Dear readers of AH,
Countless volumes been written about garlic. I did consider including this important medicinal herb in the materia medica section of Ashkenazi Herbalism but decided against it because its entry would have overpowered the rest of the herbs in that section. Yes, its presence is that strong!
I will try to highlight some of garlic’s long and illustrious relationship with the Pale's Ashkenazim -- and others -- in this blog post and also provide links to two interviews with Dori Midnight, a herbalist and healer who works closely with this powerful plant. You can find the amazing Dori's website here and interviews with her here and here. Enjoy!
Family: Liliaceae (there is some controversy in the botany world about its being part of the Amaryllidaceae family instead of Liliaceae)
Common English Names: garlic
Yiddish: קנאָבל (knobl)
Russian: чеснок (chesnok)
Ukrainian: часник (chasnyk)
Hebrew: אלליום (allium) and שום (shum?)
From Maude Grieve: Garlic’s leaves are long, narrow and flat like grass. The bulb (the only part eaten) is of a compound nature, consisting of numerous bulblets, known technically as 'cloves,' grouped together between the membraneous scales and enclosed within a whitish skin, which holds them as in a sac. The flowers are placed at the end of a stalk rising direct from the bulb and are whitish, grouped together in a globular head, or umbel, with an enclosing kind of leaf or spathae, and among them are small bulbils.
The ancients knew of garlic’s many talents. Dioscorides considered it effective in cases of dropsy, tapeworm, as diuretic, and taken with wine it was considered a remedy against the bite of a snake or dog, as a cough-soothing agent, or to kill lice and bedbugs. Made into an ointment and mixed with honey it was known to heal blood sores and hair loss. Decocted with pinewood and incense it could soothe toothache. As a woman's medicine, a decoction made from the flowering umbel was added to a bath to promote menstruation or hasten the expulsion of the placenta after giving birth.
Garlic’s presence in Jewish history is also well documented. Ancient Jews characterized the plant as an aphrodisiac, a nutritive and restorative food. Its telltale after-effects were also a way for other peoples, such as the ancient Romans, to recognize Hebrews by the scent they exuded after eating the plant. Hundreds of years later, garlic continued to be a mark of Jewishness: at the time of the Spanish Inquisition, those who had converted to Catholicism in order to elude death or imprisonment were identified by authorities by the smell of garlic on their breaths.
As far as its aphrodisiac qualities, garlic was thought to heat the body and ready it for conjugal bliss, particularly on the eve of the Sabbath. To this end, in eastern Europe, its pungent flavor contributed to a variety of dishes. It was also a household remedy: combined with salt, oil, and pepper it was taken against intestinal worms. Similar to neighboring Slavs, Jewish children in Galicia who were sick were given garlic to wear or a piece of garlic placed in the ear could cure an earache or a toothache and an individual clove carried in a pocket or sewn into a garment could keep evil at bay. In Poland, hung over a door, the plant was believed to drive away illnesses and enemies as testified in an old Polish proverb: Ucieka jak czarownica od czosnku or in English “runs like a witch from garlic.”
Ashkenazim found they always had to be mindful of this powerful bulb for if it were peeled and left out overnight, demons could foul the exposed herb, rendering it poisonous for whoever might later ingest it.
One early 20th century biblical scholar characterized the relationship between Jews and the herb in this way:
“There is said to be a tradition in the Orient that when Satan stepped out of the garden of Eden after the “fall” of man, onions sprang up from the spot where he placed his right foot and garlic in the left. This legend alludes to the magic powers once attributed to the plant and is not meant to be an aspersion because of their odor, for that is not in the least objectionable to Oriental peoples.”
Today garlic is still an indispensable ingredient in almost every world cuisine. It is also a potent herbal medicine that can be effective even when prepared as part of a meal. The humble bulb can stimulate the circulatory system, lower cholesterol and blood sugar, support beneficial gut flora, and aid respiratory function just to name a few of its healing powers. I like to take a clove cut into tiny pieces that I swallow like a pill with tea if I feel I’ve been exposed to an airborne pathogen such as a cold. Because garlic's volatile oils, once ingested, will leave the body via the lungs where it will combat on contact harmful bacteria and other unwelcome organisms. Russian scientists of the 20th century backed this up with research:
“In the late 1920s Russian medical researcher B. P. Tokin discovered that crushed garlic cloves contain the enzyme alliinase, which produces an aromatic volatile oil known scientifically today as diallyl disulfide. When a mashed garlic clove is placed under a glass dome with cultured bacteria or fungi, the microorganisms die within minutes. Russian scientific studies have since found that garlic compounds can inhibit both the growth of cancerous tumors and malignant cells in general. For this reason in Russia garlic is an important part of a holistic approach to treating cancer.”
Garlic was also highly sought in on the battlefield in both Russia and England
as an antibiotic and an antiseptic.
“During WW2, Russian doctors and medics used garlic in the field to treat bullet, shrapnel and other war-related wounds. It was held to have prevented many cases of battle-related diseases like gangrene and sepsis and even became known by Allied troops as “Russian penicillin.”
Maude Grieve’s entry on garlic is very lengthy and includes a concise recounting of the story of an infamous remedy:
“Garlic formed the principal ingredient in the 'Four Thieves' Vinegar,' which was adapted so successfully at Marseilles for protection against the plague when it prevailed there in 1722. This originated, it is said, with four thieves who confessed, that whilst protected by the liberal use of aromatic vinegar during the plague, they plundered the dead bodies of its victims with complete security.”
Aside from its illustrious medicinal and culinary virtues, I also enjoy growing the humble plant in our garden. If you have cravings for this herb like I often do, it may be because your ancestors, like mine, have long had a close and loving relationship with it.
Shosteck, Patti. A Lexicon of Jewish Cooking: p. 66-68:
Hovorka and Kronfeld