Red clover is not mentioned in the Bible. Its Latin name is Trifolium pratense, meaning “three leaves” and “of a meadow/field/pasture”. Trifolium pratense, is native to Israel and surrounding areas. but the Hebrew word for clover, תִלְתָן, tiltan, is post-Biblical.
Biblically, there are a number of Hebrew words that may be translated at “meadow,” “pasture,” or “field”: ,אָחוּ ,אֲפָר נָוֶה ,מִרְעֶה, שָׂדֶה (achu, afar, mir’eh, naveh, sadeh) each of which has a somewhat different meaning. Although it may be surprising that there is no mention of a native plant in the Bible, it is not surprising that there are so many ancient Hebrew words for open fields, for the Israelites, once they stopped wandering, were shepherds and farmers. Fields, meadows, and pastures were an intimate part of their daily life, living as they did in constant and close relationship to the land.
I have childhood memories of pulling out the individual flowers from the inflorescence, or flower head, of a red clover, and sucking out the sweet nectar within, a tiny tasty treat during a walk across a field, pasture, or meadow. Recently, having developed an interest in foraging, I have become more closely acquainted with red clover. I’ve discovered the culinary delights and health benefits of this common plant, introduced to North America and now naturalized.
Red clover jelly, made from an infusion of the flower heads, is sweet and delicious. Dried red clover flowers provide a touch of sweetness to herbal tea.
The flowers are highly nutritious, containing many nutrients, including Vitamin C, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and other minerals. Historically, it has been used to treat throat conditions, and it contains isoflavones, plant chemicals that act like estrogen.
Through connecting with the Latin name for red clover, and the meanings of its words, it is possible to make indirect connections between red clover and the Bible.
Perhaps the most obvious connection comes from the second Creation story:
וְכֹל שִׂיחַ הַשָּׂדֶה טֶ֚רֶם יִהְיֶה בָאָרֶץ וְכָל־עֵשֶׂב הַשָּׂדֶה טֶרֶם יִצְמָח...
Every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew... (Gen 2:5)
And of all the passages that bear some relationship to red clover, the best known may be Psalm 23:
יה רֹ֝עִי לֹא אֶחְסָר: בִּנְאוֹת דֶּ֭שֶׁא יַרְבִּיצֵנִי עַל־מֵי מְנֻחוֹת יְנַֽהֲלֵנִי:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures/meadows; he leads me beside still waters. (Ps. 23:2)
The other part of the Latin name of red clover, Trifolium, connects to a common theme in Judaism, three: the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; three types of Jews: Kohanim (priests), Levi'im (Levites), and Yisrael (Israel - everyone else); Moses as the third child in his family; the Israelites beginning the three-day process of preparing themselves to receive the Torah on the third of the month of Sivan.
Franz Rozensweig, an early 20th century Jewish philosopher, famously put together two triangles, forming a Magen David, or Star of David, with two sets of three that together define Judaism and what it is all about. On one triangle, the universal elements: God, humans, and the Universe; on the other triangle, the three key moments in defining and establishing the Jewish people: Creation, Redemption, Revelation.
In today’s world, when it is possible to find just about anything on the Internet, a quick search will locate a clover leaf (with four-leaflets, not three) with a Star of David embedded within it.
As I sip my cup of red clover tea or enjoy red clover jelly on my toast, these foods that nourish my body take on extra meaning. Not only does this common plant connect me to the cycle of the year, reminding me that its flowers are abundant only in early summer, though still to be found as the heat builds, but it also connects me to the Land of Israel, where it came from, and to the Creation of all plants. Not only do my pluckings of red clover flowers on my outdoor wanderings connect me to the land more intimately, but each flower inflorescence, with its attending three-part leaves, reminds me of the importance of creation, revelation, and redemption in my own life, as well as how I am connected through the Holy One and the planet to all other human beings. Not only am I finding relaxation and healing being out in nature, but I am also reminded that G!d leads me beside still waters, and lays me down to rest in green meadows.
All of these images and thoughts are my gifts for engaging in foraging as a spiritual practice.
To learn about the next opportunity for group foraging as a spiritual practice, click here to go to the One Earth Collaborative website.
Rabbi Katy Allen is a board certified chaplain and serves as an Eco-Chaplain and the Facilitator of One Earth Collaborative, a program of Open Spirit. She is the founder and rabbi of Ma'yan Tikvah - A Wellspring of Hope, which holds services outdoors all year long. She is the co-founder and President pro-tem of the Boston-based Jewish Climate Action Network, and a hospice chaplain at CareGroup Parmenter Hospice. She received her ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion in 2005.