Rodef Shalom Biblical Botanical Garden seeks to keep growing

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In a lush garden at Rodef Shalom Congregation, a waterfall represents the headwaters of the River Jordan, creating a stream filled with papyrus reeds from which Moses' mother wove a floating basket, and flowing past other trees, herbs and flowers that figure in biblical prophecy.

For 27 years the Rodef Shalom Biblical Botanical Garden in Shadyside has been a labor of love by Emeritus Rabbi Walter Jacob and his late wife, Irene. Mrs. Jacob died in December and her husband is working to raise $1.5 million for the garden's future.

The goal is to teach about plants and farming in the Bible.

Rabbi honors wife by maintaining garden

Rabbi Walter Jacob showcases his biblical botanical garden on the property of Rodef Shalom temple. He started the garden with his wife 27 years ago. Since her death, he wants to ensure the garden is maintained. (Video by Katie Brigham; 7/26/13)


One lesson is "how difficult the daily life of the people was," said Rabbi Jacob, 83, senior rabbi at Rodef Shalom from 1966 to 1996.

One year they featured honey. The sole source of sweetness in ancient Israel, it was a sign of such blessing that the Bible describes the promised land as "flowing with milk and honey."

"Getting something sweet, something that we take for granted today, was extremely difficult," he said.

Olive trees are first mentioned in Genesis, which says that Noah sent a dove out from the ark to see if the flood had receded, and it returned with an olive branch. "It became a symbol of peace after destruction," he said.

On a more mundane level, "I'd like to know who the genius was who discovered that you can eat an olive," he said.

Picked from the tree they are bitter and hard. They become edible only after soaking in brine.

Though they both loved gardening, Mrs. Jacob was the botanist who researched and sought out rare plants, maintained the garden and promoted it.

Now Mr. Jacob wants to endow a director to do all of that.

At the garden's entrance is a plaque with Genesis 2:8-9, "The Lord planted a garden ... and out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food."

Laid out as a miniature Israel, its fountains represent springs in northern Israel that feed the Jordan. The water flows through a tiny sea of Galilee, past a desert to the Dead Sea. But Pennsylvania isn't Palestine.

"It's very difficult to keep the desert from blooming with all this rain," Rabbi Jacob said.

The Bible mentions about 100 plants, and the Jacobs planted as many as possible. They searched for years for a caper bush, an ancient aphrodisiac associated with the Hebrew word for desire. They stumbled upon two languishing in a small nursery in California, carried them home on the plane and nursed them back to health in their home.

Winter limits some plants. Fig trees have more than 70 mentions from Genesis to Revelation, but have to be cut back to the roots before winter. Consequently they rarely produce the fruit associated with biblical blessings.

The garden closes at the end of summer -- nearly all the plants must winter in a greenhouse. But research and planningcontinues. New discoveries about biblical plants are being made as archaeology and studies of plant DNA reveal more information.

Some of the plants aren't in the Bible, but have names based on scripture: Moses-in-a-basket, the Goliath tomato, angel trumpet, wandering Jew. Horseradish isn't a biblical name but is used in the Passover meal.

The garden, open for free until Sept. 15 (Sunday through Thursday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Saturdays noon to 1 p.m.), is popular with church groups.

"It's a grass-roots effort at interfaith understanding," said Rabbi Jacob.

"You can gather the bishops and other leaders and meet with them, but it has its limits. The ordinary folks have often had no contact with Jews at all. For many church groups this is the first time they have been with a rabbi or visited a synagogue. ... Our docents need to know a fair amount of the Hebrew Bible, but also the New Testament, so that when our guests ask questions they aren't totally puzzled."

Each year there is a different special exhibit -- last year's included a camel that spent a week on the premises. This year the theme is "Botanical Symbols in World Religions," with plants that have meaning in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Confucianism, Jainism and Shintoism. The olive tree, for instance, connotes peace in Judaism and Christianity, God's presence in Islam and studiousness in Confucianism.

Rabbi Jacob hopes to start a permanent exhibit of farming tools. He already has a hand plow, modeled after archaeological finds and images carved in rock. Bernie Latterman, a synagogue member who took up woodworking in retirement, built it from small pieces of wood since large trees were rare in ancient Israel. Rabbi Jacob is trying to find an underwriter for a shaduf, a system to lift water for irrigation.

Early efforts at fundraising are going well, he said as he stood in the pavilion at the garden's entrance. Nearby towered two cedars of Lebanon that have been on the property for 50 years. Although their trunks are easily 4 feet in circumference, they are mere saplings compared to their biblical ancestors.

"Come back in another 50 years and it will look the way a cedar of Lebanon should look," Rabbi Jacob said.

For information on touring the garden or its Fund for the Future, contact or 412-621-6566.

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Ann Rodgers: or 412-263-1416. First Published July 27, 2013 4:00 AM


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