Wednesday, May 07, 2008
About ZA'ATAR (hyssop for pedants like me)
"We will,” Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas ruler of Gaza (see pic), announced, “eat za’atar, grass, and salt, but we will not renounce our principles.”
How long Haniyeh expects his people to keep such diet is unclear. Not that za’atar isn’t good for you. It has been shown to have antioxidant properties, and also to stimulate antimicrobial activity against such pathogenic microorganisms as Salmonella typhimurium and Staphylococcus aureus. Still, I wouldn’t recommend eating it with only grass and salt. Although it has a lovely fragrance and by itself does not taste unpleasant, it is far better when mixed with other things — e.g., added to a salad dressing, or else sprinkled on olive oil and sopped up with a piece of warm pita bread.
But just what, you ask, is za’atar? There’s some disagreement about that, because in Lebanon it is mix of herbs, including ground sesame seeds, ground sumac, ground dried thyme, ground dried oregano or ground dried marjoram. Among Palestinians, in any case, the word za’atar refers to both the condiment and the wild oregano plant from which its local variety is made. We Israelis call the condiment za’atar, too, and it is against the law to harvest it (wild oregano is a protected species), of course it is available in the shops although the packages are marked “hyssop” or “holy hyssop.” This is a word that, so the dictionaries tell us, comes from Latin hyssopus, which comes from Greek, which in turn comes from a word of Hebrew (or Aramaic) word ezov אזוב.
Ezov is a word that occurs several times in the Bible. We first encounter it in the account of the paschal sacrifice in the book of Exodus, in which the children of Israel are told, in the language of the King James Bible: “And ye shall take a bunch of hyssop [ezov], and dip it in the blood [of the sacrifice]… and strike the lintel [of your homes] and the two side posts….” Elsewhere in the Bible, the hyssop is mentioned as a plant used in rites of purification. There is no reference to its having been eaten, although the New Testament Gospel of John does tell us that Jesus’ followers gave him a “sponge of vinegar” and “put upon it hyssop” to ease his thirst when he was dying on the cross. (Hence the adjective “holy” that Christianity attached to it.) They may really have done so, or else John was simply using the hyssop as a symbol of what is lowly and humble, as it is referred to by the Book of Kings when it relates that King Solomon’s wisdom encompassed everything great and small, “from the cedar tree that is in Lebanon even unto the hyssop that groweth out of the wall.”
But is hyssop really za'atar? Not according to the same dictionaries that derive it from ezov; for hyssop, they say, is “a woody Eurasian plant (Hyssopus officinalis)” having “aromatic leaves used in perfumery and as a condiment,” whereas oregano is defined as the “perennial Eurasian herb Origanum vulgare.”
But just a minute. Hyssop officinalis, which grows widely in Southern Europe, is almost never found wild in Israel, whereas Origanum vulgare is extremely common. Moreover, as an article on hyssop in the Catholic Encyclopedia points out, the ancient Egyptian word supho, which definitely does mean “oregano,” would seem to be connected to ezov. Very likely, then, even though the word “hyssop” derives from ezov, it does so by a botanical confusion, and the biblical ezov is in fact oregano — which is, to say, za'atar.
True, wild oregano never grows between the stones in a wall, whereas many other perennial Mediterranean shrubs, such as caper plants, do just that. Indeed, this is no doubt the reason that in later, post-biblical Hebrew, the meaning of ezov changed entirely and came to refer to moss, the wall-growing plant par excellence in European countries. And yet the biblical ezov is clearly not moss, and if the Book of Kings says that oregano can grow from walls, who am I to argue with the wisdom of Solomon?
Still, even if it’s a misnomer, I like the sound of “holy hyssop.” If Ismail Haniyeh would agree to add some olive oil and pita bread, his regime would be quite livable. At least until it’s time for lunch. (Nicely written by Philologos).