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The Cedar and the Palm Tree: A

Paired Male/Female Symbol


in Hebrew and Aramaic

ARIEL

A.

BLOCH

There is limited evidence from two literary texts, one in Biblical Hebrew and the
other in Aramaic, for the pairing of the cedar and the pal111 tree as 111ale and female
sy111bols, respectively. I discuss specific gende1~related associations evoked by each
tree, as well as-in the case of the pal111-linguistic evidence for its ''femaleness. "

Trees and plants figure prominently in similes and metaphors about human beings in biblical poetry. The proverbial righteous person, for example, is said to thrive like a tree planted by streams of water (Ps 1:3,
and cf. Jer 17:8). In a similar vein, a prosperous nation may be described
as a vine whose branches reach beyond the sea (Isa 16:8, and cf. Ezek
31:3ff.) Associations of trees with human beings are probably so basic
and natural to human imagination as to echo in one way or another in
most of the world's cultures and literatures. On the other hand, the particular symbolism to be dealt with in this paper, involving the cedar and
the palm tree, may well turn out be specific to Mediterranean cultures.
In the Song of Songs, the Shulamite concludes her detailed paean
on her lover's physical attributes (5:10-15) with an enthusiastic exclamation, calling him ba}J:ilr ka-ariizim 'a man like a cedar' .1 As in biblical
Author's note: I want to express special gratitude to my colleagues Daniel Foxvog, Wolfgang
Heimpel, Anne Kilmer, and David Stronach for their helpful information about the various aspects connected with date palm symbolism and iconography in Mesopotamia and for
bringing the relevant sources to my attention. My thanks also to my graduate students Ruth
Kadish, Dan Reilly, and Lincoln Shlensky for many helpful suggestions and comments.
Needless to say, responsibility for errors is mine alone.
I. Or alternatively 'distinguished as a cedar'. The plural Jiiriizi111 is generic, denoting
the species. Hence not 'as cedars', as in most translations. (The generic nature of Jiiriizi111 in
this expression is captured in the modern Hebrew equivalent ba(mr ha-Jerez, with Jerez in the

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Ariel A. Bloch

imagery in general, the cedar in this expression evokes great strength


and a majestic height, in harmony with other typical "male" characteristics attributed to the lover in that passage; compare "his thighs are marble pillars," and notice the various hard metals associated with parts of
his body. 2 The cedar as a conventional male symbol continues to live on
also in historically later expressions, as in the postbiblical qaseh ka-:ierez
'hard as a cedar', or the designation :iere.z ha-liban6n 'cedar of Lebanon'
for a man distinguished in Torah learning. 3
The lover in turn views the Shulamite as a date palm: "I said in my
heart, Let me climb into that palm tree and take hold of its branches.
And oh, may your breasts be like clusters of grapes on a vine ..." (7:9).
In this verse the female aspect of the palm manifests itself not only in
the association of the date clusters with breasts, but also in the erotic
wish of the lover to climb that palm. In a more general sense, the association with a palm may also suggest a woman's tall, slender, proudly erect
stature.
Another male/female pairing of the cedar and the palm occurs in
the Genesis Apocryphon. 4 I am especially happy for the opportunity to
discuss a passage of the Genesis Apocryphon in the Festschrift for Jonas
Greenfield, since it was he who first drew my attention to the importance
of these texts for linguistic and literary studies in Aramaic. Genesis 12
tells us that Abraham, fearing that the Egyptians might kill him in order
to take the beautiful Sarai into Pharaoh's harem, demands of his wife to
identify herself as his sister, so as to save his life (compare this story with
the parallel story of Abimelech in Genesis 20). Now, col. XIX 14-21 of
the Genesis Apocryphon offers a midrashic expansion of the biblical narrative, intended to provide an explanation of the reason Sarai had to lie to
sing.) For other plurals used in a generic sense in the Song, see 2:9, coper hii-:iayyiili111; lit. 'a
young one of stags'; 4:15, 111acyan gannim; 7:9, tappu~1i111; etc. Translations from the Song of
Songs in this paper are based on Ariel and Chana Bloch, The Song of Songs: A New Translation
with an Introduction and Commentary, Afterword by Robert Alter, to be published by Random
House, 1995.

2. Of course, there is a lot of crossover between "male" and "female" traits in the Song
of Songs, where both lovers are not infrequently described in terms more commonly associated with the opposite sex. See "Introduction," in Bloch and Bloch, Song of Songs. Also
D. Fishelov, "The Song of Songs: Hard and Soft, Dynamic and Static," in Studies in Poetic Simile [Hebrew, manuscript].
3. A. Even-Shoshan, Ha-Millon He-lfadas (Jerusalem, 1982). For the cedar as a male symbol consider also the midrashic tale about a custom of planting a cedar tree when a boy was
born (H. N. Bialik and Y H. Ravnitzky, Sefer Ha-"A.ggadah [Tel-Aviv, 1960] 156). (For a girl an
acacia would be planted, siffu, which differs from the female symbol dealt with in this paper.)
4. See ]. A. Fitzmyer, The Genesis Apocryplwn of Qu111ran Cave I: A Commentary (2d. ed.;
Rome, 1971).

The Cedar and the Palm Tree

15

the Egyptians to save her husband's life. On the night before entering
Egypt, we are told, Abraham had a dream about a cedar and a very beautiful date palm. 5 When some people came along intending to cut down
the cedar but leave the date palm, the date palm remonstrated, and so
the cedar was saved on account of the palm's intercession. (I leave out a
number of details in this dream that are of no relevance to the specific
topic under discussion.) The significance to the present subject is obvious: Abraham is the cedar, Sarai the date palm.
Fitzmyer suggests6 that the two trees in this dream are drawn from
Ps 92:13, "The righteous will blossom like a palm tree; he will grow high
like a cedar in Lebanon," observing that rabbinical literature likewise
tends to relate this particular verse to the story of Abraham and Sarai in
Genesis 12. He also suggests the Song of Songs' male/female pairing of
these two trees as an additional possible source of influence on the
dream in the Genesis Apocryphon. Without denying in principle the possibility of intertextual influence, I would argue that Fitzmyer's approach
leaves out an important aspect. An association of Ps 92:13 with Abraham
and Sarai, as suggested by Fitzmyer, obviously presupposes a perception of
a gender distinction between the two trees in the mind of those early exegetes who made this connection. For without such an association along
gender lines, the attribution would have probably been the reverse, that
is, *Abraham as the palm, *Sarai as the cedar, in conformity with the
conventional order: Abraham and Sarai (= male and female, Gen 5:2,
7:16; Lev 3:1; and the many other ordered sequences, Moses and Aaron,
etc.). Indeed, a gender distinction between these two trees may lie latent
already in the Psalms verse itself. It is probably no coincidence that the
palm is associated with budding and blossoming (yipralJ,), hence indirectly with the production of fruit, while the cedar is associated with
height (yisgeh). 7
Apart from the general associations by which the palm could become
a female symbol-the tree as the provider of a major source of nourishment; the date clusters as breasts; possible sexual and erotic connotations evoked by the palm, as in the Song; the palm tree's gracefully
slender trunk-there is also linguistic support for the perception of the
tree's inherent femaleness. While Hebrew tamar 'palm tree' is grammatically masculine, it is significant that the name Tamar is exclusively a
woman's name (Gen 38:6; 2 Sam 13:1, 14:27, and passim). The creation
of such a personal name from the word for the palm could have hardly
5. Jn: lid wtmrJ ~1dJ [yJy] J [sgyJ]. in Fitzmyer's plausible restoration.
6. Fitzmyer, Genesis Apocryphon, 111
7. I owe this observation to Robert Alter.

16

Ariel A. Bloch

come about without a perception of the tree's femaleness. Or, put differently, it is precisely when the tree is intimately associated with the human
sphere-as in the process of naming-that its femaleness comes to the
fore. Moreover, in the Aramaic of the Genesis Apocryphon, midrashic Hebrew, and Syriac, the word for 'palm' becomes overtly marked by the
feminine ending, tmr:Jltmrt~ temara, temarta:J (Arabic tamra is a nomen unitatis and thus does not belong in the same category). Such historically
secondary marking of originally unmarked nouns is a well-known linguistic development, often taking place when an object is perceived as
female for some inherent iconic/symbolic factor. For example, the 'bow'
is formally unmarked in Arabic qaws (reflecting Proto-Semitic *qaws),
but becomes secondarily marked by the feminine ending in most Semitic
daughter languages, Hebrew qeset, Ethiopic qast, Syriac qesta~ Assyrian
qastu. 8 (The association with femaleness is most probably connected with
the how's round shape, the fact that it "envelops" the arrow, etc.) Of
course, such secondary overt gender marking may happen also with natural feminines, for example, French soeur, but Italian sorella. 9
Finally, there is some support from Mesopotamia for the female symbolism of the palm tree. A vessel fragment from Lagash dating ea. 2400
B.C.E. shows a goddess holding a date cluster. 10 More specifically, Ishtar,
the goddess of fertility and sexuality, is depicted on one cylinder seal as
standing near a date palm and on another as holding the fruit-stalk of a
date palm in her hand. She is also described as "Ishtar, who envelops
him (her lover) as the sissinnu the dates." 12 Sissinnu is the fruit-stalk
(spadix, or reproductive organ) of the female palm tree. In order for the
female tree to produce dates, pollen must be transferred to it from a
male palm tree. 13 The association between the goddess and the date
palm and, specifically, between her and the sissinnu, the palm's repro-

8. Brockelmann, Gmndriss, 1.190.


9. For this phenomenon, see Y. Malkiel, "Diachronic Hypercharacterization in Romance," Arc/1iv11111 Ling11istic111119 (1957) 79-113; (1958) 1-36.
10. For a description, see M. Eiland, "Evidence for Pile Carpets in Cuneiform
Sources ... ," in 01ie11tal Cm-pet and Textile Studies (Berkeley, 1993) 4.15.
11. R. M. Boehmer, Die Entwicklungder Glyptik wiihre11d der Akhad-Zeit (Berlin, 1965) 307.
12. CAD S 325 s.v. sissinnu. The Heh. etymological cognate of the Akk. word is found
in the Bible only in Song 7:9, "oliiizti be-sansinniiyw, lit., 'let me take hold of its [the date
palm's) sansinni111 '. Athough the exact meaning of the sa11sin11i111 is not clear (interpretations
range from 'fruit-stalk' to 'topmost branches of the palm'), the very occurrence of the word
in an unmistakably sexual context, with the date palm symbolizing the female, may well
point to a "Mesopotamian connection" of this particular image.
13. For a depiction of the procedure of date palm pollination in ancient Mesopotamian iconography, see Eiland, "Evidence for Pile Carpets in Cuneiform Sources," 16-17.

The Cedar and the Palm Tree

17

ductive organ, is highly indicative of the the date palm as a symbol of female sexuality and reproductivity.
Let us return to the major point. Two texts, one in Biblical Hebrew
and the other in Aramaic, provide evidence for the pairing of the cedar
and the palm tree as male and female symbols, respectively. Certain
gender-related associations evoked by these two trees determined their
choice as contrasting gender symbols (including specific sexual connotations in the case of the date palm). There is also some linguistic, including onomastic, evidence for the inherent "femaleness" of the palm. We
are dealing here with a basic phenomenon of human perception in
which objects are considered masculine or feminine depending on a
specific characteristic or on a particular human association evoked by
the object. The underlying methodological argument is that, although
this association may manifest itself in literary texts, as has been shown,
the association itself is first of all a product of the human mind: a way
chosen to perceive reality.