At 8 A.M., the Temple Mount was utterly silent. A dozen Muslim worshippers sat in the shade of a large olive tree in the middle of the plaza. Six police officers in dark uniforms sat quietly on another side of the complex.
The plaza itself was empty, and at first I feared I wouldn’t be able to find what I’d come to see. Then I realized that the trees I’d come to see on the Temple Mount had been given front-row seats at the world’s holiest site. It was impossible to miss them.
Three luxuriant Mediterranean hackberry trees grow in the center of the plaza, on either side of the stairs leading from Al-Aqsa Mosque to the Dome of the Rock. Granted, I also passed dozens of guards on the way to the mount, but facing those 20 steps, I realized I’d found Jerusalem’s oldest guardians. Their roots are in the lower plaza, the southern one, and they now tower to a height of around 20 meters.
There are also some cypresses beside the stairs, but there’s no reason to pay them any special attention. The hackberry trees are the story here.
The hackberries have lost most of their leaves; only a few yellowed ones remain on the thin branches. The trees are almost completely naked, but are still beautiful and impressive. It’s clear that these trees, especially the largest one, are enjoying a glorious old age.
They are hundreds of years old; people who like fairy tales will even say thousands. In reality, there no trees that have been alive for thousands of years. But on the Temple Mount, it’s possible to believe anything.
The Mediterranean hackberry (Celtis australis) is a Mediterranean tree from the hemp family. There’s no consensus on whether they ever grew in the wild locally or whether all the ones in this country were imported and planted by people, but they are fairly rare.
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The hackberry grows slowly. It’s a protected species, and it attracts fantastic stories. I almost wrote that these trees are long-distance runners.
They have a smooth, delicate trunk and asymmetric leaves with a serrated edge. In the summer, they provide a lot of shade. In the spring, they bear small fruits that are generally not edible. People say that if your joints hurt, it helps to bathe in water in which hackberry leaves were steeped. I haven’t tried it.
There are very few hackberries in Israel, but they have a reputation for being holy or blessed trees. In some cases, it’s the trees themselves; in others, it’s because of where they grew. What’s certain is that there’s sometimes a marvelous interplay between the tree’s age, its majesty, the stories that have grown up around it and the special atmosphere of a holy place.
According to Muslim tradition, nothing works better than a hackberry for exorcising demons. Amulets made from their wood are reputed to have great power.
In their Hebrew-language book “Trees, Demons and Wonders,” Prof. Amots Dafni and Saleh Aqal Khatib wrote, “According to believers, no evil spirit will get near a hackberry tree, and therefore, one can sit under them in safety. Amulets made from pieces of its wood are used to cure babies, heal horses and protect homes.” We have no horses, but protecting babies’ health and our homes are both good ideas.
A Muslim legend says that when Mohammed and his soldiers were under siege in the desert and were out of water, Mohammed plucked a hackberry leaf and sucked thirst-quenching water from it. Afterward, he ordered his comrades to do the same. Their enemies then ran away, saying, “These people who drink trees and eat stones are invincible.”
The Talmud mentions the hackberry as a tree that grew in the courtyard of the Temple.
This article is the story of my trip to visit five of the most storied hackberry trees in Israel. These are the places where one can drink trees and eat stones.
King Solomon’s nursery
The trees next to the stairs on the Temple Mount are undoubtedly the most famous hackberry trees in Israel and, indeed, worldwide. The big question is whether they are also the oldest. Some people say they are 3,000 years old.
In his Hebrew-language book “101 marvelous trees,” Yaakov Skolnik wrote, “The trees’ holiness stems from the oral tradition that King Solomon planted them. While the Temple was being built, demons and spirits tried to disrupt the work. The king, the wisest of all men, planted the hackberry trees, and the demons got frightened and fled. Thanks to these trees, Solomon continued the work of building the Temple with no further disruptions.”
I sat on a stone wall under one of these trees. I recalled having read once that Muslim women gather hackberry fruits from the Temple Mount and eat them to help them conceive.
In the book by Dafni and Aqal Khatib, I read about a tradition which says that hackberry branches gathered in the morning are good for making amulets. Another tradition says the best amulets are actually made from branches gather on Laylat Al Qadr, the 27th night of Ramadan. Then, the heavens open, the angels descend and sins are erased.
I obviously didn’t dare touch the branches on the Temple Mount, but I admit that I picked up some of the hackberry’s yellow leaves from the pavement. They are sitting on my desk in front of me. For now, the demons are keeping themselves at a reasonable distance.
How to get there: Enter the Temple Mount through the Mughrabi Gate, south of the Western Wall. Opening hours for visitors who aren’t Muslim worshippers are Sunday through Thursday from 7 A.M. to 10:30 A.M. The hackberry trees are next to the stairs leading from Al-Aqsa to the Dome of the Rock.
Mary rested here
The large hackberry tree near the Mar Elias Monastery still lives. It’s in good shape. There’s a small plaza around it and a kind of stone platform surrounding it.
I sat on that platform last week for about half an hour. I tried as hard as possible to ignore the background noise, especially the noise of the cars passing nearby, but I failed. Nevertheless, the tree is still there. Given the very rapid development of roads in southern Jerusalem, that in itself could be termed a miracle.
The Mar Elias Monastery is a Greek Orthodox monastery located on Hebron Road (Route 60) between the Old City of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, or alternatively, between Kibbutz Ramat Rachel and Jerusalem’s Gilo neighborhood. Elias is the Greek equivalent of Elijah.
According to Christian tradition, Mary, the mother of Jesus, rested under the large hackberry tree north of the monastery when she was fleeing from Herod (according to the New Testament, Herod had ordered all the children of Bethlehem killed after learning that the Messiah had been born there). In the year 1345, the Bishop of Jerusalem, also named Elias, was buried there.
After his death, residents of Bethlehem begin making pilgrimages to his grave. Later, a tradition developed that Elijah the Prophet rested at that site when he was fleeing from Queen Jezebel.
The tree has a double trunk and is very beautiful. Right now, it isn’t providing any shade, but it’s easy to imagine how important it would be on a hot summer day when the road from Bethlehem to Jerusalem seemed very long.
How to get there: The tree is at the edge of an olive grove around 200 meters north of the Mar Elias Monastery, very close to the southeast corner of an intersection with a traffic light.
The cave in Zichron Yaakov
The northernmost neighborhood of Zichron Yaakov is called Givat Eden. Near it, just a little to the east, is a comfortable walking trail leading to the hackberry cave.
It’s an interesting place. The cave is about 40 meters long, running from east to west. Its mouth looks out over Mount Carmel in the direction of Meir Shfeya.
A little southwest of the cave stands a huge and apparently very old hackberry tree. Some people estimate its age at around 200 years. It has several long trunks and a broad canopy that shades the cave.
Two benches have been placed beside the tree, in memory of two Zichron Yaakov residents. It’s a pleasant place to sit, enjoy the view and ignore the cars racing by on Route 70. But the remnants of a fire that broke out recently between the trees and the road make the risks the tree faces clear.
A large sign placed by the town council says the cave has been adopted by fifth graders at the Horesh elementary school. They’re doing good work. I picked up only a little trash there before returning to the path.
How to get there: Go to 1 Hatapuach St. in Zichron Yaakov. Park your car near the school and walk about 500 meters to the dirt path going down to the wadi. The path is part of a trail that goes all the way around the town.
A cave and synagogue in Safed
The Cave of Shem and Ever is an ancient one, 1,500 years old, located in the heart of Safed. For hundreds of years, it has drawn believers of many faiths.
At first, around 1,000 years ago, it apparently served as a burial cave for a Jewish family. After that, during the Crusader era, it was identified as the grave of Tobias, the author of one of the books of the Apocrypha, and it became a Christian religious center.
In the 12th century, after Saladin conquered Safed, the cave became a place for Muslim worship. During the Mamluk period, it was called Bayt al-Ahzan (the house of mourning), and according to Muslim tradition, it is where the patriarch Jacob mourned the death of his son Joseph. That is why some people call it the Yaakov Avinu (Jacob our forefather) cave.
In the 19th century, the cave became identified with Shem and Ever, the son and grandson of the Biblical Noah. A Jewish tradition says the two men founded a yeshiva there, and that Jacob later studied at it.
“It’s true there’s a disagreement, but it’s a holy site in any case,” a Jewish worshiper who visited the synagogue next to the cave told me this week. “So what difference does it make whether or not Noah’s son truly founded it?”
Snug up against the wall of the Beit Midrash grows a large and very old hackberry tree. The roof is ornamented by a stone dome; the hackberry tree casts its shade over it. It is an interesting place, because the small plaza along its facade serves as a passageway for pedestrians between the commercial part of central Safed and the residential neighborhoods and nearby bus station. The ritual bath, synagogue and municipal parking lot next door to the old housing project that lies adjacent to the cave, give those sitting on the bench no opportunity to forget for even a moment where they are. Elderly Haredim who have a hard time walking and giggling teenage schoolgirls gazed at us inquisitively when we spent an hour sitting on the bench that looks out on the tree. A few of them offered explanations; others asked questions. All of them agreed that the tree was magnificent, and invited us to come back in the summertime, when it “makes leaves.”
How to get there: Shem and Ever Cave and Shem and Ever Beit Midrash, intersection of Palmach Street and Jerusalem Street, Safed.
The Kibbutz Yiron botanical garden
There are two hackberry trees in Kibbutz Yiron, which is not far from the Lebanese border. One of them, a 200-year-old veteran, grows south of the “Agam Chai” parking lot, just inside the perimeter fence of the kibbutz. The explanation for this ancient hackberry tree’s existence apparently has to do with the fact that until 1948 this was the location of an Arab village named Saliha. Located nearby are burial caves, mosaic floors and olive presses. The residents of the village were expelled along with the residents of Bir’am.
The second tree is a relatively young hackberry tree that grows at the northern edge of Yiron, near the grocery store.
For years Yiron has been cultivating a botanical garden. The result is simply wonderful. Alongside the hackberry tree, where we sat down, are several other beautiful and quite rare trees, all of them not only healthy and well but also graced with informative signage, as befitting a proper botanical garden. There is a California redwood, an evergreen ash, a golden oak and a Chinese tallow, among others. Perhaps they do not have the charming qualities with which the hackberry tree has been blessed, but all of them together create a garden of wonder, in which it is a pleasure to sit even in the winter.
Apparently, one can even rely on the residents of Yiron not to give in to temptation and create for themselves a holy site simply because they have two beautiful hackberry trees.
How to get there: Kibbutz Yiron, close to the Lebanese border. The ancient hackberry tree stands not far from the entry gate to the kibbutz. The younger tree, part of the botanical garden, may be found next to the local grocery on the northern edge of the kibbutz, near the guest rooms.