Allen S. Maller

Pomegranates, Sukkot’s Etrogim, and religious pluralism

What kind of tree was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? Rabbi Abba said it was an etrog tree. An etrog, used at Sukkot, the fall harvest thanksgiving festival, is called a goodly tree, and it is good to be grateful to God for our harvest. (Leviticus 23:39-42) 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.

Most Americans think that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was an apple tree. They have no idea at all, why the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil should be an apple, or what that interpretation of the Torah text is supposed to mean.

Jewish sages found four plants that could represent the meaning of the Torah’s metaphor of a tree whose fruit can make humans “like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:5) Rabbi Abba simply said it was an etrog tree.

Rabbi Yose said it was a fig tree for as soon as they ate from it their eyes were open and they covered themselves with fig leaves. (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 preceded agriculture by several thousand years.

These two 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, has the most textual and historical support.

But there is also a lesson here that can be easily applied. There are over 500 species of fig tree (Ficus) and each species of fig tree is mutually dependent on a specific species of tiny wasp which lays its eggs in their figs to fertilize them. Thus we learn that mutual co-operation is good.

Rabbi Judah bar Ilai said Eve and Adam ate from a grapevine, that looks like a small tree and can produce grapes for 50-70 years. Wine (alcohol) is a 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 lesson since we all need to always be aware that humans can make good things bad by excessive expansive use or restriction. “Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself?” (Ecclesiastes 7:16)

Rabbi Meir said the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was a wheat stalk; i.e. wheat was the first crop to be domesticated on a large scale, and thus represents the beginning of farming; and then private property village 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.

And in recent generations some Haredim have started thinking the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was a Pomegranate tree because pomegranates were one of the fruits that the scouts brought to Moses to show that the “promised land” was fertile. Exodus describes the robe of the ephod worn by the High Priest as having pomegranates embroidered on the hem. According to the Book of Kings the capitals of the two pillars (Jachin and Boaz) that stood in front of Solomon’s Temple were engraved with pomegranates.

It is traditional to eat pomegranates on Rosh Hashana because the pomegranate, with its numerous seeds, symbolized fruitfulness. A pomegranate appears on some ancient coins of Judea. Pomegranates are one of the Seven Species (Hebrew: שבעת המינים, Shiv’at Ha-Minim) of fruits and grains enumerated in Deuteronomy 8:8 as being special products of the Land of Israel.

Pomegranates also symbolize the mystical experience in the Jewish mystical tradition–kabbalah, with the typical reference being to entering the “garden of pomegranates” or pardes rimonim; this is also the title of a book by the 16th-century mystic Moses ben Jacob Cordovero. Finally, pomegranates are reported to have 613 seeds; just as the Torah has 613 mitzvot.

The claim that the pomegranate has 613 seeds is both widespread and false. Discussing the meaning of seeing a pomegranate in a dream, the Talmud in Berachot explains that if the pomegranates are split open, and the dreamer is a scholar he may hope to learn more Torah … while if he is unlearned, he can hope to perform many mitzvot” for even the “empty heads” among Jews are full of mitzvot like a pomegranate [is full of seeds].”

Many ultra-Orthodox Rabbis misread this gemara to mean that there are precisely 613 seeds in a pomegranate, as there are 613 mitzvot. It should be clear, however, that the gemara uses pomegranates to imply general abundance. In fact, the very name “pomegranate” is derived from Latin’s “pomum” (apple) and “granatus” (seeded), alluding to the fruit’s many seeds.

Also a Yom Kippur poem “Eleh Ezkerah” describes the ten martyrs as being “full of mitzvot as a pomegranate.” The piyyut does not mean to imply that a pomegranate has exactly 613 seeds. Even though it is clear that the Talmud does not state there are 613 seeds in a pomegranate, two 19th century orthodox rabbis; Chatam Sofer and Malbim, make this erroneous claim.

This error became as wide spread in 20th century orthodox thought as the equally erroneous Christian idea that the tree of knowledge was an apple tree. Both of these errors are the result of growing literalist views in interpreting religious texts in both orthodox Christian and Jewish communities.

This emphasis on literalism is surprising because for over 2,000 years all rabbis have recognized four major types of Biblical commentary, and only one of them was literalism (P’shat). P’shat was also not the most used type of interpretation. In Kabbalah and in Hassidic literature P’shat is used less than 10% of the time.

The name Pomegranate derives from Latin, meaning “fruit/apple with many grains/seeds.” So the name says it all. If you count the seeds, they are usually between 300 to 700. This fruit from the ancient world is native from Iran to northern India; and has been cultivated and spread throughout the Mediterranean region since biblical times.

The etrog [citron] also came from the East [China] where fingered shaped citrons are called Buddha’s Hands. Citron was first cultivated for its medicinal properties in China; and its rind was used as a medicinal product, not as food. The Biblical Hebrew peri etz hadar “fruit of a beneficial tree” probably indicates that the fruit was good for both its medicinal and ‘moral lesson of pluralism’ effects.

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 850 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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