…the priest shall order two live clean birds, cedar wood, crimson stuff, and hyssop to be brought for him who is to be cleansed – Leviticus 14:4

When the priest examines the skin of a metsora and determines that the bodily affliction has healed, the diseased person undergoes a three-stage process of returning to the community. It begins with a purification ritual. This ceremony takes place outside the Israelite camp where the metsora has been living in isolation. Two wild, kosher birds are caught. One is slaughtered over running water in an earthenware vessel, its blood mixing with the water. The priest then takes the remaining bird, cedar branch, crimson substance, and hyssop and dips them into the blood. He sprinkles it over the one being purified seven times, declares him pure and releases the living bird into the open countryside.

Hyssop is the Greek name for a group of plants in the mint family, Lamiaceae. Eizov, the biblical variety, was widely used in the ancient Near East for purification and is one of the most frequently mentioned herbs in the Bible. There is a particularly striking parallel between the use of hyssop in the purification ritual for the metsora and the Israelites’ preparation for the tenth plague, the death of the first born in Egypt, which is followed immediately by the exodus: Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the [lamb offering’s] blood that is in the basin, and apply some of the blood that is in the basin to the lintel and to the two doorposts (Ex. 12:22).

Our ancestors ascribed powerful protective powers to hyssop based on several distinctive characteristics. Some varieties’ flowers are red which, like with the slaughtered animal’s blood, were understood to represent life. This bushy, evergreen herb produces long, linear leaves that release a strong aromatic scent when bruised. Hyssop leaves are distilled even now to produce an essential oil which is prized for use in liqueurs and perfumes. It also has a number of medicinal uses as an infusion or poultice.

We may no longer believe that the scent of an herb will protect us from harm when we are most at risk, like the person between being ritually clean and impure or the Israelites on the verge of freedom. Yet, the smells coming from our kitchens still have the power to transport us from what was to what will be.

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