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Fig Leaf

The Mishnah on Nazir 9a brings the case of someone who declares that he is a nazir from dried figs (讙专讜讙专讜转) and cakes of dried figs (讚讘讬诇讛). Leaving aside the question of if that really obligates him to be a nazir, let鈥檚 look at the fruit of the fig tree, one of the most prominent products in ancient times.

The fig, or 转讗谞讛 聽in Hebrew, is one of the seven special species of the Land of Israel. These were all brought as bikkurim, first fruits, to the Temple. 聽The seven species have a critical growth period between Passover and Shavuot, a time when the weather in unpredictable. Noga HaReuveni, the great botanist of the Bible, explains that only these fruits can be brought as bikkurim since their successful growth shows that God is the Master of the weather and He allowed us to have agricultural success with these tricky species.

Figs were among the earliest cultivated trees. We have evidence of them being grown in 9400 BCE in Gilgal, in the Jordan Valley. Appropriately, the fig tree is the first tree mentioned by name in the Torah. 聽When Adam and Eve eat from the tree of knowledge, they realize they are naked and quickly cover themselves with fig leaves. Anyone who has seen fully grown fig leaves can easily imagine them as a makeshift bikini. Because they are mentioned in that story, the rabbis suggested that one of the possibilities for the tree of knowledge is the fig:

Rabbi Ne岣mya says: It was a fig tree, as with the object with which they were corrupted and sinned they were rehabilitated, as it is stated: 鈥淎nd they sewed together fig leaves and made for themselves loincloths鈥 (Genesis 3:7). (Berachot 40a)

Fig leaves

Woodlot at English Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Figs are a fruit that were very common in the Biblical and Mishnaic landscape and less noticed in the market today. The magnificent trees are still very much in evidence though and (like some people) they grow wide more than they grow tall. The Mishnah states that workers can say the Shma on top of a tree so that they do not waste their employer鈥檚 time but the Gemara amends that to include only fig and olive trees since they have low broad branches that one can safely roost in (Berachot 16a). The fig tree鈥檚 roots can go very deep searching for water and can cause problems with sewage and pipes. Fig trees love water and if you see a huge beautiful one, chances are it is growing near a water source, whether an exposed or a hidden one. In fact, one possibility for the beautiful metaphor of a righteous man being like a 鈥渢ree planted by streams of water,鈥 “讻注抓 砖转讜诇 注诇 驻诇讙讬 诪讬诐” (Psalms 1:3) is that it is talking about a fig tree.

When the Bible wants to describe a state of peace and contentment, it says that 鈥渆very man is sitting beneath his vine and his fig tree,鈥 “讗讬砖 转讞转 讙驻谞讜 讜转讞转 转讗谞转讜” (Kings I 5:5). Everyone has enough to eat and no one needs to go out to war. The Midrash goes a step further and says that in the future, when the Messiah comes, Jerusalem itself will look like a fig tree, broad and spreading in every direction. If you look at a map of the modern city today, that image of a sprawling metropolis definitely works.

If you have ever harvested figs, or just observed a tree on a regular basis, you know that unlike other fruits, figs do not ripen all at once. You begin to see the new little figs around Passover time but the tree still continues to produce well into the summer. The midrash in Bamidbar Rabba (21:15) uses that fact to teach a brilliant lesson. A fig tree is harvested little by little, each fig in its proper time. The rabbis compare this to Torah study. No one should sit down, learn for hours and say 鈥淚鈥檓 done!鈥 Torah needs to be studied every day, some days a little and some a lot, and always when one is ripe for that day鈥檚 learning.

Our ancestors had many more agricultural words than we do and each stage of development got its own title. The little new figs are called pagim 驻讙讬诐: 鈥渢he green figs form on the fig tree,鈥 “讛转讗谞讛 讞谞讟讛 驻讙讬讛”. 聽(Song of Songs 聽2:13).聽 In modern Hebrew we use the word pag for the newborns not of figs but of people. 聽Pagim are preemies and a pagia is a neonatal ward.

Ripe figs

Kurt Stueber, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons

Figs are a great source of sugar and energy but ripe ones do not last long. That is why in ancient times it was much more likely that you would eat dried figs or pressed figs, like the ones mentioned in our Mishnah. These could be taken on a journey or just kept in one鈥檚 house over the winter to provide a quick caloric boost. In Tanakh, when Abigail rushes to bring supplies to David, to make up for her husband鈥檚 boorish behavior, she includes dried figs:

鈥淎bigail quickly got together two hundred loaves of bread, two jars of wine, five dressed sheep, five seahs of parched corn, one hundred cakes of raisin, and two hundred cakes of pressed figs.鈥 (Samuel I 25:18)

And when a starving slave needs to be brought back to life, the sugar in the dried figs revives him:

鈥渉e was also given a piece of pressed fig cake and two cakes of raisins. He ate and regained his strength, for he had eaten no food and drunk no water for three days and three nights.鈥 (Samuel I 30:12)

Figs, like dates and grapes, were also made into honey, another great way of conserving their sugar for a later, leaner time.

A dried fig was such a commonplace item that it was used as a measurement. The 讙专讜讙专转, like the olive and the egg, was used to determine size requirements for certain halachot. If one carries on Shabbat, the size of the item for which you are liable is a dried fig. The rabbis tried to connect all the seven species to Jewish law and used them for measurements when they could.

What an appropriate time to learn about figs, right before Tu BShvat when we celebrate the trees and fruits of the Land of Israel.

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 鈥淒arkaynu鈥 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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