, however, “El Olam” and “Elohei Olam” are rare. The latter is often translated, including in the Old JPS (1917) as “everlasting God.” Robert Alter uses “an eternal God,” and here, in the New JPS (1984), we have “God from of old” —
הֲל֨וֹא יָדַ֜עְתָּ אִם־לֹ֣א שָׁמַ֗עְתָּ אֱלֹהֵ֨י עוֹלָ֤ם ׀ יְהֹוָה֙ בּוֹרֵא֙ קְצ֣וֹת הָאָ֔רֶץ לֹ֥א יִיעַ֖ף וְלֹ֣א יִיגָ֑ע אֵ֥ין חֵ֖קֶר לִתְבוּנָתֽוֹ׃
Do you not know?Isaiah 40:28, via Sefaria
Have you not heard?
The LORD is God from of old,
Creator of the earth from end to end,
He never grows faint or weary,
His wisdom cannot be fathomed.
Maimonides (1138-1204, Egypt), uses Gen 21:33 as a proof-text that God alone is eternal.
The root nun-tet-ayin, נָטַע, means to plant, pitch (a tent) or establish. Jastrow’s first definition includes an equivalence to another verb: “1) = נָטָה, to pitch a tent; put up a temporary structure,” and that verb offers a similar first definition: “1) (cmp. נָטַע) to stretch; to pitch a tent.” (The definition of nun-tet-hey also includes the idea of “bending,” with a citation to the wild story of beit midrash walls bending in B. Baba Metzia 59b.)
Jastrow’s second definition for nun-tet-ayin is “2) to insert, to plant,” adding that this is in contradistinction with the verb “to sow.” That “contrad” note helps explain why the opposite of “plant” in Ecc 3:2 is not “harvest” or “reap” (Pete Seeger’s choice to rhyme “reap” and “weep.” in “Turn Turn Turn” notwithstanding). Clunkier-sounding translations that repeat “plant” are a better match for the Hebrew:
עֵ֣ת לָטַ֔עַ וְעֵ֖ת לַעֲק֥וֹר נָטֽוּעַ׃ …
…A time for planting and a time for uprooting the plantedKohelet 3:2
And “uprooting the pitched/planted” works with the first definiton of nun-tet-ayin as well.
Back to the Glitter
The root nun-tet-ayin appears 58 times in the Tanakh (per Strong’s Concordance), but the exact form “va-yitta” appears in three places:
- Gen 2:8 when God plants a garden,
- Gen 9:20 when Noah plants a vineyard., and
- Gen 21:33 when Abraham plants this eshel.
This offers an interesting progression:
First, God puts the Earthling in the Garden, with no element of human choice involved; Adam and Eve choose to eat from the one tree forbidden to them, and that’s the end of the Eden era.
Then Noah opts for a vineyard, when presumably there were many other choices for him to plant; that results in disaster in the very next verse.
Finally, Abraham plants something that earliest tradition suggests involved asking others for their desires and then offering to fulfill those. And somewhere at the root or heart of that thing he planted is “to glitter.” Perhaps what we see here is a temporary, welcoming shelter — whether tent or shade of tree(s) — where the glitter of hospitality gathers the glitter of those who pass by to pause and call out to the divine eternal in the individuals, in the collective, in the created world and the fiery, glittery, well-established and sturdy roots of it all.
And to return to the question of whether we’ve been “reading wrong,” why would we treat any of that community building and celebration as lesser than the big events of the Torah reading cycle?
**This definition is supported by a citation to the Jerusalem Talmud saying: “the eminent (old [eshels]) among the Babylonian scholars are but like the pigeons (the young) among the Palestinians.” This odd (and apparently insulting) comparison supports the “symbol of strength and eminence” definition, but doesn’t add a lot to explain, immediately anyway, what is going in Gen 21:33.
Overall intention of the graphic is to use five colors to suggest different threads or layers of meaning interwoven. Brown and white are rabbinic and later traditional interpretations of the word. Green is a midrashic idea playing with the letters of e-sh-el to make food, drink/lodging, and hospitality. Purple for the root related to glitter. Red for fire, an old root of the word eshel. And black for the “sturdy, established” meaning.
The graphic is centered around three large brown letters, reading right to left: alef-shin-lamed. Inside the letters are references to bits of the discussion here with a bit of color coding.
Smaller text above the three letters reads: “‘eshel’ = acronym for providing guests with”
then larger green text: escort (lamed) — drink or lodging (shin) — food (alef)
Alef says in white: “Fox notes: A tree rarely mentioned in the Bible, it may indicate a holy place [like previous oaks]”
Alef says in green: alef-chaf-yud-lamed-hey — to match green “food (alef)”
Shin says in white: ‘Rashi: “orchard” and ‘Targum: “monument”‘ and ‘King James: “grove”‘
Shin says in green: shin-tav-yud-hey OR shin-chaf-yud-bet-hey– to match green “drink or lodging (shim)
Lamed says in white: ‘Often “tamarisk-tree”‘ and ‘Some: “inn” or “hostel”‘
Lamed says in green: lamed-vav-yud-hey — to match green “escort (lamed)”
In between the large letters lamed and shin is the following text:
Or play with alef-shin-lamed, to get shin-alef-lamed (“to ask”). So — “Abraham would say: ‘Ask what you desire, and I will give it to you.’ [in green:] And he built an inn at the crossroads.
In between the large letters lamed and alef is the following in color coding:
[black] Eshel from v.
[brown:] “to be firmly rooted”
[black again] with older root, root symbol
[red:] alef-shin (fire)
[black again] linked to
[purple:] alef-shin-shin: “to glitter, be polished”
[black again] and “alef-shin-shin = “to be thick, substantial; to be pressed, dark…to make firm, found.”
Also in between the large letters are shapes: red blast, purple star-burst, and black trapezoid. These same shapes appear in the same colors, with a green oval behind them, above left and right of the entire graphic, symbols more closely entwined to the right than the left…. Idea was to highly that there are different threads of meaning all woven together, while also showcasing the idea of “glitter.”
Between the two sets of colorful symbols, a header reads:
The Hebrew word “alef-shin-lamed eshel”
appears exactly once in the Torah — Gen 21:33
and only twice more in the Tanakh — 1 Sam 22:6 and 1 Sam 31:13
Fox notes that Gen 21:33 uses an expression for God unique to the passage:
“God Everlasting” (JPS) or “God of the Ages (Fox) [El Olam]
Plaut notes the similar “Elohei Olam” appears (only) in Isaiah 40:28
Centered between the above and the three graphic letters:
And he [Abraham] planted an eshel [“eshel” is highlighted brown, with white letters] in Beer-sheva,
and invoked there the name of YHVH, El-Olam — Gen 21:33
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