Oaks, Terebinths or Plains

oak tree in Highland Park, New Jersey
Terebinth. Now that’s an interesting word. Seems to be a Greek word, and it refers to a tree that is also known as a “turpentine tree”. It occurs in some translations of this week’s parsha of Lech Lecha.

Here’s the Mechon-mamre translation of Genesis 12:6

And Abram passed through the land unto the place of Shechem, unto the terebinth of Moreh.

And to give another example, Genesis 13:18

And Abram moved his tent, and came and dwelt by the terebinths of Mamre, which are in Hebron, and built there an altar unto the LORD.

For those of you that read Hebrew, the words are: אֵלֹנֵי מַמְרֵא

So the key word we are trying to translate here is ‘elon’. What is an ‘elon’?

My Artscroll Saperstein edition of Breishit translates ‘elonai mamre’ as ‘the plains of Mamre’.
My JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh claims ‘terebinth’ is the translation.
The first translation of the Bible, the second-century BCE Greek Septuagint, interpreted the word as ‘oak’.

OK, so which is it, oak, terebinth or plains? Depends who you ask. (Do you hate answers like that? Or can you just accept that as life?)

Incredibly enough, I was introduced to this whole topic by two articles on the Forward, of all places (I did not know they had words of Torah on the Forward, a newspaper founded by atheist socialists):

In the second article, Seth Cohen suggests an explanation to the ‘plains’ translation, the translation that is least likely to be the literal one but is suggested by Onkelos:

The translation of elonei as “oaks,” he writes, “might have suggested to some readers in antiquity that Abraham settled in the midst of tree worshipers, since the worship of trees was quite prevalent in his lifetime and for many centuries afterwards.” Therefore, Mr. Cohen continues, although Onkelos’s translation is generally highly literal, he deviated from the text in this case for apologetic purposes — that is, to prevent any possible misinterpreting of the biblical story contrary to the way that he, and the rabbinic sages whose authority he accepted, understood it.

Onkelos did not want any misinterpretation that Abraham might be a tree worshiper.

So what about oaks vs. terebinths?

The Philologos of the Forward argues for oaks, because it is the oldest translation, and because of its small appearance:

Terebinths, whose small leaves indeed smell a bit like turpentine when crushed, may have an impressive-sounding name, but they are not very impressive in appearance. The terebinth is an evergreen shrub that rarely grows to more than 7 or 8 feet and is found all over Israel, where it is one of the most frequent plants in the hillside maquis; terebinths grow wild in my garden and can spread like weeds if you do not keep them in check. The common Palestinian oak, on the other hand, develops into a tall, stately tree. A whole forest or grove of such trees, now seen in only a few places but less rare in Abraham’s time, is an impressive sight indeed.

Why do other translators, such as Robert Alter who wrote the Five Books of Moses, choose terebinth? Perhaps because of its abundance? I couldn’t find an answer.

Here’s a terebinth, courtesy of Wikipedia:

If any of you have the opportunity to visit Neot Kedumim in Israel, you can find a terebinth there. We were there in June (hot!), but I hadn’t yet read about terebinths, so I didn’t think to find one and photograph it.

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13 thoughts on “Oaks, Terebinths or Plains

  • Interesting, those are the leaves that I’ve seen before.
    The leaves in the tree picture look just like the ones from your Donaldson Park post picture, where you said they were oak leaves. SO it makes sense for it to be called oak.

    I never heard of terebinth before. I’m thinking about how we translated it in elementary school, and I think we just always translated it by the Hebrew words, in that we didn’t translate those words.

    But I did always think that Eilon was a tree, By Tubeshvat there’s a song with the words Eilon in it.

  • My French Chumash says “plains”
    Etz Hayim says “terebinths”.
    Others say “oaks”.
    This beats me. I understand the “plains” translation from what you have quoted but not the other two. My grandfather (who was a botanist as well as a chemist) always told us to look for the Latin wod for trees and plants in general and these two trees have completely different names in Latin.
    The first photo would have made a nice SWF.

  • Babysitter, the photo is an oak tree from near Highland Park Glass on Woodbridge Ave. in Highland Park. Where it was from didn’t matter much to the post, so I decided to just leave the info about the photo in a comment.

    There’s HaShkedia Parachat for TuB’shvat, which is an almond tree. Don’t know one with Elon. Maybe someone else does.

  • Leora: right, there’s on HaShkedia Parachat. But there’s also a different one, perhaps not by TuBeshvat. But it goes “Elon, Elon, Bama Avarechecha, Bama Avarachecha…SheYehudei Peirosecha Netivos..” something like that.

  • Ilana-Davita, I was thinking of posting it to SWF, but I don’t have the energy. I have to be in the mood to visit lots of photos of skies. I wanted low key today.

    If I find anything else about the oak vs. terebinth, I’ll let you know(by a blog post).

  • Leora: I mixed up the words.
    Here’s the song:

    Ilan, ilan, ilan, bameh avarechecha – Tree, O tree, with what can I bless you?
    Peirosecha mesukim, tzilcha naeh, amas hamayim overess tachtecha – that your fruits should be sweet, your shade pleasant, that a stream should flow beneath you?
    [But you (this tree) have all those qualities, therefore:]
    Ela, yehi ratzon she’kol netiosecha yihiyu kamos’cha – But, may it be His will that all of your offspring should be like you!

    it was composed by Reb Yisrael Dan Taub zt’l, the fourth Modzitzer Rebbe it’s a paraphrase of the words found in Gemara [Taanis 5b-6a]. The Modzitzer Rebbe’s Grand daughter, or great grand daughter is Malky Giniger

  • Babysitter, sounds lovely. Too bad there’s no link to the actual song. But I wonder if ‘ilan’ and ‘elon’ are two different words, related, but different.

  • Thank you so much Leora for stopping in and visiting me. And thank you for this wonderful picture and all of the great information.

    I hope you have a grand week end!!:-)

  • Shavua tov.
    On Shabbat, my son and I learned the Rashis on Parshat Lech Lecha, and we discovered that Rashi (Breishit 14:6 – on the words “Eil Paran”) goes with both explanations of the word “Elonei“.

    First, he notes that Onkelos translates “Elonei Mamre” as the Plains of Mamre, but then Rashi adds that in his opinion, “elonei” doesn’t mean “plains”. Rather, Rashi continues, the NAME of Mamre’s Plain was “Elonei”.

    Similarly, when the parsha refers to “Kikar HaYarden“, Onkelos translates it as the Jordan Plains. But here too, Rashi says that “kikar” doesn’t mean “plains”. Rather, the NAME of the Jordan Plains was “Kikar”.

    Rashi has a number of other examples as well.

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