Parshas Beshalach (5777)
This Shabbos is Tu B’Shevat, the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, the “New Year for Trees”. This day on the Jewish calendar marks the beginning of a new year for trees when the earliest-blooming trees in the Land of Israel emerge from their winter sleep and begin a new fruit-bearing cycle.
The custom on Tu B’Shevat is to eat fruits from the Shivas HaMinim, the “Seven Species”, for which the Land of Israel is praised, as the Torah states: "... a Land of wheat, barley, grape, fig, and pomegranate; a Land of oil-olives and date-honey…" (Deuteronomy 8:8). [To learn more about this Jewish holiday and its significance, click on: http://www.aish.com/h/15sh/ho/ABCs-of-Tu-BShvat.html ]
Since the pomegranate is one of the Seven Species mentioned above – and you might just find yourself eating pomegranate seeds this weekend in celebration of Tu B’Shevat – I present to you for your reading pleasure …
FIFTEEN THINGS YOU MAY NOT KNOW ABOUT POMEGRANATES
1) The name pomegranate derives from medieval Latin pōmum "apple" and grānātum "seeded", alluding to the fruit’s many seeds.
2) The average pomegranate can contain anywhere from 200 to 1,400 arils (seeds). [Although two great rabbis – the Malbi”m and the Chasam Sofer – seem to have had a tradition that every pomegranate contains 613 seeds, corresponding to the 613 commandments in the Torah, this doesn’t seem to be borne out by the reality.]
3) Pomegranate trees can live for over 200 years.
4) There are over 760 varieties of pomegranate.
5) The pomegranate has been cultivated all over the Mediterranean region since ancient times, and was well known in the Biblical period. [In fact, an ancient Egyptian papyrus named the “Great Harris Papyrus” notes that the Egyptians imported pomegranates from Israel in the twelfth century BCE.]
6) Ancient Egyptians were often buried with pomegranates. A large, dry pomegranate was found in the tomb of Djehuty, the butler of Egypt’s Queen Hatshepsut.
7) Many scholars believe it was a pomegranate rather than an apple that tempted Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. [However, the authentic Jewish tradition maintains that the “forbidden fruit” was neither an apple nor a pomegranate; rather it was wheat, grapes, an esrog, or a fig.]
8) In the Bible, the pomegranate was one of the fruits brought back from the Land of Israel by the Twelve Spies (see Numbers 13:23).
9) Hanging all around the hem of the Robe that the High Priest wore while performing the Service in the Holy Temple were pomegranate-shaped tassels and alternating golden bells (see Exodus 28:33-34).
10) The brass ornaments atop two columns in the Holy Temple, built by King Solomon, resembled pomegranates (see I Kings 7:13–22).
11) The pomegranate is mentioned in Shir HaShirim, the “Song of Songs”, as a symbol of beauty (see, for example 4:13).
12) Rich with antioxidants, anti-inflammatory fibers and paraoxonase enzymes, pomegranates can limit UV damage, help prevent arthritis and keep LDL, or bad cholesterol, from accumulating in arteries. [For these and many other potential health benefits, the pomegranate has been dubbed a “superfood”.]
13) The Hebrew name for a pomegranate, rimon (pronounced ree-MOHN), is also the Hebrew word for a hand-grenade! [So how do you know if someone's talking about the kind of rimon that tastes good or the kind that goes boom? It's all about context. Conversation about how to open it without staining your clothes? The fruit would be a safe bet. News report about an exploding rimon? Probably the grenade.]
14) Drawing upon a verse in Shir HaShirim (4:3; 6:7) which compares the Jewish people to pomegranates, the Talmud in Berachos 57a states that even “the empty ones” among the Jews are “full of mitzvos and good deeds just like a pomegranate [is full of seeds].”
15) One of the symbolic foods that is customary to eat on the night of Rosh Hashanah is a pomegranate. Before partaking from it, we say the following prayer: “May it be Your will, L-ord, our G-d and the G-d of our forefathers, that our merits increase as [the seeds of] a pomegranate.”
[As an aside, if you have read the above list carefully, you might have caught an inconsistency between #14 and #15. As quoted in #14, the Talmud’s description of even “the empty ones” as being “full of mitzvos like a pomegranate” is descriptive of the lowest among the Jewish people. Yet on Rosh Hashanah, we seem to be praying to G-d that “our merits increase as the seeds of a pomegranate” as if it were an ideal, an attribute of the best among us. The Pri Chadash (in his commentary to O.C. 583) explains that those “empty ones” took a lifetime to accumulate as many mitzvos as a pomegranate, while we are requesting on Rosh Hashanah to accumulate the same amount of merits in one year. Another explanation is that the difference lies in the terms used. The Talmud speaks of the lowest among us being full of “mitzvos” like the seeds of a pomegranate, whereas on Rosh Hashanah, we beseech G-d that our “merits” (zechuyos in Hebrew) increase like the seeds of a pomegranate. Mitzvos and Zechuyos are not the same. Mitzvos (“good deeds”) are quite often performed mechanically and without forethought. As such, they are not always transformative. “Mitzvos” such as these even the “empty ones” among the Jewish people have in abundance. However, on Rosh Hashanah we pray to G-d that our “Zechuyos” increase like the seeds of a pomegranate. Zechuyos are good deeds that are transformative, and that purify us (Zechuyos is related to the Hebrew word zach, which means “pure”) and bring us closer to our Father in Heaven. Only the best among us have that many Zechuyos, and we pray that we are able to emulate them.]