When comparing the scholarly credentials of the various disciples of Hillel the Elder, the Talmud surprisingly ranked Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai as the bottom of the list. Yet It stressed that even this “minor” disciple mastered an incredible range of wisdom that embraced not only the usual areas of scriptural and rabbinic lore, but also several more exotic subjects, including: “the conversation of the ministering angels, the conversations of demons and the conversations of date-palms.”
If you are at a loss to figure out what sorts of “conversation” the Talmud had in mind here, then you are in excellent company. No less an exegete than the great Rashi confined his commentary on this text to a terse admission that “I do not know what this is.”
Well, we can appreciate that angels and demons might indulge in some sort of verbal exchanges, whether among themselves or addressed to humans. It is also conceivable that some saintly rabbis might have mastered the techniques for tuning in to those supernatural communication networks. But “date-palms”? Are we expected to believe that trees express themselves in a language that was comprehensible to Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai?
The meaning of the date-palms’ conversation was indeed a puzzle that occupied the attention of several eminent Jewish scholars through the ages.
The tenth-century commentary to the Talmud produced by the school of Rabbenu Gershom of Mainz explained that the conversations were some sort of incantations; that Rabban Yoḥanan knew how to utter magic spells that could either cause a field to fill up instantly with date-palms, or to completely uproot trees from a field.
Other commentators were convinced that trees are really able to impart information to those who know how to decode it. A responsum that is ascribed either to Rav Sherira Gaon or to his son Hai Gaon outlined a very precise set of instructions for eavesdropping on the conversations of the trees, following a procedure that was practiced by experts who operated in their locality.
For best results, one should choose a day on which there is no breeze blowing, when the air is so still that if you spread a sheet it will not stir at all. (Some authors understood that the spreading of the sheet was a necessary step in the procedure.) On such a calm day one should take a position between two adjacent trees and observe the motions of the palm fronds. The qualified tree-interpreters were capable of learning “several things” from those motions. The responsum mentioned a certain Rabbi Abraham Gaon Kabasi who lived in the ninth century and reportedly achieved renown for his mastery of the language of the date-palms. He made use of his expertise in order to foretell future events.
In a later era, the Hasidic master Rabbi Zvi Elimelech Shapira of Dinov posed an intriguing question based on his literal reading of the talmudic passage about Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai. He acknowledged that birds, beasts and palm-trees do possess some sort of language—and he even knew of saints in more recent times who were capable of understanding those languages. But if that is so (Rabbi Shapira objected), does this not create a conflict with the longstanding doctrine of philosophers and theologians that humans are the only species that can communicate through rational speech? If palm-trees can also conduct conversations, then what is it that really justifies our claim to superiority over the “lower” species?
The Rabbi of Dinov concluded his investigation by presenting an idea that had been previously argued by Rabbi Menaḥem Nahum Twersky of Chernobyl. As far as normal natural languages are concerned, humans may in fact have no significant edge over the plants and beasts who share our ability of conveying basic information to one another. Where our spiritual superiority finds its true expression is only in the holy tongue, Hebrew, which (the mystics teach) was the instrument through which the Almighty created the universe. Implied in this assumption is the disturbingly chauvinistic premise that people whose language is not Hebrew cannot achieve authentic spirituality.
Other commentators suggested more rationalistic ways for understanding the concept of date-palm conversation. Notably, although Rashi’s grandson Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam) had no particular objection to interpreting the “conversation of demons” as a magical doctrine for manipulating supernatural beings, especially by means of amulets employed for healing, he appears to have drawn a line at talking trees. Rather than interpreting the expression as referring to conversations by trees, he explained it as discourse about the trees; that is to say, the scientific disciplines of horticulture or botany. Rabbi Menahem ben Solomon Meiri of Provence took this idea a step further and noted that, like all valid scientific pursuits, the study of trees serves as a necessary foundation for the sublime discipline of metaphysics.
In support of his reading of the talmudic text, Rashbam made reference to the biblical descriptions of King Solomon’s incomparable wisdom. Among the many fields in which the great monarch excelled, scripture relates that “he spake of trees, from the cedar tree that is in Lebanon even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall; he spake also of beasts, and of fowl, and of creeping things, and of fishes.” Just as Solomon was speaking “of” trees and not “to” them, so are we to understand what the Talmud said about Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai’s course of study.
The precedent of Rabban Yoḥanan’s familiarity with arboreal lore was invoked in a recent halakhic responsum. The rabbi was asked whether the designated blessing on seeing wise men from the nations of the world—“Blessed are you, Lord God...who has imparted of your wisdom to creatures of flesh and blood”—can also be recited for Jews who excel in secular disciplines but have no significant expertise in Jewish religious learning. The questioner pointed out that the Talmud’s singling out of Rabban Yoḥanan’s expertise in the “conversation of date-palms” seems to demonstrate that it was valued as a praiseworthy scholarly accomplishment in its own right.
Another possible meaning of the “conversation of the trees” may be exemplified by a remarkable Hebrew composition of unknown authorship, a work known as Pereḳ Shirah (“A Chapter of Song”). This magnificent celebration of the divine creation ascribes poetic words of praise, most of them consisting of verses from Psalms or other biblical texts, to some eighty-four different denizens of the natural realm. The cosmic choir who sing those praises include such voices as: the trees of the field, the grapevines, the fig, pomegranate and apple trees—as well as the date palm which intones the lyric “the righteous shall flourish like the palm tree.”
Although the purpose and meaning of the Pereḳ Shirah have been debated, I think it it is reasonable to assume that the author does not mean to imply that the trees, birds, beasts, earth and sky sing in any literal sense—but rather that we can derive sublime spiritual lessons from a sensitive observation of nature’s vast diversity.
And that is truly a valuable message that can be derived from the conversations of the date palms.
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