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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Onion

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(בֶּצֶל, betsel, only found in Numbers 11:5, in the plural form בְּצָלַים, from the root בָּצִל, same as כּצִל, to peel; Sept. κρόμμυον; Vulg. caepe). The Israelites in Taberah, weeping for the flesh of Egypt, said: "We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks and the onions (betsalim), and the garlic" (Numbers 11:4-5). Though the identification of many Biblical plants is considered uncertain, there can be no doubt that betsel means the common onion, the Alium cepa of botanists. This is proved by its Arabic name, and its early employment as an article of diet in Egypt. In the present day the onion, distinguished from other species of Allium by its fistular leaves and swelling stalks, is well known as cultivated in all parts of Europe aid in most parts of Asia. Its native country is not known; but it is probable that some part of the Persian region first produced it in a wild state, as many species of Aliudm are found in the mountainous chain which extends from the Caspian to Cashmere, and likewise in the Himalaya Mountains. It is common in Persia, where it is called piaz, and has long been introduced into India, where it receives the same name. By the Arabs it is called basl or bassal, under which name it is described in their works on Materia Medica, where the description of κρόμμυον given by Dioscorides (2:181) is adopted. That the onion has long been cultivated in the south of Europe and in the north of Asia is evident. from the different kinds enumerated by Theophrastus, which he states derived their names chiefly from the places where they were reared. Among these probably some other species may have been included; but no doubt several were varieties only of the onion. Pliny (Hist. Nat. 19:6) also enumerates these as well as others cultivated in Italy, and notices the superstition of the Egyptians in regard to them: "Where, by the way, I cannot overpass the foolish superstition of the Egyptians, who used to swear by garlick and onions, calling them to witness in taking their othes, as if they were no less than some gods" (Holland's transl.). Juvenal (Sat. 15:9) in like manner ridicules the Egyptians for their superstitious veneration of onions, etc.: "holy nation, that raises in gardens its inviolable divinities, the leeks and the onions!" This, however, must be an exaggerated statement, as it is unlikely that the Israelites should have been allowed to regale themselves upon what was considered too sacred for or forbidden to their taskmasters. It is probable, as suggested by Dr. Harris, that the priests only refrained from what was freely partaken of in the rest of the people.

This may be observed in the present day among the Brahmins of India. It has also been supposed that some particular kind of onion may have been held sacred, from its utility as a medicine. as the sea-onion, or squill (Scilla maritima), which grows in abundance on the sea-coast in the neighborhood of Pelusium, whose inhabitants are said by Lucian to have especially worshipped the onion. But it is evident that the Israelites in the desert did not long for that acrid bulb as they did for the melons and cucumbers (Kitto). It may, moreover, be remarked that the onions of warm, dry countries grow to a considerable size, and instead of being acrid and pungent in taste, are comparatively bland and mild and nutritious articles of diet.' This is conspicuous in the Portugalonionis, which are largely imported into other countries; but it especially distinguishes the onions of Egypt, as travelers have often remarked (Wilkinson, Anc. Egyptians [Harpers' ed.], 1:169), they being an important part of the food of the nation (Herod. 2:125; comp. Wilkinson, 1:168 sq.) and a leading article of the markets (Sonini, Trav. 2:321; comp. Arvieux, Voyage, I, 176; Korte, Reis. p. 430). Hasselquist (Trav. p. 290) says, "Whoever has tasted onions in Egypt must allow that none can be had better in any other part of the universe: here they are sweet; in other countries they are nauseous and strong. They eat them roasted, cut into four pieces, with some bits of roasted meat which the Turks in Egypt call kebab; and with this dish they are so delighted that I have heard them wish they might enjoy it in Paradise. They likewise make a soup of them." The Jews cultivated onions in Palestine, and the Talmud often mentions them (see Mishna, Terumoth, 2:5; 10:1; Meaaser. v. 8). Korte (Reis. p. 430) remarks that in Asia Minor also the onions are better than in Europe.


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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Onion'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/tce/o/onion.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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