by: Kate Norman, BFP Staff Writer
As the early varieties of Israeli pomegranates begin blooming in August, it’s easy to see that these sweet, beautiful treats are a staple in the Jewish state. Pomegranates are everywhere: stocked in market shelves, freshly squeezed at juice stands and served on dinner tables both as a beautiful decoration and a sweet addition to the meal.
Even more than a crowd-pleasing treat, this fruit is a popular motif in Israeli art and Judaica. Visitors to Israel love to peruse the many shops and stores selling Judaica and other souvenirs—everything from pottery to jewelry, candlesticks, magnets, scarves, all splashed across the shop in a hodgepodge of textures and colors. Take a closer look and you’ll notice a few motifs and repeated symbols on most of the items: among them the Star of David, the hand-shaped hamsa, cityscapes of Jerusalem, the Western Wall, lions—and pomegranates.
Pomegranates are beloved in Israel for their sweet, tangy taste; rich, red color and dazzling crown shape. The peak season to find pomegranates in Israeli markets is from October to March, though earlier varieties begin to ripen as early as August. The fruit hits the stand just in time for the start of the biblical high holidays, beginning with Rosh HaShanah—the Jewish New Year—which usually falls in September or October. It is traditional for the Jewish people to eat sweet foods during Rosh HaShanah to symbolize their desire for a sweet new year. Pomegranates, because of their sweet, rich flavor and beautiful color are therefore a popular staple in Rosh HaShanah dishes.
Listed as a superfood, pomegranates are packed with nutrients, including antioxidants, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, fiber, potassium, the list goes on. Research shows that the juicy seeds can help boost your immune system, reduce inflammation and can even slow the growth of cancer cells and tumors, according to Healthline. Pomegranates also boost heart health, help lower blood pressure and promote good bacteria while fighting harmful bacteria in your system. With all this goodness packed inside, it’s certainly worth sprinkling a handful of the tangy arils over your salad or drinking a glass of pomegranate juice. In fact, the cofounder of POM Wonderful juice told Forbes that he drinks eight ounces of the juice every day and hasn’t suffered from a cold in a decade.
But aside from enjoying the flavorful fruit as a snack, pomegranates are painted, woven and crafted prominently into Jewish households. This fruit features on Shabbat (Sabbath) candlesticks, pottery, jewelry, tallitot (prayer shawls) and much more. But what makes pomegranates the star of the show in Israel?
For one thing, pomegranates are one of the seven species of the land of Israel, as mentioned in Deuteronomy 8:8. In this passage, the Lord describes to Moses the Promised Land into which He will bring the Israelites, “a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey.” Still, though it is one of the famed seven species, how did pomegranates, listed fifth out of the items, become the firm favorite in Israel? The rest of the seven species are certainly featured in Judaica and Israeli decor, but pomegranates are the shining star in Judaica and on holiday and Shabbat tables across Israel.
The pomegranate prominence actually dates back thousands of years, beginning with God’s instructions to Moses to decorate the robes of the priests serving in the Tabernacle with pomegranates (Exod. 28:33–35). According to the instructions given to Moses, pomegranates woven out of blue, purple and scarlet material were to decorate the hem of the priestly robes, along with golden bells.
In fact, pomegranates were one of the first fruits that the Children of Israel tasted from the Promised Land before entering into it after 400 years of slavery in Egypt and 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. When the Israelites approached the Promised Land, they sent the infamous 12 spies to scope out the land and bring back a report. And what they returned with was fear and fruit. Except for Caleb and Joshua, the spies brought back a fearsome report of fortified cities and unbeatable giants. But the fruit they carried with them was rich: a cluster of grapes, figs—and pomegranates (Num. 13:23).
Hundreds of years later, King Solomon picked up the baton from his father, King David, and set about constructing the Temple his father had sought to build for the Lord. And just as pomegranates decorated the robes of the priests serving in the Tabernacle, so the crown fruit—now fashioned out of bronze—adorned the columns of Solomon’s resplendent Temple (1 Kings 7:15–20).
The fruit features elsewhere in Scriptures, but these are the main examples.
The pomegranate also has rich symbolism in Jewish tradition. The Jewish sages said in the Talmud (rabbinic commentary on Jewish tradition and the Hebrew Scriptures) that there are 613 mitzvot, or commandments, in the Torah (Gen.–Deut.). Jewish tradition said the 613 mitzvot in the Torah are mirrored by 613 seeds in the pomegranate. This isn’t quite accurate, as every pomegranate has a different amount of seeds, but it still led to a beautiful blessing traditionally said on Rosh HaShanah: “May it be your will, Adonai our God, that we be as full of good deeds as the pomegranate is full of seeds.”
In addition to blessing, the pomegranate also represents royalty, thanks to its crown shape. In fact, many Torah scrolls are decorated with silver pomegranates (rimonim in Hebrew) on top. Bursting with seeds, the fruit also represents fertility, life and love.
Whether it’s the remarkable health benefits, the Biblical significance, the rich symbolism or simply the vibrant beauty and delicious taste of the fruit itself, take a look around Israel: this crown-shaped fruit is crowned king of the markets, shops and tables across the Holy Land.
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