This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Turning Over a New Leaf *

After the destruction of Jerusalem, the prophets of Israel consoled the people with stirring visions of how the holy city would be rebuilt to achieve a glory beyond anything it had known previously. Some of them spoke of a spring or river that would issue forth from the Temple to convey vitality and blessings to the world.

As envisaged by Ezekiel (47:12), the banks of the river will sprout all sorts of trees that will renew their fresh fruit each month. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.

The Hebrew root that is translated here as healing--t'rufah--is a familiar one to speakers of modern Hebrew who casually accept that their everyday word for medicine is derived from the root rafo, the word for healing. According to philologists, however, that etymology is far from obvious. The noun is unique in the Bible and seems to derive from a different root,.

The translation of t'rufah as healing was upheld by Rabbi Yohanan in the Jerusalem Talmud. In support of his translation, he compared the word to the similar-sounding Greek expression therapeia that has the same meaning (as do its cognates in English).

The Jewish sages offered diverse suggestions about which ailments can be cured by Ezekiel's wondrous leaves. Rabbi Yohanan himself, perhaps responding to Ezekiel's juxtaposition of leaves for healing to fruit for eating, understood that the leaves serve as an aid to digestion. When a person sucks the leaf, the food is digested. A later midrash made more ambitious claims about the leaf's efficacy, stating that the leaves were capable of curing any wound that a person might be suffering.

Other rabbis preferred to solve the puzzle of Ezekiel's t'rufah without recourse to foreign tongues, making use of Hebrew puns and wordplays. The most common approach involved treating the word as if it were a contraction of the phrase lehatir peh: to release the mouth. This still left ample room for divergent opinions about which mouth it is that is being opened by the therapeutic leaf.

Several talmudic rabbis explained that the marvelous leaves are indeed capable of enabling mutes to speak. A midrashic exposition applied this theme to the story of Moses. At the outset of his career he was suffering from a speech defect that rendered him unfit to confront Pharaoh, but he later proved himself an eloquent orator and national leader.

The midrash credited that transformation to Moses' devotion to Torah study, or to the impact of receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. Said Rabbi Eleazar: Yesterday he was stammerer, whereas now 'these are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel'... Said Rabbi Aha: If your tongue is heavy, strengthen it with words of Torah and it will be cured.

Some rabbis associated this motif with the image of Ezekiel's river, perceiving it as a symbol for the therapeutic powers of Torah. However, you don't have to be a Moses to enjoy the benefits of the therapeutic leaf: Anyone who is mute and chews from it, his tongue will be healed and immediately polished with words of Torah.

An alternative interpretation that appears in the Talmud and Midrash speaks of the leaves opening the lower mouth, that is to say, curing the heartbreaking barrenness that afflicted biblical heroines like Sarah and Hannah. When read in this manner, Ezekiel's vision can be understood as an assurance that the blessings that will flow from the rebuilt Jerusalem Temple will generate fertility and maternal fulfillment.

Visions of the fabulous wonders that await us in the redeemed world were effective in elevating the spirits of simple Jews in times of hardship and oppression. However, more sophisticated thinkers found some of those descriptions problematic or embarrassing. For Jewish intellectuals who were more inclined towards spiritual and metaphysical interpretations of Judaism, it was impossible to accept at face value those texts that stressed the physical or material advantages of the messianic epoch. Therefore, those authors preferred to read the ancient texts as metaphors or symbols for profound theological ideals.

The Maharal of Prague provided an ingenious exposition of the healing leaves and the rabbinic traditions about their curative powers. His interpretation contains a fascinating blend of kabbalistic mysticism and perceptive insights into the human psyche.

The Maharal's discussion is rooted in his distinctive understanding of the metaphysical role of the Jerusalem Temple; it is the sacred bridge that joins heaven and earth, the conduit that allows divine blessings to descend into our world. The flow of God's goodness into the lower realms is symbolized in Ezekiel's image of the river that issues from the Temple.

The blossoming of the trees and their leaves is an apt metaphor for the dynamic nature of reality, as conceived in the Maharal's philosophy. It is not so much that God bestows gifts on his creatures--more significantly, he allows us to actualize and release our own inborn potential.

In this context, the imagery of opening the lower mouth alludes to the full actualization of our material and physical potentials. As long as humanity is still in an imperfect phase of its spiritual evolution, we cannot yet reach the state of actualization that will prevail in the redeemed future.

Furthermore, the rabbis' image of opening the upper mouth refers, in the Maharal's exposition, to the attainment of intellectual perfection. For philosophers, rationality was usually equated with the uniquely human capacity to utter coherent speech. Hence, muteness can serve as a suitable metaphor for a mind that has not reached its full potential. This may be the universal human condition at present; however, Ezekiel's prophecy foresees the day when the spiritual power that is embodied in the Temple will, at long last, release its sublime spiritual energy and allow us to perfect our highest intellectual powers.

This is quite an ambitious claim for an herbal remedy, even if it is a metaphoric one!

And to the best of my knowledge, it does not have any dangerous side-effects.

This article and many others are now included in the book

On the Trails of Tradition
On the Trails of Tradition

published by

Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

My email address is: