Wednesday, November 1, 2017

On the Use of Hyssop

Hyssop (Origanum maru or Origanum syriacum) has been in use since classical antiquity.  Called hyssopos in Greek and ezob in Hebrew, it is the Bibilical Hyssop referred to in verse 7 of Psalm 51, “Thou shalt purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean.”

The First Book of Kings describes ezob was a small plant.  It was burned with the red Heifer in Numbers xix. 6; and used for purification of lepers in Leviticus xiv. 4, 6, 49, 51; and Numbers xix. 18).  At Passover it was used to sprinkle the blood of the sacrificial lamb on the doorposts (Ex. xii. 22).  Its main use in biblical times was for religious purification.  

In Egypt the priests ate it with their bread to make a suitably austere religious meal.  Hyssop leaves have a lightly bitter taste due to the tannins and an intense minty aroma. Due to its intensity, it is used only moderately in cooking. Fresh Hyssop combined with other herbs is commonly used in Middle Eastern cooking.  Essence of hyssop, obtained by steaming, is also used in cooking to a lesser extent.  It is believed to have soothing, expectorant, and cough suppressant properties.

The Gospel of John mentions that hyssop and vinegar were given to alleviate the thirst of Jesus during his Passion. Matthew and Mark refer to the plant simply as a reed or stick. In the Psalms the sprinkling of hyssop is used allegorically to refer to purification of the heart.  

The Roman Catholic Church, and also some other sects have adopted the biblical practice of sprinkling with hyssop to sprinkling with water to ritually cleanse religious objects and people in a ritual called aspersion.