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October 23, 2014 | 29th Tishrei 5775

Seven Species IV

Galilee Diary #179;
May 2, 2004
Marc Rosenstein

The first tree mentioned by name in the Bible is of course the fig, whose leaves Adam and Eve sewed together to cover their nakedness (Genesis 3:7). Grapes and wheat have come to symbolize the agriculture of Eretz Yisrael: both are species that have been actively cultivated for thousands of years; both are associated with culture, with knowledge, with civilization. The fig, on the other hand, the fourth of the “seven species” (Deuteronomy 8:8), seems more a symbol of the land itself. Figs in Israel don’t grow in neat rows, and have not been adapted to modern agriculture. If you want to see fig plantations, where the fruit is mass-produced for drying, you have to travel to the Turkish countryside. Here, they grow as lone trees, in the courtyards of houses, along streams, on the sites of abandoned villages. They hardly seem to be a product of human cultivation – they seem to be a natural part of the landscape.

Indeed, in folklore, fig trees grow not as a product of human efforts, but in defiance of them: In the old city of Acco there is a large fig tree growing out of a stone wall, which according to legend overcame all attempts by the caliph to have it cut down, miraculously sprouting anew after each attack. Among the wild raspberry and other weeds that persistently sprout in the rocky terrace in our front yard, a few years ago a little plant appeared with leaves that looked like fig leaves. We left it alone. It is now a stunted, weirdly shaped sapling, whose branches, instead of growing upward, curve downward from the terrace in which it is rooted. And if we had any doubts about its identity, this spring it has produced a fruit that is clearly an unripe fig.

He set him atop the highlands, to feast on the yield of the earth;

He fed him honey from the crag, and oil from the flinty rock…

-Deuteronomy 32:13

“Honey from the crag” refers to Sichni and its environs: it is told that Rabbi Judah said to his son, “Go and bring me dried figs from the barrel.” He [came back and] said, “Father, there is only honey there.” R. Judah said, “stick your hand into the honey and bring up the figs.”

Midrash Sifrei, Ha’azinu 316

Sichni is generally thought to be Sachnin, the Arab town located about five minutes’ drive from Shorashim. In the Talmud, Sichni and its valley are often used to symbolize the bounty of the land, the richness and high quality of the agricultural produce of Israel. The honey from the crag (and in Psalm 81:17, “honey from the rock”) seems to be understood as fig honey, the sweet syrupy juice of this fruit. Hence, the lone fig on the stunted tree sprouting from the rock in our yard is no less than the referent of the biblical image in Deuteronomy and Psalms, “honey from the rock.”

In summer, pre-teenage Arab boys endanger their lives and ours, standing on the shoulder of the highway, holding out buckets of fresh-picked ripe figs, oozy in the sun and sickeningly sweet, the taste of decadence. Why are figs not a significant commercial crop here? One reason, apparently is that a tree’s fruit ripens over a long period, not all at once, so the figs must be harvested by hand, one at a time, re-picking the same tree day after day; only Arab boys have the time.

Why is the Torah likened to a fig tree? All other trees – the olive, the grape, the date – are harvested all at once; but the fig tree is harvested little by little. So it is with the Torah: today you learn a little; tomorrow you learn a lot; the Torah is not learned in one year nor even in two years. Hence the verse, “He who tends a fig tree will enjoy its fruit” [Proverbs 27:18] refers to the Torah as fruit.

-Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah 12:9

Once again, text and land - each helps us find meaning in the other.

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