Tuesday, March 03, 2009


Purim is coming up soon, and I was recently asked about the meaning of the phrase שושנת יעקב shoshanat yaakov, found in the piyut sung after the reading of the megila.

I grabbed the siddur closest to me, an Artscroll, and it gave the translation "rose of Jacob". However, the Sacks translation in the new Koren English siddur has "lily of Jacob". A number of other siddurim have either "lily" or "rose", so I thought perhaps Birnbaum could break the tie. He actually translates the phrase as "Jews of Shushan", which probably is closest to the figurative sense of the phrase, but doesn't help us as to the question of whether a shoshana שושנה is a lily or a rose. (Just to make it clear, there's no etymological connection between Shushan and shoshana. However, the folk etymology is ancient - going all the way back to the Babylonian conquest of the city. So it certainly makes sense that the anonymous author of the piyut would make a poetic connection between the two terms.)

So let's look at the dictionaries. Here's there is much more uniformity. Klein has two entries - one for שושן (shoshan or shushan) and the other for shoshana -both primarily based on Ben Yehuda. First shoshan:

lily. (Some scholars identify shoshan with the lotus, others with the ranunculus Asiaticus, still others with the cyperus papyrus.) [Related to Aramaic שושנתא (whence Ugaritic twt, Arabic sausan, Vulgar Arabic susan), Akkadian sheshanu (=lily), Syriac shishno (=butomus flowers). Several scholars derive these words from Egyptian sshshn and sshn, Coptic shoshen (=big flower; lotus). According to others the above words go back to Akkadian shushu (six-sided), shishshu (=sixth). Greek souson, whence Latin Susanna, are Semitic loan words.]
As you may recall, we discussed the connection between shoshana and six in our post on shesh. I mentioned there that Ibn Ezra connects shoshana to shesh in his commentary on Shir HaShirim 2:2 -
It is a white flower of sweet but narcotic perfume, and it receives its name because the flower has, in every case, six [shesh] petals, within which are six long filaments.
Klein continues with his entry on shoshana:

1. lily. 2. Post Biblical Hebrew: flower 3. PBH knot of a nail 4. New Hebrew: erysipelas (disease). 5. NH rose [a collateral form of שושן]
Steinberg identifies both the shoshan and shoshana as a lily, and Kaddari specifies the lilium candidum, the shoshan hatzachor שושן הצחור - the flower on the one shekel coin. (He does say that it could be referring to the lotus in Melachim I 7: 22, 26). Amos Chacham in his Daat Mikra commentary on Shir HaShirim, distinguishes between the shoshana bein hachochim שושנה בין החוחים - lilium candidum (2:2), and shoshanat ha'amakim שושנת העמקים - narcissus tazetta (2:1), also known as the narkis נרקיס (which also has six petals). The Encyclopedia Ivrit (quoted in this interesting article about shoshana) goes so far as to say that when the lilium candidum was found growing wild in the Galil and Carmel - the long debate about the identification of the Biblical shoshana was over.

So if the Biblical shoshana referred to a kind of lily - when did it become associated with the rose? Ben Yehuda writes that in Talmudic Hebrew, shoshana came to indicate "flower" in general. Paul Romanoff, in this article, writes:

The lily, shoshanah, is used generically, as it embraced other related flowers. Lilies had grown on hills and in the field. The choicest of lilies were those that grew in the valleys, in the proximity of water. Perah - flower in the Bible - is often rendered shoshanah - lily in the Targum.
In a footnote, he notes Targum Onkelos to Shmot 25:31-34 and Bamidbar 8:4 as examples of perach being translated as shoshana.

He then goes on to discuss Jewish coins with flowers on them, including one with what looks like a rose. He explains this as follows:

This seeming inaccuracy is explained by the generic term of shoshan which might have included such flowers as the lotus and even the rose. In fact, the Midrash contains a few passages which speak of a soft lily, and the excellent of this kind is the lily of the valley, paralleling the rose of the valley. Besides these allusions, the Midrash specifically mentions a shoshanah shel wered -a lily-rose - which grows in orchards, this species of lily-rose being the symbol of Israel.
So we see from this example from Vayikra Rabba (23:3), that the shoshana shel vered שושנה של ורד was a subset of the more generic shoshana. Vered is a post-biblical word, to which Klein gives the following etymology:

Aramaic ורדא, borrowed from Iranian *wrda, whence Greek rodon, whence Latin rosa (=rose)
Ben Yehuda says that the association of the rose with the shoshana eventually led to later commentators to identify the shoshana with the rose in general. He gives two reasons: a) because they viewed the rose as the most beautiful flower, and b) the rose was well known to them, whereas they had difficulty identifying the Biblical shoshana. This Safa-Ivrit article mentions two other reasons: a) the shoshana is described as the queen of the flowers - which could apply to the rose, and b) the word vered doesn't appear in the Tanach, so they didn't need to say that shoshana = lily and vered = rose. I would also add that in no verse is the color of the shoshana or shoshan mentioned - leaving room for it to be either the white lily or the red rose. (Shir HaShirim 5:13 does mention שפתותיו שושנים - "his lips are like shoshanim". However, that does not necessarily mean color - as Ibn Ezra points out it could refer to the fragrance of the shoshanim, or as suggested by the Daat Mikra, the shape of the leaves.)

Rashi in particular reinforced the identification of shoshana with rose in his commentary on Shir HaShirim 2:2, where he describes it as always remaining red (although he doesn't mention the word rose or vered.) It also appears that the Zohar identifies the shoshana as a rose.

As the Safa-Ivrit article points out, immigrants to Israel from Europe with names related to Rose - Raisel, Rosa, etc - generally used to adopt the name Shoshana. So while vered was still known to be "rose", I'm guessing it was more of a technical term, and less of a popular one. However, now the name Vered is also popular - which I think came in parallel to the flower being more popularly known as vered.

So which translation is right? In a way, this is similar to the phenomenon we've seen before, such as in the question of what is the nesher. We now live in a scientific age, where every plant and animal is classified and sub-classified into genus and species. So we expect that the Hebrew names should reflect that level of precision. But the ancients weren't as concerned with that level of detail as we are today, and therefore shoshana could refer to a number of different flowers - even those fairly distantly related botanically.

So while both the Biblical and modern shoshana mean "lily", it could be that the author of the piyut was actually thinking "rose." So maybe Birnbaum had the safest translation after all...

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