The impressive scientific career and activism of Shikmah Bressler are by now world renowned. After her arrest on March 23, 2023, while leading a day of disruption as one of the founders of the Black Flag protest movement, her work has gone viral in the media. Writing a book about Jews and trees, I find myself intrigued as much by Dr. Bressler’s first name, as by her resume. Shikmah is Hebrew for the Sycomore tree, Ficus sycomores L (not the American Plane Tree or the English Maple, commonly referred to as Sycamores with an “a”). The Sycomore is a type of fig tree often found alongside olive trees on the plains of Israel’s lowlands. The late founder of Neot Kedumim, Noga HaReuveni, wrote about the shikma:
…Extraordinary regenerative powers are an outstanding characteristic of the sycomore tree. Even if chopped down at ground level, it will restore itself and grow new limbs…In Hebrew, the very name of the sycomore, shikma, is related to the [Hebrew] word shikum, meaning rejuvenation, [its] most outstanding trait…(Tree and Shrub in Our Biblical Heritage, p. 83).
Given Jews’ fascination since biblical times with the transformative symbolic power of names and naming, (See Genesis 2), one might speculate that Bressler’s parents named her Shikma in their hopes that she would possess the sycomore’s qualities; certainly, her activism aimed at rejuvenating Israeli civil society fits poetically with the tree whose name she possesses. However, the reasons behind a person’s name are private and should remain within the domain of a family’s interior life, free of others’ trite symbolizations.
Still, I’m fascinated by the seemingly sheer number of Jewish Israelis, (and committed Diaspora Jews), with tree names. It is the normalcy of naming one’s child after a tree in Hebrew – something I don’t encounter nearly as frequently among English speakers – that puzzles me.
Perhaps this is not such a puzzle, when we consider that Israel is a nation whose founding myths (and realities) emphasized hardscrabble tenacity in making deserts bloom and surviving, at times at all odds, like ancient trees. Therefore trees, cacti and other hardy plants included, stubbornly persist as metaphors within the Israeli collective self-image. That persistent self-image might lead more Israelis than, for example, Americans to name their children with tree names.
However, current research doesn’t bear my assumptions. Israelis do give their kids tree names, but this is because those names are based on our biblical heritage, not necessarily for any other specific reason. Malka Muchnik, a professor of Hebrew and Semitic Studies at Bar Ilan University, recently conducted research on the resurgence of Israeli biblical personal names. (https://doi.org/10.34158/ONOMA.55/2020/15) She examined the Central Bureau of Statistics’ name lists of Israeli children born in 2018 and concluded the following:
…In most cases modern [Israeli] Hebrew names are based on the Bible…Although the use of some names is different nowadays, particularly regarding gender distribution, their basic grammatical and semantic aspects are very similar to the biblical ones…The presence and reappearance of a great number of personal names inspired [by] the Bible…reinforces the feeling that we are experiencing a reconstruction of cultural heritage…
Professor Muchnik readily admits that biblical tree names such as Alon, Tamar, Erez, Oren and Hadas are found commonly among Israeli personal names. However, they are part of the general trend in Israeli society of looking to the Bible for names of newborns. This current trend is expansive in that it grounds itself in biblical Hebrew and references but isn’t tied exclusively to the names of biblical personalities and heroes.
I can’t argue with facts established by good linguistic research. Nonetheless, the choice by Hebrew speakers to use tree names for their kids still puzzles me because it appears far more natural for them to do it than it does for English speakers.
Consider the following list: Oren, Orna, Erez, Ilan, Ilana, Shaked, Lotem, Rotem, Brosh, Shikmah, Tamar, Tamara, Alon, Elon, Elah.
Now, think of the Israeli Jews and other Jews you know who possess those names.
Think of these trees’ English equivalents: Pine, Cedar, “Mighty Tree”, Almond, Cistus, Broom, Cypress, Sycomore, Date Palm, Oak, Terebinth.
Finally, think of all the Americans or other English speakers you know, or know of, who are called by those English tree names.
My point is that, for all the thought English speakers put into naming our babies – at times even using English tree names – we generally don’t name them after trees, at least not the ones above. Hebrew speakers do this more naturally, as if the choice to do so was based upon a broader Israeli/Jewish consciousness about trees as potent symbols.
At this point, I’m admittedly going to cross the line from methodical research into mythic reconstruction. I suggest that our interest in naming our children after trees is founded upon a uniquely Jewish fascination with the mirrored relationship between people and trees that is rooted in biblical text, the most significant one being Deuteronomy 20:19:
Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city?
This is a rhetorical question that Moses asks the Israelites in his final pre-conquest address to them, whose context is a matter of military ethics. When the people besiege a city during the forthcoming conquest, they’re forbidden from cutting down fruit-bearing trees for siege works, even though non-fruiting trees may be used for military operations. Moses appeals to the people’s compassion for the fruit trees’ defenselessness. Unlike human combatants, the trees have no legs and can’t run for cover inside the city under siege. My sense is that Moses’ contrast between us humans and fruit trees is less about being radically different species and more about being able bodied or disabled. The subtext is that fruit trees are quite like us: they bear fruit, thus producing the explicit means for creating new generations, not to mention their humanoid features that we can imagine when we look at them. What they can’t do like us is run away from danger. The gist of Moses’ directive is that, even as warfare and all its violence are simply accepted as human reality, we warriors must at least avoid destroying our “cousins in the field” who are innocent and defenseless.
The Torah’s implicit insight is that, our differing abilities aside, humans and trees do mirror each other. Later rabbinic and kabbalistic interpreters pick up on this resemblance drawn by the Bible through their radical re-reading of the first part of the passage above. Its Hebrew text is the following:
Ki ha-Adam eitz ha-sadeh.
Rendered in their original poetic sense, the words read as: “Indeed, like the human is the tree of the field?” More colloquially, we would read the words to mean, “Is a tree of the field a human?” (The above Jewish Publication Society translation pluralizes the words to give the sense that Moses is talking about not just one, but all, the fruit trees of the field.) However, at least some later interpreters re-read this phrase hyperliterally and without the question mark, as a declaration:
“For a person is a tree of the field” (For examples, see Genesis Rabbah 26:6, Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer 21:1, and Zohar, Pinchas 13:9.)
Not all Bible commentators derive this similarity between humans and trees from this text. (See, for example, the medieval commentary of Abraham ibn Ezra to our verse). Further, the comparison mostly moves in one direction only: different interpreters – each with different conceptual agendas – compare humans to trees, but not vice versa. Still, from Deuteronomy onward, the impulse to compare humans and trees generally does exist in Jewish religious and literary consciousness.
I suggest that this initially biblical impulse is what drives us Jews, Israelis particularly but not exclusively, to name our children after trees. Using trees as metaphors for human beings is a provocative way to understand all people, the Jewish people especially. Trees exist in a constant tension between vulnerability and resilience. They are subject to forces both natural and human from which they can’t escape, which often do them profound harm. Yet they also make their own food (something we can’t do), provide bounteous food, shade and other resources for different species, and in some cases, can live for thousands of years. Reflecting upon human experience and our collective Jewish experience, we recognize painfully (and joyfully!) that this tension defines us as well. We Jews name our children after trees because, since the days of the Bible, we have always recognized the vulnerability and resilience that make our Jewish legacy, and the human condition, so complex and magnificent. What better way to have future generations embrace this beautiful human and Jewish inheritance than to bear the names of our trees that are its most powerful symbols?
Many thanks to Professor Sarah Benor of Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles for directing me to Professor Muchnik’s research.
Note: None of the above analysis implies that people who can’t have children are deemed by the Bible to be, in any fashion, less human; only that our ancestors may have drawn a close connection between the generative capacities of people and fruit trees. Further, the fact that non-fruiting trees do reproduce through flowering would have been less of a concern to them. They were thinking metaphorically, not scientifically.