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September 3, 2015 | 19th Elul 5775

Seven Species V

Galilee Diary #180;
May 9, 2004
Marc Rosenstein

Of the seven species that symbolize the bounty of Eretz Yisrael (Deuteronomy 8:8), six are staple foodstuffs: two grains, wine and oil, and the two indigenous sweet fruits that can be easily dried and stored - figs and dates. That leaves one species that doesn’t seem to fit this utilitarian pattern: the pomegranate. In the picture of fertility, of plenty, of filled silos and storerooms that the Bible presents, “a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing…” [Deuteronomy 8:9], the pomegranate brings in a different dimension: not a staple, but a delicacy; not our daily bread, but a strikingly beautiful and tempting fruit, whose bright flowers beautify the late spring and whose crimson tart-sweet juice is the taste of the end of summer.

Aside from its occasional mention in passages listing the native fruits of the land, the main appearance of the pomegranate in the Bible is in Song of Songs:

Your lips are like a crimson thread, your mouth is lovely. Your brow behind your veil like a pomegranate split open. [4:3 and 6:7]

Your limbs are an orchard of pomegranates and of all luscious fruits, of henna and of nard…[4:13]

Let us go early to the vineyards; let us see if the vine has flowered, if its blossoms have opened, if the pomegranates are in bloom. There I will give my love to you. [7:13 and 6:11]

I would lead you, I would bring you to the house of my mother, of her who bore me – I would let you drink of the spiced wine, of my pomegranate juice. [8:2]

Interestingly, in Greek mythology, too, the pomegranate serves as a symbol of temptation: when Zeus negotiates the release of Persephone from Hades, who has kidnapped her to his realm, the condition is that she eat nothing from there. But Hades gives her a pomegranate, and she can’t resist eating some of its pips; so she is bound to spend a third of each year there – which is why we have winter…

There seems to be something about the pomegranate’s rich color, its abundant sweet juice, its distinctive graceful shape, that have turned it into a symbol not so much of plenty, but of beauty and sensuality. The shape was a common decorative motif: the priests’ robes were bordered with pomegranate-shaped decorations (Exodus 28:33, for example); and similarly, the pillars of Solomon’s temple were adorned with bronze pomegranates (I Kings 7:18-20).

Perhaps the pomegranate comes to remind us that this is not only a land of plenty, but a land of beauty; that God has seen not only to our physical needs, but to our esthetic ones too. The native fruits of the land provide not only images of prosperity, but also images of love and of sensuality. Our rootedness in this place touches every aspect of our humanness. “Man does not live on bread alone…” [Deuteronomy 8:3], but on pomegranates as well.

Rabbinic references to pomegranates tend to sidestep the sensual connotation of the image, and to focus on the geometry: the tight-packed multitude of pips (I have been told that there are always 613 pips in a pomegranate, but I’ve seen no source – and I’ve never counted) as an image of being “filled up” – with mitzvoth, with Torah, etc. (e.g. Midrash Shir Hashimim Rabbah 4) Thus, it is a widespread custom here to serve pomegranate on Rosh Hashanah, parallel to apples and honey, and to ask God to grant us a new year as full of blessings as the pomegranate is full of pips.

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