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A Date With Destiny

The fourth chapter of Pesachim takes us on a slight tangent from Pesach to the world of minhag, customs. Minhag is an enormous and fascinating topic and one of its facets is the idea of minhag hamakom, the custom of a certain place. As one can see countless times in the Gemara, there were places that kept a law in one way and others who kept it in another. Sometimes these variations came to an end when a certain opinion became the accepted halacha. An example would be eating chicken with milk. While Rabbi Yosi HaGelili may have seen this happening in his time, no Jew who keeps halacha today would find it acceptable. However, in the same realm of law, we have no problem with Jews who wait six hours between meat and milk, those who wait three and those who wait one (how many of us really want to be Dutch?). They can even marry each other and change their customs.

Here is where our chapter comes in. We hear about different customs pertaining to erev Pesach and on the bottom of daf 55, the Mishnah tells us about the unusual custom of the people of Jericho. Unlike the people of Judah, who would work until midday on erev Pesach, or the people of the Galilee, who would not work at all that day, the people of Jericho would spend the entire day of the 14th of Nisan grafting palm trees. Unlike three other of their customs, listed in the Mishnah, like eating fruit that had fallen off the trees on Shabbat, here the Sages did not upbraid them. In fact, according to Rabbi Meir, they even did this with the approval of the rabbis. What were the men of Jericho doing and what implications did it have for their Pesach observance?

Jericho is a fascinating place. It is one of the oldest cities in the world and it owes its antiquity to two factors – it has an abundant supply of water, from a spring, and it has temperate weather all year round. This makes it ideal for agriculture and its nickname was City of Date Palms, עיר התמרים. Even today, when you drive down towards the Dead Sea from Jerusalem, Jericho’s date palms are prominently on display.

Jericho date palms (Wikipedia)

Date palms require lots of attention. They come in male and female varieties and they cannot bear fruit unless they are cross pollinated. This can happen naturally if the male and female trees are planted close to each other, but a date producer would want better than average chances for his dates to grow. That meant that he had to do the pollinating manually, a time consuming but crucial job. The pollination has to be done at the right time, otherwise no dates. This would explain why the rabbis did not reprimand the date growers – this was a דבר האבד, something that would cause a financial loss, and as such it was permitted to do on erev Pesach (although not on Yom Tov or Shabbat of course). Professor Safrai says that today dates must be pollinated by February, which would contradict this theory, however, we don’t know enough about ancient date species to know if their timing was different.

Dates (Wikipedia)

This understanding of the date producing process explains why the Jericho farmers were allowed to work. However, Safrai infers something else from their custom. He says that because of this responsibility, the people of Jericho did not go to Jerusalem for the holiday and did not bring the Passover sacrifice. We know that not everyone made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem in Second Temple times. For some the distance was much too far. And in fact, one opinion in the Mishnah exempts anyone from the sacrifice if they are outside the Temple confines:

“What is “a far-off journey”? From Modi’im and beyond, and the same distance on all sides [of Jerusalem], the words of Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Eliezer says: from the threshold of the Temple court and beyond.” (Pesachim 9:2)

While we can understand that not all people could make it to Jerusalem for Passover, it seems particularly difficult to exempt the people of Jericho. Jericho had a strong relationship with Jerusalem and the Temple in Second Temple times. If you arrived from the Transjordan, chances are good you crossed near Jericho and took the main road up to Jerusalem (an important but dangerous road, with bandits as we see in Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan). Jericho dates were given as first fruits in the Temple and Jericho in general supplied the Temple and was a base for the priests when they would go to serve there. The Gemara in Yoma (39) even says that goats in Jericho would sneeze from the smell of the incense in Jerusalem. With this deep connection it seems surprising that the Jericho farmers would not have tried to find a way out of their date dilemma so that they could be in their sister city for the holiday.

The Elisha Spring in Jericho (Wikipedia)

Perhaps the answer lies in a story told a page later in the Gemara. Here we veer into an unsavory part of the Second Temple, the corrupt behavior of some of the priests. The rabbis did not shy away from these stories and we know that this corruption was a major part of the schisms of late Second Temple times:

Abba Shaul says: There were sycamore tree trunks in Jericho, and powerful people would take them from their owners by force. The owners stood and consecrated these trunks to Heaven.” (Pesachim 57)

The powerful people, as can be seen in the story immediately preceding this one, were priests who abused their position and used it to become rich. The people of Jericho, fed up with this behavior, refused to allow these trees to be taken by any priests, since they knew that there would not be fair distribution. They preferred to give them to hekdesh, and not have any person benefit from them.

Perhaps, tragically, the cities of Jericho and Jerusalem were separated because of bad priestly behavior? The relationship between Jericho and Jerusalem may have soured to the point that the farmers did not feel they needed to make special allowances to spend the holiday in Jerusalem. At least years later, after the Temple was destroyed, Jericho felt connected again, as can be seen in this mosaic from the 6th century Jericho Shalom al Yisrael synagogue which prominently displays the Temple menorah.

a copy of the Shalom al Yisrael mosaic (Wikipedia)

Postscript: Fifty years ago, ancient date pits were discovered in the excavations in Masada. About ten years ago, Dr. Elaine Solowey and other researchers in the Arava managed to germinate some of these pits, producing a new tree from a two- thousand year old pit. Naturally, they hoped to produce dates. However, these were male trees. Undeterred, they germinated other pits found in different excavations in the Judean Desert. This past year they made a match with an ancient female tree and in September, they were able to taste two thousand year old dates!

The Methuselah date palm, grown from an ancient seed (Wikipedia)

Shulie Mishkin

Shulie Mishkin

Shulie Mishkin made Aliyah from New York with a Master's degree in Jewish History from Columbia University. After completing the Ministry of Tourism guide course in 1997, she began guiding professionally and has since taught and guided all ages, from toddlers to retirees. Her tours provide a complete picture of the land of Israel and Jewish heritage, with a strong reliance on sources ranging from the Bible to 19th century travelers' reports. Alongside her regular guide work, she teaches "tour and text" courses in the Jerusalem institutions of Pardes and Matan as wel as the Women's Bet Midrash in Efrat and provides tours for special needs students in the “Darkaynu” program. Shulie lives in Alon Shvut with her husband Jonathan and their five kids. Shulie Mishkin is now doing virtual tours online. Check out the options at https://www.shuliemishkintours.com/virtual-tours
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