By: Emil G. Hirsch
Generally, the tree known to botanists as Cupressus sempervirens, and common to southern Europe and western Asia. In modern Palestine the cypress is frequently found in the neighborhood of towns, and is often planted in cemeteries. There is some confusion as to which Hebrew word connotes the tree so named. In the A. V. the word "tirzah" (Isa. xliv. 14) is rendered "cypress," the context showing that a hardwood-tree is intended. The R. V., however, has abandoned this translation and adopted "holm-tree." On the other hand, a marginal note to Isa. xli. 19 (comp. lx. 13) suggests "cypress-tree" as a better equivalent than the usual "box-tree" for the Hebrew "te'ashshur" (), while in II Sam. vi. 5 it is proposed to read "cypress" instead of "fir" for the Hebrew "berot."
The older tradition, which favors the identification of the te'ashshur with the cypress, is fairly reasonable. The Arabs distinguish two classes of cypress-trees. One they call "sharbin," also known as the "tar-tree," because tar is derived from it; it is distinguished by broad branches that spread out on both sides of the trunk. The other class is called "sarw" ("sarwah"), and is of a very straight growth. Both names are derived from a root meaning, according to Fleischer, "to loom up high." Corresponding to "sharbin" is the Assyrian "surwan," also "shurmenu," which is the Syriac "shurbina" (written also "sharwina") and the Targumic "shurbana"; it is the tree known in the Talmud as "turanita." While some of the ancient authorities assume that this species is the cedar, or the Juniperus oxycedrus, others render it by the Greek κυπάρισσος. The "sarw" ("sarwah"), for which the Syriac has the same name as for the "sharbin," is the Cupressus sempervirens, known also as C. fastigiata, or, according to Linnæus, C. pyramidalis. Though the original distinction has not been clearly maintained in the cognate languages, it is proper to base upon it the difference between the tree designated in Hebrew by "te'ashshur" and that known as "berosh." The te'ashshur is the variety called in Arabic "sarw"—i.e., the straight-growing—while the berosh is the tree known in Arabic as "sharbin," with branches spreading out. The "tirzah," also, is probably a tree of this family. The wood of the cypress was highly valued, and was used in the construction of ships (Ezek. xxvii. 5), of floors and doors, as well as for lances. Even musical instruments were made of this wood (II Sam. vi. 5). As in the Bible, so also in Assyrian inscriptions, the cypress is frequently mentioned in connection with other trees, but most generally with the cedar.
If the exact value of the Biblical names be in doubt, the accurate determination of the meanings of the terms occurring in the Mishnah and Talmud in designation of trees of the evergreen class is involved in still greater uncertainty. Etymological equivalents of these Biblical names can be found, and other words have been added, but which of them indicates the cypress, or either of the two kinds named, can not be definitely determined. "Berosh," in Tan. to Terumah ix., is explained as the pine; in other passages (B. B. 80b; Giṭ. 57a; R. H. 23a) the cypress is named "toranita," which, again, in the catalogue of the fourteen or twenty-four kinds of evergreen trees (Ket. vii. 31c), is held to be the acacia ("shiṭṭah").
A curious custom may be mentioned in this connection: In Bethar, when a boy was born a cedar-tree was planted; when a girl a cypress (Rashi, "pine"; Giṭ. 57a). A new name for the cypress seems to be "ashuḥa," the "female" cedar or the cypress. It is plain, however, that the Rabbis understood by the various names which designated the cypress-tree, a tree of great endurance and hardness. An old saw illustrates this: "Why was this stone placed near the cypress?" (Peah viii. 20d); the meaning being, Why put one hard substance near another? or Why ask puzzling questions?
- Riehm, Handwörterbuch, 2d ed., pp.243, 283;
- Löw, Aramäische Pflanzennamen, pp. 59, 387;
- Fleischer, in Levy, Targum Wörterb. ii. 580.