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Flowers in the Bible
It is at first surprising that the Bible and talmudic literature seldom refer to the use of flowers for decorative purposes. In Biblical times the emphasis was on aromatic flowers, and it is their fragrance which is emphasized.
Actually, the use of flowers for decorative purposes is a relatively modern idea. From Biblical times all the way up to and including the Middle Ages, the main use for flowers was for their fragrance. Well, we will try to put things rather delicately. Let's face it, people in Biblical times did not bathe as often as we do today. In fact, they rarely bathed at all. Anything as sweet-smelling as a flower was quite a welcome contrast to the day-to-day odors one usually encountered in ancient times.
The picking of flowers is referred to in the Bible only once: "My beloved has gone to his garden, to the beds of spices, to feed in the gardens, and to gather lilies (Song of Songs 6:2). The Mishneh, too, speaks of the picking of lilies (Toh. 3:7).
The Mishneh mentions a rose garden which existed in Jerusalem since the days of the prophets. According to the Mishneh, figs grew there (Ma'as 2:5). Here, too, the garden was not for decorative purposes, for the fragrant roses were used in the preparation of perfumes.
Some of the flowers mentioned in the Talmud are the saffron, jasmine and narcissus. These are chiefly mentioned as aromatic and medicinal flora.
Only three flowers are mentioned by name in the Bible: the SHOSHAN or SHOSHANNA (lily or rose), SHOSHANAT HA'EMAKIM (rose of the valleys) and HAVATZELET HA'SHARON (rose or lily of the Sharon).
Identification of the SHOSHAN or SHOSHANNA posed a difficult problem. This flower symbolizes beauty and fragrance in the Bible. It is most probably identified with the white lily (Lilium candidum).
Abraham Ibn Ezra had this flower in mind when he stated that the names SHOSHAN and SHOSHANNA are derived from the Hebrew word 'SHESH," which means six. This flower always has six white petals as well as a pistil and long stamans which also number six.
On the basis of this identification and delightful smell, he decided that this flower must be the white lily. This large, beautiful and scented flower can still be found today in forests in the Galilee and Mount Carmel areas of northern Israel.
In any event, this flower cannot be a rose. The rose was not found in Israel in Biblical times.
Regarding the rose itself, two species now grow wild in today's Israel. Neither of the two wild species can be described as being beautiful nor fragrant.
The Shoshannat Ha'Emakim is mentioned in the Song of Songs, but this cannot refer to the white lily since the white lily does not grow in the valleys. It appears to be the narcissus, a fragrant flower that flourishes in valleys with a heavy soil.
The HAVATSELET HA'SHARON is mentioned in the Song of Songs (verse 2:1). It is generally accepted that this flower is identified with the Pancratium Maritimum -- a bulbous plant with white, highly scented flowers which blooms at the end of summer in the coastal lowland. It symbolizes the flowering of the desolate land and its formation into "the excellency of Carmel and Sharon" (Isaiah 35:1-2).
I think that if Flowers and Sympatya existed in Biblical times, then
we would probably have done a brisk business selling aromatic flowers
and perfumes for Temple ceremonies. We would probably also have sold a
lot of flowers during the holidays and for special family occasions, since
a gift of flowers in Biblical times was appreciated and looked upon as
something special -- just like it is today.