Jewish Wisdom

Ancestral Herbalism: Jewish Traditions and the Divinity of Rosemary

The healing power of herbal medicine is deep in our ancestral bones. 

Perhaps herbal medicine has spoken to you before: while gardening, going on nature walks, making a cup of tea, or even in your dreams. Perhaps you’ve learned how to make a botanical drink or a decadent skincare product. 

Plants like to find their people. They want you to fall in love with them and continue to use them.

During my second year as an herbal apprentice in 2018, I was falling in love with plants and had a strong underlying desire to learn more. This was the beginning of my healing journey. I grew up with severe Crohn’s Disease since 1999 — a very challenging autoimmune disease. In this healing path, I knew my body was craving a connection to natural medicine.

As I learned about healing traditions from around the globe, I was deeply curious: What are the Jewish traditions for plant medicine? Why is it that many ancient healing practices are still widely recognized today — such as Ayurveda or Traditional Chinese Medicine — but the Jewish customs are seemingly forgotten?

As a practicing herbalist and Jew, it was important for me to uncover the intersection of the two. I dove deep to explore my roots, spending years attending niche workshops, finding fellow Jewitches on social media, and reading books like Ashkenazi Herbalism (Cohen and Siegel) and Ritual Medical Lore of Sephardic Women (Lévy and Zumwalt). 

The Jewish heritage of plant medicine dates all the way back to the Torah. According to the site Wildflowers of Israel

"There are about one hundred plants mentioned in the Old Testament, and about four hundred that are mentioned in the Mishnah and the Talmud. The plants…were used for ritual purposes…as metaphors and as allegories. Our ancestors also used plants in everyday life as well as in the fulfillment of religious commandments."

Yes, our ancestral gardens and homes were filled with healing herbal medicine! Special spice boxes, called besamim, are still traditionally used during Havdalah to anoint Jewish homes at the end of Shabbat, often with cinnamon, cloves, or other aromatic herbs.

In uncovering these beautiful Jewish practices, I also started to understand why they aren’t as widely recognized today. The constant displacement of the diaspora meant that Jewish people frequently had to learn new lands and new plants. They prized secrecy over sharing practices, in fear of being harmed, persecuted or having family practices stolen. Changes in education and the desire to fit in during waves of immigration to America and other westernized countries also contributed to the loss of ancestral knowledge. Though many Jewish communities around the globe have continued to keep these practices alive, others, especially those who immigrated to urban environments, have largely lost their connection to plants.

I saw this narrative play out with my own family, who fled Eastern Europe and moved to New York City in pursuit of their American dream. It was a classic Jewish tale: they worked six or seven days a week to make ends meet, resting only temporarily for Shabbat, and trying their best to Americanize. Talking with my grandmother helped me realize what a privilege it is to be able to reconnect with plants as our ancestors had before us. 

Rosemary for Protection, Memory, and Remembrance

A plant I’ve grown especially close to is rosemary, a sacred plant that can both strengthen our memory and nurture our connection to the past.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) has been beloved for thousands of years by many ancient traditions. In Jewish folk traditions, it was equated with protection from physical, spiritual, emotional and mental harm. Likely chosen because of its strong pungent odor, it was widely used for cleansing, detoxing, memory and cognitive function, gastrointestinal issues, immunity, and more.

In both Sephardic and Ashkenazi traditions, rosemary was known in particular as one of the most holy herbs to protect against the ayin ha-rah (evil eye). The evil eye was seen as the key source of illness, with a heating and drying energy like a ball of fire. It would cause grave sickness (or death) to anyone who came in contact with it, and so women and children would place a sprig of rosemary inside pockets, on an altar, or in an amulet for protection.

These were not just empty rituals. Rosemary is in fact incredibly antiseptic and anti-inflammatory, and contains important volatile oils and diterpenes including rosmarinic acid, carnosic acid, camphor, and linalool (Hoffman, 2003, 577). Its extracts are incorporated in many Alzheimer’s medications to help offset the impacts of memory loss. Just 500 mg of rosemary extract a day has been shown to help memory recall and relieve depression, anxiety and poor sleep (Nematolahi et al. 2018).

Rosemary’s medicinal support of memory is particularly striking to me, because in Jewish tradition, it represents a symbolic connection to ancestors and the remembrance of loved ones. I like to place a few rosemary sprigs on top of an altar, honoring the roots of my personal lineage and that of Jewish plant wisdom. 

The Art of Having an Ancestral Rosemary Tea

As a way of deepening your connection to rosemary, I offer this practice for making an ancestral tea.

Brew two tablespoons of fresh or dried rosemary in two cups of water.

Make one cup for yourself and the other for an ancestor. You’re going to have tea with them. 

You might enjoy sitting by a photo of those who have passed on. Perhaps you want to do this during the new moon when setting intentions. You can light incense or candles as a way to call in their energy. 

Then, simply allow yourself to connect with your ancestors while drinking the tea. Feel the energy flow through your mind and body. Share updates about your life and your family members’ lives. Try practicing this regularly with your ancestors, not just when you need help. Keep them connected to the family fabric.

When you start to connect with an herb like rosemary, you’ll notice all the messages it’s sharing with you. 

I encourage you to listen to these calls of the plants. You’re creating a reciprocal relationship, which will help you weave a bond with the generations before you and many generations to come.

At The Well uplifts many approaches to Jewish practice. Our community draws on ancient Jewish wisdom, sometimes adapting longstanding practices to more deeply support the well-being of women and nonbinary people. See this article’s sources below. We believe Torah (sacred teachings) are always unfolding to help answer the needs of the present moment.

Sources

Ashkenazi Herbalism, Deatra Cohen and Adam Siegel

Ritual Medical Lore of Sephardic Women, Isaac Jack Lévy and Rosemary Lévy Zumwalt

Biblical Plants and Flowers, Wildflowers of Israel

Ancestral Herbalism: Jewish Traditions and the Divinity of Rosemary
Laura Rubin
Laura Rubin
Laura Rubin is a Clinical Herbalist, holistic health coach and the Founder of Nurture. She compassionately supports folks of all ages to heal the mind-gut connection: focusing on digestion, stress, sleep, energy, hormonal health and more. As a Jewish woman currently residing on Ohlone territory, she weaves in the ancestral knowledge of Jewish plant medicine, connecting to the wisdom of our elders and hosting events throughout California and New York. She invites you to connect at https:///www.nurtureguthealth.com or discover her teas at https://www.nurtureforall.com.

Share this post

Looking for more ancient wisdom?

  • Explore the energy of this new moon
  • Tap into the wisdom of your body and heart
  • Commit to new ways to make space for yourself