Passover cereal’s causal effect on the emergence of hierarchy civilizations

Our Jewish sages long ago found four different plants that could represent in a much better way the symbolic meaning of the Torah’s metaphor of a tree whose fruit can make humans “like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:5) So do not plant an apple tree if you want to plant a Tree of Knowledge. Either plant a fig or an etrog tree; or plant a grapevine or some stalks of wheat.

Rabbi Yose said the tree whose fruit can make humans “like God, knowing good and evil” was a fig tree; for as soon as they ate from it their eyes were open and they covered themselves with fig leaves. (Genesis 3:7) Modesty is one of the unique concepts found in all human societies. Also, an assortment of 11,400-year-old figs found in Israel may be the fruit of the world’s earliest form of arboriculture which proceeded agriculture by several thousand years.

These two simple explanations; that the fig is literally mentioned in the Garden of Eden account of the origins of human morality and that the fig is one of the first, if not the first domesticated plant, is the p’shat explanation because it has the most textual or historical support.

But there is also another lesson that can be easily applied. There are over 500 species of fig tree (Ficus) and each kind of tree is mutually interdependent on a specific species of tiny wasp which lays its eggs in their figs to fertilize them.

Thus mutual co-operation is good, but there is one fig tree that is an exception; a strangler fig tree kills its host. That’s one interdependency that is bad. Wisdom is in knowing how to differentiate one from another.

Rabbi Abba said it was an etrog tree. An etrog, used ritualistically at the Sukkot-harvest festival, is called a goodly tree and it is good to be grateful to God for our harvest. (Leviticus 23:39-42) Since it is used in religious ritual it reminds us that power corrupts and religious power corrupts religiously. God does not prevent humans from corrupting religion.

Indeed, God tempts the ultra-pious more often than the average. Also, the Rabbis claim that the Etrog tree itself tastes like its fruit; so religious people and their religious community should be good; both in private and in public, in word and in deed, inside and outside. This gloss is a Sod gloss.

Rabbi Judah bar Ilai said Eve and Adam ate from a grapevine. Most people do not think of a grapevine as a tree, but it does look like a small tree, and can produce grapes for 50-70 years. Wine (alcohol) is an obvious symbol of good and evil because wine can be used to sanctify the Sabbath or can make one an alcoholic.

This is a good drash since we all need to be aware that humans can always make good things bad by excessive use.

Rabbi Meir said the tree was a wheat stalk; i.e. wheat was the first cereal crop to be domesticated in large scale and thus symbolically represents the beginning of farming and then urbanization, hierarchy and civilization. Settled life is a great test of social morality because nomads can always split apart if they can’t live together but settled people must develop an ongoing moral legal system and abide by it if society is to survive. This gloss is a Remez gloss.

Now research from the University of Warwick, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the Barcelona School of Economics seems to show that Rabbi Meir was right and this challenges the conventional theory that the transition from foraging to farming drove the development of complex, hierarchical societies by creating agricultural surplus in areas of fertile land.

It is the adoption of cereal crops that is the key factor for the emergence of hierarchy. The authors theorize that this is because the nature of cereals require that they be harvested and stored in accessible locations, making them easier to appropriate as tax than root crops which remain in the ground, and are less storable.

The researchers demonstrate a causal effect of cereal cultivation on the emergence of hierarchy using empirical evidence drawn from multiple data sets spanning several millennia, and find no similar effect for land productivity.

Professor Mayshar said: “A theory linking land productivity and surplus to the emergence of hierarchy has developed over a few centuries and became conventional in thousands of books and articles. We show, both theoretically and empirically, that this theory is flawed.”

Professor Pascali said: “Using these novel data, we were able to show that complex hierarchies, like complex chiefdoms and states, arose in areas in which cereal crops, which are easy to tax and to expropriate, were de-facto the only available crops. Paradoxically, the most productive lands, those in which not only cereals but also roots and tubers were available and productive, did not experience the same political developments.”

Professor Moav said: “Following the transition from foraging to farming, hierarchical societies and, eventually, tax-levying states have emerged. These states played a crucial role in economic development by providing protection, law and order, which eventually enabled industrialization and the unprecedented welfare enjoyed today in many countries.”

So strange as it seems Rabbi Meir’s insight that stalks of cereal grains of wheat, barley, rye and oats were the symbolic meaning of the Torah’s metaphor of a tree whose fruit can make humans “like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:5)

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 450 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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