Believe it or not, the 16th century Italian scholar Rabbi Shlomo of Urbino writes in Ohel Moed that there are seventeen different words to connote thorns or thistles in Biblical Hebrew. He goes on to cite the various Biblical verses wherein each of these words appears. He doesn’t differentiate between these thorny flora on species and genus, but ultimately he sees all these different terms as synonymous but not identical. In this essay, which will be divided into three sections, we will follow Rabbi Shlomo of Urbino’s list of words and comment on them. We will especially consider alternate meanings for some of these words and explore the various roots from which these words are derived.
This word appears twelve times in the Bible in the context of thorns, plus one time as the name of a person (I Chron. 4:8). The classical triliteralist lexicographers like Ibn Janach and Radak trace the word kotz to the triliteral root kuf-vav-tzadi; Menachem Ibn Saruk, biliteralist that he is, traces kotz to the biliteral root kuf-tzadi. Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim, another biliteralist, explains that the core meaning of the root kuf-tzadi is “the end,” the conclusion of something. In line with this, he understands the word kotz to likewise derive from kuf-tzadi on account of the fact that thorns are characterized by their sharp edges.
In Song of Songs, the Jewish People are famously compared to “a rose among thorns (chochim)” (Song of Songs 2:2). Lexicographers like Radak and Rabbi Pappenheim see the word cho’ach as related to the word chach, with both terms derived from the biliteral root chet-chet (or possibly even the monoliteral root chet). The word chach refers to a sort of jewelry that was affixed by use of a pin, so it makes sense that the sharp edge of the pin would somehow be reminiscent of the sharp edge of the thorn.
When Hashem tells Ezekiel that the Jewish People will not heed his warnings to repent, He calls the Jewish People “saravim and salonim” (Ezekiel 2:6). Rashi and Mahari Kara explain that salonim are thorns, and Radak clarifies that Hashem meant to tell Ezekiel that even though the Jewish People are thorn-like, he should not fear them nor their jabs. They likewise interpret salon as “thorn,” but Rabbi Pappenheim differentiates between two words. He traces both words to the biliteral root samech-lammed, whose core meaning he defines as “repeated action.” In the case of salonim, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that this refers to people who repeatedly bother and trigger others; while when it comes to silon, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that this refers to a thistle, with its many prickly spikes. One who holds a silon will be repeatedly stabbed by its multiple sharp points.
The famous Burning Bush where Hashem introduced Himself to Moses was called a sneh, and that word appears a total of six times in the Bible (Exodus 3:2-4, Deuteronomy 33:16). Rashi (to Sukkah 13a and Bava Kamma 119b) uses the word sneh to define Aramaic terms that he translates elsewhere as “thorns” (see Rashi to Avodah Zarah 47b and Eruvin 34b), thus demonstrating his view that sneh refers to a thorn bush. This understanding of sneh is also explicitly found in Rabbi Saadia Gaon’s Tafsir (to Exodus 3:2) and is cited by Ibn Ezra’s long commentary (there).
Rabbi Pappenheim traces the word sneh to the biliteral root samech-nun, which he explains as primarily meaning “chaos.” A sneh, he says, refers to a messy and disordered bush in which all sorts of thorns grow. Alternatively, Rabbi David Chaim Chelouche (1920-2016), the late Chief Rabbi of Netanya, sees samech-nun as related to shin-nun, the root for the word “tooth” (shayn), because the various thorns on a branch look like sharp teeth.
The Torah famously warns that if the Canaanites are allowed to remain in the Holy Land after the Jewish conquest, they will be “like… and tzninim in your side” (Numbers 33:55). Ohalei Yehuda sees this term as related to the word sneh, most likely based on the interchangeability of the letters tzadi and samech. Rabbi Pappenheim actually sees the core meaning of tzadi-nun as “thorn,” and explains that various other words that use that two-letter string derive from that meaning, including “tzinah” (a spiky weapon that resembles thorns), “tzinah” (sharp coldness), and “tznumah” (grain damaged by harsh cold).
This word appears four times in the Bible in the sense of “thorns” (Isaiah 34:13, Nahum 1:10, Ecclesiastes 7:6, Hoshea 2:8). Rashi (to Nahum 1:10) writes that some explain sirim as related to hasarah (“removal”), but does not explain the connection. Perhaps he refers to the painful ordeal of removing thorns stuck in one’s person, or the need to make sure one removes the “thorns” from a given place before one can safely enter.
Alternatively, Rabbi Pappenheim creatively explains how sirim relates to removal by tracing the word to a shared biliteral samech-reish root. He explains that yissurin and mussar refer to affliction with intent of causing one to repent, thereby “removing” the individual from their previous sinful state. In a borrowed sense, he says, the word sirim as “thorns” materialized because such implements are used to afflict a person.
In the two instances the word dardar appears in the Bible, it is within the phrase kotz v’dardar. The first time this phrase appears is in Genesis, when Hashem punishes man for eating from the Tree of Knowledge by saying that thorns will begin to grow in the land and confound man’s agricultural endeavors (3:18). The second instance is in the Book of the Twelve Prophets, when the prophet Hosea foretells that the Jews’ idolatrous shrines will be abandoned and destroyed, and instead thorns will grow in their place (Hoshea 10:8).
Rabbi Pappenheim traces the word dardar to the biliteral root dalet-reish, defined primarily as “movement without hindrance or duress.” He sees a whole litany of words as derived from this root, but the main derivative is dror (“freedom”). This refers specifically to freedom of movement: that granted to an emancipated slave, an ownerless bird that is free to fly wherever it wants; and an open field where myrrh was free to grow. The word dardar came from this as a type of “edible thorn” that grows in open, ownerless areas.