The Anatomy of a Mitzvah

For the week ending 18 May 2024 / 10 Iyar 5784

Emor: Rose by Another Name

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Become a Supporter Library Library

On the 9th of Iyyar in the year 2017, my grandmother Rose (Roszi) Klein passed away. She was born in 1928 in the Hungarian town of Bonyhad to Meir and Devorah Kuttner. After surviving the horrors of the Holocaust and living in Hungary for a decade after the war, she moved to Brooklyn, NY where married and raised her family. In line with her name, my grandmother had a special appreciation of flowers and I have fond memories of visiting the botanical gardens with her. Although her Hebrew name was technically Shprintza, she was also known as Shoshana, which is a Hebrew translation of her English name Rose. This essay is dedicated to her memory and discusses three Hebrew words for “rose” — shoshanah, chavatzelet, vered.

The words shoshan or shoshanah as the name of a plant appear twelve times in the Bible, eight of which are in Song of Songs. For example, one such verse reads: "My beloved has descended to his garden / to the row of fragrance / to graze in the gardens / and to gather shoshanim" (Song of Songs 6:2). The term shoshanah also appears in the Mishnah (Kilayim 5:8 and Taharot 3:7).

The feminine personal name Shoshanah was used by Jews dating all the way back to the Second Temple period, as there is a story about a Jewish woman named Shoshanah appended to the Septuagint's version of Daniel (and it is included in many versions of the Christian Bible). As you may have realized, the personal names Sue, Susan, and Suzanna are all derived from the Hebrew word shoshanah. The word shoshanim also appears in the Bible in reference to a specific musical instrument (Ps. 45:1, 69:1, 80:1), whose shape somehow resembles the shoshanah flower.

There is reason to assume that shoshanah refers specifically to a reddish flower, because the lover’s lips — which are presumably red — are compared to shoshanim (Song of Songs 5:13, see also there 4:3). Indeed, there is a Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah §19:6) which praises King Jeconiah for abstaining from his wife after she had spotted something like a shoshanah adumah (“a red shoshanah”), which again associates this term with something red.

Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh of Carpentras (an 18th century grammarian and dayan) writes in Ohalei Yehuda that shoshanah is related to sasson (“gladness”) via the interchangeability of the letters SIN and SHIN, explaining that when one sees a beautiful shoshanah and smells its pleasant scents, one becomes happy and glad.

Ibn Ezra (to Song of Songs 2:1) cites a tradition that accounts for the double SHIN in the beginning of the word shoshanah by explaining that that word refers to a specific flower that has "six" (shesh) leaves/petals. A similar explanation is given by Radak in Sefer HaShorashim, and is also invoked by Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim in tracing the word shoshanah to the biliteral root SHIN-SHIN. This would mean that the word shoshanah cannot refer to a "rose," as roses typically have five (or multiples of five) petals, not six.

On the other hand, the Zohar (Hakdamah 1a) states that a shoshanah is surrounded by thirteen petals, likening this to the Assembly of Israel, which is likewise surrounded by Hashem’s thirteen attributes of mercy. On the very same page, the Zohar also states that a shoshanah has five “strong” petals, noting that when one holds a goblet of wine to recite a blessing over it (kos shel brachah), one’s five fingers should surround the cup like these five “strong” petals that surround a shoshanah. This would line up with the idea that shoshanah refers to a “rose.” Although, it should be noted that elsewhere the Zohar (Vayechi 221a, Emor 105a) also states that a shoshanah has six petals.

The word chavatzelet appears twice in the Bible: In once instance, a lover compares himself to the “chavatzalet of the Sharon / shoshanah of the valleys” (Song of Songs 2:1), immediately before famously comparing his beloved to a “shoshanah among thorns/thornbushes” (Song of Songs 2:2). In the other instance, the prophet Isaiah uses the simile of a desolate place which has been rejuvenated by saying that it “blossoms like a chavatzelet” (Isa. 35:1).

Either way, the question can be asked: What is a chavatzelet? Radak in his Sefer HaShorashim clearly defines chavatzelet as rosa (“rose”) and explicitly connects it with the word vered (discussed below). However, as we will see below none of this is so simple.

Rashi (to Song of Songs 2:1) writes that chavatzelet means shoshanah. That understanding also seems evident from the Peshitta (an early translation of the Bible into Syriac), which renders both chavatzelet and shoshanah as shoshnat. Similarly, the Septuagint translates both chavatzelet and shoshanah into the Greek krinon, while the Vulgate also translates both of those terms into Latin as lilium (“lily”). Indeed, both Rabbi Shlomo of Urbino in Ohel Moed and Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer in Beiurei Shemot HaNirdafim treat the words shoshanah and chavatzelet assynonyms. [In some versions of Rashi (there), he says that a chavatzelet is “a type of” shoshanah, which means they are not truly synonymous, but rather chavatzelet is a hyponym nestled within the hypernym shoshanah.]

The Vilna Gaon (Beiur HaGra to Song of Songs 2:1) also writes that chavatzelet and shoshanah refer to the same type flower, but he sees the difference between the two terms as lying in the location where the flower grows. Meaning, he explains that when this flower grows in the plains (the “Sharon”), which is a flatland exposed to direct sunlight, then the flower becomes especially dried out and assumes a yellow hue as the sun “burns” it. Under these conditions, that flower is called a chavatzelet. However, should the very same flower grow in a valley, wherein the heat of the sun is not as impactful, the flower retains more of its moisture and ends up with a whitish-reddish-pinkish color, which is its natural shade. In that case, the flower is called a shoshanah.

The notion that shoshanah and chavatzelet refer to the selfsame flower is already found in the Midrash (Shir HaShirim Rabbah §2:3), which explains that chavatzelet refers to the flower in its younger state, while shoshanah refers to it in its more fully-grown state. Based on this, Rabbi Wertheimer writes that the final TAV in the word chavatzelet is not part of the word’s root, but rather serves as a diminutive to denote that it is referring to a “young rose,” whose buds have not yet opened up to reveal the flower’s inner beauty. [The question of how to view that final TAV seems to have already been at bar in Medieval times, as Rabbi Yonah Ibn Janach and Radak in their respective Sefer HaShorashim understand the letter as radical to the core root, while Menachem Ibn Saruk in Machberet Menachem sees it as integral.]

Various commentators to the Midrash (like Matnot Kehunah, Eitz Yosef, and Maharzu there) explain the word chavatzelet as a portmanteau of CHET-BET (“hidden”) and TZADI-LAMMED (tzel, “shadow”) explaining that when in the young state of chavatzelet, the flower’s inner beauty has not yet blossomed outward, but rather remains “hidden” within its own “shadow” (see also Peirush HaRokeach to Song of Songs 2:1). A similar parsing of the word is found in the Midrash (Shir HaShirim Rabbah §2:1), which interprets chavatzelet as related to chaviv ("dear") and tzel ("shadow"). The Midrash then offers several different ways of explaining why comparing the Jewish People to the chavatzelet should be read as a compliment from Above.

In line with the Midrash, the Zohar (Vayechi 221a, Emor 105a) seems to say that chavatzelet refers to a younger plant when it is still green and has green petals, while shoshanah refers to a more mature plant that is red and white. That said, Rabbi Daniel Frisch’s Matok M’Dvash interprets this passage Kabbalistically, explaining that that it does not literally refer to colors, but to the progression of Hashem’s mercy: when His Attribute of Justice is first invoked, it is akin to “green” which is pure justice unsweetened by any tint of mercy, while later on His Attribute of Justice appears as a combination of “red” (judgement) and “white” (mercy).

Speaking of colors, Peirush Chachmei Tzarfat (to Song of Songs 2:1) explains chavatzelet as a white flower and shoshanah as a red flower. [For some odd reason, all of this reminds me of the War of Roses in England that eventually led to the rise of the Tudor family.]

Another approach identifies the chavatzelet flower as the same as the narkis. That word is a Hebraicization of the Arabic word narjis, which, in turn, comes from the Latin word narcissus (derived from the Greek narkissos), and refers to the flower that we call "daffodil" in English. This approach is apparent from Targum (to Song of Songs 2:1), Ibn Janach’s Sefer HaShorashim in the name of Rav Yehudai Gaon, Rabbi Saadia Gaon’s Tafsir (to Song of Songs 2:1), Kaftor VaFerach (ch. 56) in the name of Rav Hai Gaon, R. Shemaryah b. Elchanan of Cairo (d. 1011) in his commentary to Song of Songs (there), and Ibn Ezra (to Song of Songs there). [There is also a popular Hebrew font for Windows called Narkisim that seems to be named after the narkis flower.]

If the Latin name narcissus reminds of your neighborhood narcissist, it should. This is because in Greek mythology, Narcissus was a young man known for his extraordinary beauty, but also self-absorbed selfishness. One day, Narcissus caught sight of his own reflection and immediately fell in love with it, not realizing that it was merely an image of himself. He became utterly captivated, unable to tear himself away from his reflection, eventually wasting away and dying by the pool. A flower — the narcissus — bloomed at the spot where Narcissus died. That flower, with its delicate beauty and inclination to grow near water, is believed to symbolize Narcissus's vanity and self-love (for a similar tale in rabbinic literature, see Nedarim 9b).

Indeed, the Talmud (Brachot 43b) mentions something called narkom when discussing the blessings over scented plants, but many commentators (including Sefer He'Aruch) have an alternate reading which uses the word narkis instead. In fact, Rashi (there) even connects the Talmudic term narkom back to the Biblical Hebrew word chavatzelet in Song of Songs.

In codifying the blessings over fragrant flowers, Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim §216:9) defines chavatzelet as narkis, but then cites an alternate opinion that defines it as lirio (which is Spanish for “lily”). That latter opinion reflects that of Rabbeinu Yonah (Brachot 31b in the Alfasi pagination). Rabbi Moshe Tedeschi-Ashkenazi writes in Ho’il Moshe (to Song of Songs 2:1) that chavatzelet refers to a flower that grows from an onion, hence the string BET-TZADI-LAMMED (batzel, “onion”) in the middle of the pentaliteral word chavatzelet. But then, he adds a comment in Italian that chavatzelet refers to a “lily” or “hyacinth.”

Interestingly, Rabbi Ernest Klein (no relation) surmises that chavatzlet is somehow related to the Akkadian word habasillatu ("stalk").

The word vered does not appear in Biblical Hebrew, but does already appear in the Mishnah (Sheviit 7:6-7, Maasrot 2;5, Shabbat 14:4). In the Targumim, the standard word for rendering shoshanah in Aramaic is actually vered. Additionally, the Zohar (KI Tisa 189b) also seems to equate shoshanah with vered. In Modern Hebrew, the term shoshanah refers to a “lily” (which has six petals), while vered refers to a “rose” (which has five petals). Moreover, in Modern Hebrew, the word varod refers to the color “pink,” and is actually derived from the Rabbinic Hebrew term vered.

Rabbi Eliyahu Bachur in Sefer Tishbi cites those who explain shoshanah as referring to a “white lily” with six petals (as in Modern Hebrew), but rejects that approach because there are no thorns that grow with a lily like there are with a rose, yet – as mentioned above — in Song of Songs the shoshanah is said to be something which grows alongside thorns.

As an aside, Bachur also writes that the Mishnaic word vridin (Chullin 2:1) in reference to the “veins inside an animal’s neck” is derived from the word vered, which likewise refers to something red. Although, Rabbi Yaakov Emden (in his glosses Ezer Ohr to Sefer Tishbi) finds this connection too farfetched.

Ibn Ezra (to Song of Songs 2:1) cites some commentators as explaining that chavatzelet means vered, and also cites some commentators who explain that shoshanah means vered. If taken together, this might echo the understanding cited above that chavatzelet and shoshanah are one and the same.

In discussing the laws of blessings over fragrant plants, Maimonides (Laws of Brachot 9:6) discusses the shoshanah, narkis (chavatzelet), and vered separately. To Rabbi Yosef Karo (Kesef Mishnah there), this implies that those three terms refer to three different types of flowers, which leads him to wonder if vered and shoshanah are not the same thing, then what is a shoshanah?

In clarifying this question, Rabbi Massoud Chai Rokach writes in Maaseh Rokeach (there) that Rabbi Karo knew that both vered and shoshanah refer to “roses” and that one refers to a red rose while the other refers to a white rose, his only question was which term refers to which color of rose (see Maimonides’ commentary to the Mishnah Sheviit 7:6).

Alternatively, Rabbi Yirmiyahu Low (Divrei Yirmiyahu there) explains that vered is a general term that can include various types of flowers, while shoshanah is a more specific term that refers to the “rose” as a type of vered. This is borne out in the rabbinic phrase used in Vayikra Rabbah (§23:3) shoshanah achat shel vered (literally, "a single shoshanah of the vered"), which implies that a shoshanah is a type of vered. Alternatively, we may explain that vered refers to the whole plant, while shoshanah refers specifically to the flower.

Where does the Mishnaic/Aramaic word vered come from? Rabbi Ernest Klein (no relation) traces it to the Aramaic word varda (or vardina in some dialects of Aramaic), which he sees as a loanword from the Old Iranian wrda. He explains that latter word as the etymon of the Greek rodon and the Latin rosa, such that the English word rose (which from derives from the Latin) is actually etymologically-related to vered!

For other possible botanical identifications of chavatzelet and shoshanah, I refer the reader to Prof. Zohar Amar’s book Tzimchei HaMikra.

© 1995-2024 Ohr Somayach International - All rights reserved.

Articles may be distributed to another person intact without prior permission. We also encourage you to include this material in other publications, such as synagogue or school newsletters. Hardcopy or electronic. However, we ask that you contact us beforehand for permission in advance at and credit for the source as Ohr Somayach Institutions

« Back to The Anatomy of a Mitzvah

Ohr Somayach International is a 501c3 not-for-profit corporation (letter on file) EIN 13-3503155 and your donation is tax deductable.