While today most people get married using a ring, the Mishnah and the Gemara offer us some more creative options:
“MISHNA: In the case of one who says to a woman: Be betrothed to me with this date,” (Kiddushin 46a)
Later the Gemara adds a few other possibilities:
“Be betrothed to me with the fruit of an oak tree, [i.e., an acorn,] with a pomegranate, and with a nut,” (Kiddushin 47a)
Leaving aside the romance, or lack thereof, in these suggestions, let’s take a look at two of them: dates and pomegranates.
Dates and date palms are ubiquitous in the Gemara. They were a staple food and one of the seven special species of the Land of Israel. In that list (Devarim 8:8), they are not called dates תמר but rather honey דבש. The Torah is talking about date honey (silan) and not bee honey. Date palms are a common tree in the warmer parts of Israel, particularly the Jordan Valley. In fact, Jericho was known as the City of Dates and you can still see many growing nearby. Date palms were so identified with the Land of Israel that when the Romans wanted to show a captured Judea, they pictured a weeping woman under a palm tree.
Judea Capta coin
Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons
Palm trees have many usable parts, not only their fruit. The Beduin are known for using every part of the tree, to make baskets, insulate homes and more. Our rabbis were familiar with the multi-purpose aspect of date palms:
“as no part of the palm has any waste: the dates are eaten, the branches (lulav) used for Hallel, the twigs for covering the sukkah, the fibers for ropes, the leaves for brooms, and the boards for roofs, so there are none worthless in Israel: some are versed in Scripture, others in Mishnah, some in Talmud and some in Aggada.” (Bereshit Rabba 41:1)
Nepenthes, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
One of the four species we take and bless on the holiday of Sukkot is the lulav, made from date palm fronds. The rabbis compared each of the four species to a human body part. Naturally, the lulav is the spine. Each species has some qualities and not others. Date palms have taste but no smell. The rabbis compare this to someone who has learning but does not keep the commandments.
My favorite date story is one I have told many times before. In excavations on Masada a few decades ago, ancient date pits were uncovered. The fact that two thousand-year old organic matter had survived was remarkable enough, but then this happened. Israeli scientists managed to get one of the pits to germinate into a tree which they called Methuselah. They wanted it to bear fruit so we could taste the dates of ancient times. However, Methuselah was a male date palm and he needed a companion (or a date?). After germinating more ancient dates from Qumran, Dr. Elaine Solowey and others managed to produce a female palm and eventually, “babies”- dates that are very old and very new!
The Methuselah date palm at Kibbutz Ketura
DASonnenfeld, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Pomegranates, or rimonim as they are known in Hebrew, appear less frequently in Rabbinic literature although they are everywhere in ancient art because they are the most beautiful fruit. If you are lucky enough to have a pomegranate tree nearby you can watch its progression from the bright red flowers to the “crowned” fruit. Pomegranates are traditionally eaten on Rosh HaShanah, both because it is the height of their season and because they are symbolic of blessing and fertility.
Amnon s, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
The pomegranate is another one of the seven special species of the land of Israel. It was brought back by the spies to show the goodness of the land and it appeared in decorative elements in the Temple and on the robe of the high priest: bells and pomegranates around the hem. One of the many metaphors for beauty in the Song of Songs is the pomegranate: your brow is like an open pomegranate כפלח הרימון רקתך (Song of Songs 4:3). As a prominent and important species, places in the land were named for the pomegranate, for example the Bet Rimon Valley in the Galilee. Pictures of pomegranates decorated mosaics in synagogues and were carved onto stone pillars and other elements of the synagogue. Today, the tops of the sticks that a Torah scroll is rolled on are often decorated with silver pomegranates.
Bukvoed, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
But the fruit’s beauty is only one part of the story, Unlike most fruits, the edible part of the pomegranate is the seeds, and there are many of them. The peel and the fiber surrounding the seeds are not edible, an unusual situation. These elements are used as metaphors in descriptions of the Jewish people, of wisdom and of mysticism. The midrash says that Moses saw the Jewish people and said even the empty ones ריקנים are full of good deeds like a pomegranate. The pomegranate is deceptive, its outer appearance gives little hint of its inner bounty, as is true of many people.
Besides its beauty and good taste, the pomegranate also carries health benefits. Maimonides already wrote in the twelfth century that the peel of a pomegranate can stop bleeding and the juice is effective against diarrhea and hangovers. Research today is showing much more, although not all the claims have been proven in tests with humans. Pomegranates seem to be effective at slowing or even stopping certain cancer producing cells, at reducing blood pressure and improving general immunity. They are touted as a “superfood” and that is why Israel is growing more of them than ever.
Pomegranates and dates are often mentioned together because they were prominent in the world of the rabbis. One place that uses both as metaphors is in Hagigah 15. Here the rabbis debate whether Rabbi Meir should have continued to study with his teacher Elisha ben Abuya even after the latter became a heretic (see here). The famous metaphor that is given by Rabba bar Sheila is that Rabbi Meir found a pomegranate, he ate the seeds and threw away the peel. But a paragraph earlier the Gemara gives a different image, that of the date:
“When Rav Dimi came from Eretz Yisrael to Babylonia, he said: In the West [Eretz Yisrael] they say: Rabbi Meir ate a half-ripe date and threw the peel away.” (Hagigah 15b)
How are these metaphors, the date and the pomegranate different? And why do we need both? The Maharsha explains that Elisha ben Abuya had bad middot – he behaved badly – as well as wrong beliefs about God and Torah. Rabbi Meir wanted to take his knowledge without being affected by either his beliefs or his actions. The first image of the date, shows him eating the outer fruit and throwing away the inner seed. Here he takes the Torah taught on the outside but rejects Elisha’s inner thoughts and beliefs. But in the pomegranate image, he rejects the outside – the sins and immoral actions that everyone could see – but he accepts the Torah and the mitzvot that Elisha could teach him. And indeed, the seeds of a pomegranate are compared to mitzvot and we bless each other that we should be full of good deeds like a pomegranate is full of seeds.
May this new year bring us the blessings of the dates and of the pomegranates!
Photo by Laura Beutner on UnSplash