More on the siaḥ of suaḥ: numinous conversations of trees and other vegetation

While working on some curriculum for the Teva Learning Alliance this summer, I was introduced to the Tseno Ureno, an amazing medieval commentary on the Torah by Rabbi Yaakov ben Yitsḥak Ashkenazi (1550-1625). Here’s Rabbi Yaakov Ashkenazi on Deuteronomy 20:19 — כִּ֤י הָֽאָדָם֙ עֵ֣ץ הַשָּׂדֶ֔ה. This is the verse from which the mitzvah of bal tashḥit is derived and directly gives voice to the Jewish value of Lo Tashḥit — not destroying. He writes,

“[The Torah compares humans to trees] because, like humans, trees have the power to grow. And as humans have children, so trees bear fruit. And when a human is hurt, cries of pain are heard throughout the world, so when a tree is chopped down, its cries are heard throughout the world.”
from Tseno Ur’eno (258b).

Here’s the passage from the Tseno Ureno in it’s original Yiddish in the old mashkit font.

Yaakov ben Yitsḥak Ashkenazi – Tseno Ur’eno (258b) on Deuteronomy 20:19

Besides the haunting and powerful environmental imagery expressed in this commentary, it made an immediate connection for me with a story of Rebbe Naḥman of Breslov which references a similar sentiment:

Rebbe Naḥman of Bratzlav was once traveling with his ḥasidim by carriage, and as it grew dark they came to an inn, where they spent the night. During the night Rebbe Naḥman began to cry out loudly in his sleep, waking everyone up in the inn. Everyone came running to see what happened. When he awoke, the first thing Rebbe Naḥman did was to take out a book he had brought with him. Then he closed his eyes and opened the book and pointed to a passage. And there it was written “Cutting down a tree before its time is like killing a soul.”

Then Rebbe Naḥman asked the innkeeper if the walls of that inn had been built out of saplings cut down before their time. The innkeeper admitted that this was true, but how did the rabbi know?

Rebbe Naḥman said: “All night I dreamed I was surrounded by the bodies of those who had been murdered. I was very frightened. Now I know that it was the souls of the trees that cried out to me.” (From Rebbe Naḥman as retold by Howard Schwartz in Trees, Earth, and Torah: A Tu B’Shvat Anthology, ed. Ami Elon, Arthur Waskow (1998).)

The imagery is fantastical but the idea is present in other sources and I think opens a very interesting door into Jewish cosmology. Through what numinous mechanism is vegetation (suaḥ) always in siaḥ (conversation)?

But first, where is the connection between conversation and vegetation even derived from? In Genesis 24:63, Yitzḥak goes out into the field in the evening awaiting Eliezer and his bride-to-be, Rivka. But the verb describing his activty in the field contains an ambiguous verbal infinitive — la-suaḥ. Everyone agrees that suaḥ in the verse has something to do with siaḥ and thus conversation, especially in communication through one’s self via prayer and meditation, is strongly associated with vegetation. Elsewhere, Rebbe Naḥman teaches,

Know that when an individual prays in a field, all the plants enter the prayer. They help him and give him strength to pray. It is for this reason that prayer is called siḥah, as in “suaḥ (shrub) of the field” (Genesis 2:5) — for each shrub of the field gives him strength and assistance during his prayer. This the significance of “And Yitzḥak went out to pray (la-suaḥ) in the field” (Genesis 24:63). His prayer was helped and strengthened by the field, since all the field’s plants fortified and assisted his prayer. (Likkutei Moharan 2:11)

I think Rav Kook is probably also giving voice to this idea in the following quote (although the numinous conversation of vegetation is somewhat obscured in Rav Kook’s panentheist vision of the entire material world radiating a living communication):

For us and for the whole world, prayer is total necessity…prayer is the ideal of all the worlds. All of being yearns for the source of its life: every blade of grass and flower, every grain of sand and clod of earth; the things which throb visibly with life and those in which life is concealed; the smallest beings in creation and the largest — all long and yearn, thirst and clamor for the precious completeness of their supreme source. And the moment comes when all these cravings are gathered up and absorbed by the Adam (the earthling) who uplifts all of creation together in prayer, [thereby] uniting all of being within their self, and elevating everything to the source of blessing and the source of life.1

The numinous communication of plants is described within a particularly Jewish angelology in which the angel Metatron represents the idea and praxis of communication. Mark Verman describes the relationship in his The History and Varieties of Jewish Meditation (1997):

Metatron, the Prince of the Divine Countenance and cosmic scribe, is an extremely important angel in rabbinic and heḥalot (chariot) literature, the Jewish mystical writings in late antiquity. The numerical value of Metatron is 314, the same as the divine name Shaddai. In an early medieval Ashkenazic manuscript it states, “Metatron… in gematria is suaḥ (meditate) for he was designated to receive prayers. This is also the gematria of ha-sadeh [the field], for there is no prayer except in the field, as it is stated, ‘And Yitzḥak went out to la-suaḥ in the field’ and siḥah connotes prayer.” [cited by Moshe Idel, Tarbitz 62:2 (1993) 270.]

The relationship between Metatron and communication also seems to be suggested in the Sefer Ḥanokh (1 Enoch) where Ḥanokh acts as an earthly intercessor on behalf of the fallen angels (nephilim) pleading for forgiveness for the corruption they’ve brought upon the Earth. This story provides an explanation for why Ḥanokh could be physically translated from that of earthly advocate to divine psychopomp associated with the very idea of communication itself. But the translation of Ḥanokh to Metatron isn’t the only example of righteous people being associated with divine intercession, numinous communication, and vegetation. For an elaborate discussion of tzaddikim depicted metaphorically as shrubs/trees, see the Talmud Bavli Baba Batra 78b — “the righteous are siḥin (shrubs).” (Also see Rashi’s extensive comments in 78b, providing numerous biblical references.)

This all helps me to understand better the recommendation in the Mishneh Berurah to pray in the company of trees if one must pray outside. The Mishneh Berurah is summarizing a discussion among earlier commentators on a statement in the Shulḥan Arukh (Oraḥ Ḥaim) on why one should not pray in an open field. The Shulkhan Arukh’s statement is based on an opinion of Rav Kahana at the end of Chapter 5 in the Talmud Bavli, Berachot 34b:

ואמר רבי חייא בר אבא אמר רבי יוחנן אל יתפלל אדם אלא בבית שיש שם חלונות שנאמר (דניאל ו, יא) וכוין פתיחן ליה בעליתיה (לקבל) [נגד] ירושלם

Rebi Ḥiyya bar Abba said in the name of Rebi Yoḥanan: A man should not pray save in a room which has windows,2 since it says, Now his windows were open in his upper chamber towards Jerusalem.3

אמר רב כהנא חציף עלי מאן דמצלי בבקתא, ואמר רב כהנא חציף עלי מאן דמפרש חטאיה שנאמר “אשרי נשוי פשע כסוי חטאה” (תהלים לב, א):‏

Rav Kahana said: I consider a man haughty who prays in a bigtha. Rav Kahana also said: I consider a man haughty who openly4 recounts his transgressions, since it is said, Happy is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose transgression is covered over.5

Rashi and Tosafot disagree on why Rav Kahana considers one to be haughty who prays in a bigta. Later commentators understand a bigta to be a level stretch of ground where wayfarers travel, either a bika’h (valley) according to Rashi, or a sadeh (open field) in the reading of Tosafos. Crucially, it is Tosafos that suggests the valence of Yitzchak conversing/meditating (la-suach) in the field, explaining that Yitzchak was allowed to pray in such an open field because he was actually walking upon Har HaMoriah. Rav Yosef Karo in the Shulḥan Arukh (1563) takes up this meaning in his summation (שולחן ערוך הלכות תפלה סימן צ׃ה):

לֹא יִתְפַּלֵּל בְּמָקוֺם פָּרוּץ כְּמוֺ בַּשָּׂדֶה, מִפְּנֵי שֶׁכְּשֶׁהוּא בִּמְקוֺם צְנִיעוּת חָלָה עָלָיו אֵימַת מֶלֶךְ וְלִבּוֺ נִשְׁבָּר׃

One should not pray in a maqom peirutz (an open area), such as a field. This is because when one is in a maqom tsniut (secluded space) the fear of the King takes hold of them and their complacency is shattered.6

Rav Yosef Karo’s explanation appears to differ with Tosafos. While Rashi explains that a bigta is not a secluded space, Tosafos holds that the reason for not praying in a bigta is because one might be interrupted and distracted by foot traffic. This position has legal ramifications since it leaves open the possibility of praying in the bigtha so long as there is no traffic. Conversely, Rashi’s interpretation of a bigta would suggest the problem with it is inherent in the place itself not being secluded. The difference may be in the psychogeography of the place on the person — is it busy or is it open and secluded. Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan in the Mishneh Berurah (1876) will call this distinction out, and suggest the benefit cited by Rabbi Yosef Ben Meir Teomim (Pri Megadim) in praying amidst trees. משנה ברורה צ׃ה

(יא) בְּמָקוֺם פָּרוּץ. וְהִנֵּה לְחַד תִּרוּצָא דְתוֺסָפוֺת, אִם הוּא עוֺמֵד בְּצַד הַדֶּרֶךְ בְּמָקוֺם שֶׁאֵין מְתְיָרֵא שֶׁיַּפְסִיקוּהוּ עוּבְרֵי דְרָכִים, שָׁרֵי; אַךְ בְּבֵית־יוֺסֵף מְמָאֵן בְּדִבְרֵיהֶם. וְהִנֵּה אַף שֶׁהַמָּגֵן־אַבְרָהָם וּשְׁאָרֵי אַחֲרוֺנִים מְיַשְּׁבִים לְדִבְרֵי הַתּוֺסָפוֺת, מְכָּל מָקוֺם כָּתְבוּ שֶׁבַּזֹּהַר מַשְׁמַע שֶׁיֵּשׁ לְהִתְפַּלֵּל דַּוְקָא בְּבָיִת. ‏

In an open area. Note that according to one of the explanations [given] by the Tosafos, this is permitted if one stands at the side of the road in a place where he will not be afraid that travelers will interrupt him [while he is praying]. However, the Beit Yosef [Rav Yosef Caro] refuses [to accept] this reasoning of theirs. Now, although the Magen Avraham and other Aḥaronim reconcile the words of the Tosafos, they nevertheless write that it is implied by the Zohar that one must pray solely inside a building.

וְעוֺבְרֵי דְרָכִים, לְכֻלֵּי עַלְמָא מֻתָּרִים לְהִתְפַּלֵּל בּשָּׂדֶה, וּמִכָּל מָקוֺם כּשֶׁיֵּשׁ שָׁם אִילָנוֺת, טוֺב יוֺתֵר שֶׁיַּעֲמוֺד שׁם בֵּינֵיהֶם וְיִתְפַּלֵּל, אִם אֵין קָשֶׁה עָלָיו אִחוּר דַּרְכּוֺ, דְּמָקוֺם צַנוּעַ הוּא קְצָת עַל־יְדֵי זֶה; וּכְשֶׁהוּא בְּבֵיתוֺ אֵין לִסְמֹךְ עַל זֶה׃

Travelers are permitted to pray in a field according to all [authorities]. Nevertheless, when there are trees [in the field], it is preferable for them to stand there amidst [the trees] and pray, if the delay to their traveling [which this will involve] is not a hardship to them. For the area [among the trees] is partially secluded because of them. [However,] when one is at home, he should not rely on this [reasoning and consider an area which is amidst trees as secluded].7

In his Pri Megadim: Mishbetzot Zahav, Rabbi Yoseph ben Meir Teomim (1771) cites the Baḥ — Rabbi Yoel ben Shmuel Sirkis — as the source for the idea of praying amidst trees as a preferable maqom tsnua, when one is in an open field or valley. The position of Tosafos — that the problem with the bigtha is foot traffic — is referred to as teirutz (position) #2. Tosafos is taking into regard Rebi Yose’s story in Bavli Berachos 3a, in which he explains in the name of Eliyahu HaNavi why praying on the road is preferable to praying in a ruin. Teirutz #1 reflects Rashi’s position of the bigtha not being secluded, a maqom tsnua. אורח חיים הלכות ק״ש
פרי מגידים׃ משבצות זהב צ׃ה

(ב) במקום.
עיין ט״ז. ולתירוץ הב׳ קולא בבקעה שאין מצוין בני אדם שרי, ולתירוץ א׳ דווקא במקום צניעות שיהא לבו נכנע עיין ב״ח [פא, ב ד״ה ולא יתפלל], וכתב עוד דויצא יצחק “לשוח” ולא כתיב בלשון אחר לומר שהחביא עצמו תחת אחד השיחים, ולפי זה בדרך כשיש יער יעמוד שם ויתפלל, אם אין קשה עליו איחור דרכו ונקרא מקום צנוע, ומברכות ג׳ א׳ דאמר היה להתפלל בדרך והשיב מתירא שלא יפסיקו עוברי דרכים אין ראיה לתירוץ הב׳ של תוספות וכפי מה שהבין הבית יוסף, דאי נמי לתירוץ א׳ דמקום צנוע בעינן, אפילו הכי מדאעמר ליה אליהו ז״ל היה להתפלל בדרך טוב יותר מלכנוס לחורבה, בהכרח השיב לו דמתירא [מ]עוברי דרכים, והשיב לו תפילה קצרה. והנה בית אפל ובקעה לכאורה שניהם שוין מטעם הכנעה, וזה אינו דבקעה חצוף מקרי, שאין נכנע להסתר מפני בוראו אף על גב דאם יסתר איש במסתרים כו׳ [ירמיה כג, כד] עיין נחלת צבי [עטרת צבי ס״ק ח], (מה שכתב בחלונות שיהא לבו נכנע כשמסתכל לשמים, להמחבר אין צריך לקבל ירושלים), ואיני יודע למה השמיט המחבר דחציף מאן דמצלי בבקתא. וסומא אין נפקא מינה לו בית אפל, או חלון שלא נגד המזרח, אבל בקעה ובית אפל גם לסומא טוב במקום צניעות. בליל יום הכיפורים תפלת ערבית אין לסגור החלונות בבית הכנסת בדפין מטעם לקבל ירושלים :‏

In his Bayit Ḥadash (circa 1631-40), Rabbi Yoel Sirkis (aka, the Baḥ) raises the possibility that a bigtha might actually refers to something besides a valley or an open field. A bigtha may instead be a small house or hut without windows. (In my mind, this could describe a certain kind of roadside shrine expressly built for pilgrim travelers.) This would also make sense in the context of the discussion in the Talmud Berakhot 34b referring to the importance of praying with window openings where one can see the sky. One shouldn’t be completely exposed or completely isolated.8 Rather, an in between space is optimal. This is suggested in Yitsḥak conversing la-suach, amidst vegetation and trees — concealed in a maqom tsnua that is simlutaneously outside, open, vegetative, and secluded. Here’s the בית חדש on אורח חיים צ׃ה

ולא יתפלל במקום פרוץ כמו בשדה דאמר רבא חציף עלי מען דמצלי בבקתא פירוש בבקעה׃
ונראה עוד לחרץ קושיית התוספות דיצחק לא היה מתפלל במקום פרוץ אלא בין האילנות היה מתפלל וזהו שאמר הכתוב לשוח ולא אמר להתפלל לשון המיוחד לתפילה אלא אמר לשוח דמשמע נמי שהתפלל בין השיחים מסתתר ביניהם בשעת תפילה׃

רבינו בבקתה פירוש בבקעה.‏

נרעה דלפי דבפרק נערה (כתובות נד.) קעמר תלמודה על הנאי כתובה את תהא יתבא בביתי וכו׳ בביתי ולא בבקתא דפירושו לשם בי עקתה כלומר בית קטן וצר לכך כתב רבינו דכאן אין כך פירושו דודאי בבי עקתא יכול להתפלל אם יש בו חלונות אלא פירושו בבקעה׃

The maqom tsnua of vegetation, ultimately, is what is suggested by the artificial structure of the Sukkah — a shelter for a farmer or shepherd in what would otherwise be an open field. The sukkah is what is represented by the Mishkan in the Midbar, and by extension, the Temple on Har Moriah, and by further extension – synagogues — so long as they have windows by which the sky can be seen. To note, a kosher sukkah is one in which the sky can be seen and which is yet covered enough to permit a sense of seclusion (more shade than sunlight). The 14th century Italian illustration of a sukkah, captures this sense of seclusion and vegetation very well, I think:

Image: Manuscript Illustration of a Sukkah (Italy, 1374). British Library MS Or 5024 fol 70v

As a matter of speculation, perhaps in contrast to a sukkah, the bigta was a small completely enclosed sort of hut — a fortlike isolation tank that can lead one into an illusion of self-reliance. Instead of a conversation, la-suach, one’s voice turns in on oneself leading to the illusion that they are alone. Of singular importance is that we, Bnei Adam, remain connected and interconnected. This is a basis for our retaining, maintaining, and sustaining a mindset of compassion, empathy, and hospitality. A positive relationship between the children of the Adam and siach, vegetation is crucial.

The relationship between angels and vegetation is a matter of some concern in Bereishit Rabbah 10:6.

א“ר סימון אין לך כל עשב ועשב, שאין לו מזל ברקיע שמכה אותו, ואומר לו גדל, הה“ד (איוב לח) הידעת חקות שמים אם תשים משטרו בארץ וגו‘, לשון שוטר

Rav Simon said: Every single blade of grass has a Mazal [lit. constellation] in the rakia (heavenly firmament) which strikes it and says, ‘Grow!’ This is the meaning of the verse ‘Do you know the laws of the heavens, and can you place their control [mishtar] over the earth?’ (Iyov 38:33) Mishtar is an expression of shoteir [meaning, an enforcing officer].) (Bereishit Rabbah, 10:6 (translation by Rabbi Mordechai Torczyner)

The relationship between angels and vegetation is mechanical, bureaucratic, and without empathy. This commanding role of angels in the cosmology of Judaism in late antiquity suggests another understanding of Genesis 2:15, namely that the earthling (ha-adam) was placed in Gan Eden to cultivate a different, more compassionate sort of relationship than that which would normally be executed by the initial generation of angels (before humans like Ḥanokh were translated into angelic powers).

וַיִּקַּ֛ח יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֑ם וַיַּנִּחֵ֣הוּ בְגַן־עֵ֔דֶן לְעָבְדָ֖הּ וּלְשָׁמְרָֽהּ׃

And יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים placed the Earthling in the Garden of Eden to cultivate and to protect it (l’ovdah ul’shomrah). (Bereishit 2:15)

Given the Adam/Earthling’s reliance on vegetation for food (per the command in the very next verse, Genesis 2:16, and Genesis 1:29 to only eat vegetation), such a close and caring relationship is understandable. Angels don’t need to eat. Those angels who later in Genesis chapter 5 and 6 do descend to earth are described as seeing and taking. In the Midrash of Shemhazai and Azael (in the Yalkut Shemoni), Sefer Yuvalim (Jubilees) and Hanokh (I Enoch) are corrupting the earth with a predatory nature in the service of their unquenchable divine appetites. They perceive the natural world merely as a resource for consumption. (I think this is an ancient projection of human nature onto that of beings so separated by their class privilege that they no longer recognize the importance of preserving sustainability at the expense of appetite.) Which brings me back to the mitzvah of lo tashḥit (not destroying) and bal tashḥit — not wasting, that is expressed with the command in Deuteronomy 20:19 not to cut down the trees of the field during a time of siege. We can act like bnei-Adam, compassionate, gentle earthlings, taking responsibility for keeping our appetites plant-based and sustainable, living in harmony with our fellow shrubs, each one a tzaddik, ensuring they have no cause to cry out, and thereby avoiding bringing a nightmare upon the world.


  1. Ha-Rav Isaac ha-Cohen Kook z”l, Olat Re’ayah, vol 1, p. Y. Morial, “Prayer in the Philosophy of ha-Rav Kook,” Be-‘Oro (Jerusalem: 1986), p. 49. Translation remixed between Binyamin Ish Shalom in Rav Avraham Itzhak HaCohen Kook: Between Rationalism and Mysticism (1992), p.149, and Lawrence A. Hoffman citing Contemporary Jewish Thought: A Reader (Washington, DC: B’nai Brith Department of Adult Jewish Education, 1963) p.106. I translate the Adam as the earthling.
  2. Rashi: so that he should have a view of the sky
  3. Daniel 6:11
  4. as though unashamed
  5. Psalms 32:1.
  6. Or more literally, “their Libo, heart, nishbar, is broken.”
  7. The Mishnah Berurah here cites the Pri Megadim.
  8. The discussion following this rule in the Shulḥan Arukh follows directly to Berakhot 3a — the danger of praying in ruins. The ḥurban (the ruin of the Temple) provides an amazing example in that story since it is also the mytho-historic space within which Yitsḥak wandered la-suaḥ. In this formulation, the spectrum of permitted and forbidden spaces to pray begins and ends with the open space above Har HaMoriah.

About Aharon N. Varady

Aharon's Omphalos is the hobbit hole of Aharon Varady, founding director of the Open Siddur Project. He is a community planner and environmental educator working to improve stewardship of the Public Domain, be it the physical and natural commons of urban park systems or the creative and cultural commons of libraries and museums. His advocacy for open-source strategies in the Jewish community has been written about in the Atlantic Magazine, the Yiddish Forverts, Tablet, and Haaretz. He is particularly interested in pedagogies for advancing ecological wisdom, developing creative and emotional intelligence, and realizing effective theurgical praxes. He welcomes your comments, personal messages, and kind words. If you find his work helpful to your own or you'd simply like to support him, please consider donating via his Patreon account.

1 comment to More on the siaḥ of suaḥ: numinous conversations of trees and other vegetation

Leave a Reply