On our communitys annual Yom Haatzmaut excursion a few weeks ago, we were hiking along the Jordan river above the Sea of Galilee, when we came upon a row of beehives next to a fence and on the other side of the fence a herd of cows grazing among the spring wildflowers. Sure enough, someone pointed out, the land flowing with milk and honey (Deuteronomy 6:3 and many other places in the Bible). The seventh of the products that symbolize the abundance of Eretz Yisrael (Deuteronomy 8:8) is honey. However, just what is meant by honey is not clear, as can be seen from the argument between two second century rabbis (Midrash Mechilta Drabbi Shimon bar Yochai 13):
Rabbi Eliezer says that milk and honey refers to fruit milk and date honey; Rabbi Akiba says that milk means actual milk , and that honey means forest [i.e., bee] honey
While there are a few specific references to bee honey in the Bible (for example, Judges 14:8 and I Samuel 14:25-29), most commentators agree with Rabbi Eliezer that the honey included in the seven species and in the phrase flowing with milk and honey is in fact date honey, a syrup produced by cooking and straining crushed dates. This syrup, also called silan, has been widely used as a sweetener since ancient times. The identification of the date palm (tamar) as one of the seven species makes sense, in view of the importance of the date palm in the economy, diet, and landscape of the middle east since time immemorial. The economic and symbolic significance of this species intersect nicely in the following midrash on Psalm 92:13, The righteous bloom like a date palm :
Just as no part of the date palm is useless the dates are eaten, the branches are waved during hallel (i.e., the lulav of Sukkot), the fronds are used to roof the sukkah, the fibers are twisted into rope, the leaves woven into sieves, the trunks serve as roof beams of houses so no one of the Jewish people is useless some are knowledgeable in Bible, some in Mishnah, some in Talmud, some in aggadah (i.e., maybe no one knows everything, but everybody knows something useful everyone has a role in the community). -Bereishet Rabbah 41
The date palm has always been a common motif in art appearing on ancient coins and in relief carvings in synagogues. Moreover, of all of the seven species, it is the only one that became a common name. There are several Tamars in the Bible, and the name has remained popular throughout the generations I think it is one of the few womens names that one encounters in Israel today in every generation and in every ethnic population. It is a name that combines a sense of history, of biblical roots, with a physical referent that is very much a part of the modern landscape of Israel. And I guess the associations are hard to fault: strength, grace, sweetness, fertility, usefulness who wouldnt want their daughter to be a Tamar?
If olives connect us with the Mediterranean basin, dates tie us to the middle east. The date palm grows mainly in the hot valleys, around the Sea of Galilee (Kinneret), in the Jordan Valley, along the Dead Sea. Interestingly, natural as they seem here, these trees require intensive care, and by the early twentieth century, due to neglect, the plantations in Palestine were much reduced. Ben Zion Yisraeli, a founder of Kibbutz Kinneret, smuggled hundreds of seedlings into the country from Iraq, and the industry was rejuvenated.
Yisraelis comrade at Kinneret, the poet laureate of the pioneers, Rachel Bluwstein, wrote poems about her adopted landscape, which became and remained core documents of Israeli culture. One of her most famous poems, Kinneret, a song which is still popular, contains the verse:
There on the shore of the sea stands a low-hanging palm,
Its hair disheveled like that of a mischievous child,
Who has slid down to splash his feet in the waters of the Kinneret
You can visit the Kinneret cemetery today where Yisraeli and Rachel are buried along with many of the famous names of the socialist Second Aliyah. And just there, on the shore of the sea, stands a low-hanging palm.