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Rosh Hashana: The Pomegranate

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Rosh Hashana: The Pomegranate

On the pomegranate in Tanach, special halachic considerations, symbolism, and most important: how many seeds are actually in a pomegranate?

Rabbi Moshe Bloom

We customarily eat pomegranate seeds on Rosh Hashana, and say: יהי רצון מלפניך ה' אלוקינו ואלוקי אבותינו שנהיה מלאים מצוות כרימון. "May it be G-d's will …. that we be full of good deeds like a pomegranate." Some even use the pomegranate to say shehechiyanu on the second night.

Let's take a look at the pomegranate.

The pomegranate tree (Punica granatum) ranges from three to seven meters high. It blooms at the beginning of the summer, and its fruits ripen in the fall (September – January). Indeed, one of the reasons that the pomegranate is customarily used for shehechiyanu is that its first fruits generally ripen around Rosh Hashana. The fruit's Latin name is Pomum granatum, meaning "seedy apple," from where the word "pomegranate" is derived. Its circumference can reach 10 cm. Hand grenades, rimonim in Hebrew, are named after the fruit since their explosion is reminiscent of the burst of its many seeds.

At the edge of its red (or yellow) husk, is its calyx or crown (netz), which is the remnant of the blossom. In fact, the blossoming stage is called henetz (Shir HaShirim 7:13). The pomegranate is unique inasmuch as it contains hundreds of edible seeds.

The origin of the pomegranate seems to be from the south Caspian Sea (Iran), and it was domesticated and imported to the Mediterranean some 5,000 years ago (the time of the book of Bereishit). Pomegranate remains were discovered in excavations in Gezer (dated to 3,000 BCE), Jericho, Arad, and other areas.

The pomegranate has a long shelf life (more than a month without refrigeration), which makes it relatively easy to transport. Its rich taste and many medicinal qualities made it a widespread and sought-after fruit in antiquity. Today, the tree is also planted for ornamental purposes.

Food and beverage in Tanach and Chazal

The pomegranate is one of the seven species (Devarim 8:8): "A land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey," and appears in additional places throughout Tanach:

The spies took pomegranates from the Land of Israel to show the Israelites in the desert (Bamidbar 13:23).

When Yoel prophesizes about the great famine that will ravish the land, he mentions the seven species, pomegranate included: "… for the new grain is ravaged … the new oil has failed … the vine has dried up, the fig tree withers, pomegranate, palm, and apple – all the trees of the field have dried up" (1:10–12).

Chagai, when prophesizing in the early Second Temple period about a drought, he refers to the pomegranate: "While the seed is still in the granary, and the vine, fig tree, pomegranate and olive tree have not yet borne fruit" (2:19).

In antiquity, the pomegranate was eaten raw or preserved, and juice and wine were prepared from its seeds. The Gemara in Shabbat 144b states that people from the house of Menashya bar Menachem would regularly juice pomegranates. Shabbat 115a states that it is permitted to remove pomegranate seeds in the late afternoon of Yom Kippur when it occurs on a weekday, to save time at the end of the fast.

As the name of a place

In contrast to other trees from the seven species, many settlements bore the name of the fruit rimon: Ein Rimon was a city in the portion of Shimon (Yehoshua 19:7; Nechemiah 11:29; I Divrei HaYamim 4:32), today identified as Hurvat Rimon, located approximately 1 km south of Kibbutz Lahav (approximately 20 km northwest of Be'er Sheva), near the ruins of a settlement known by its Arab name Khirbet a-Rammin. Gat Rimon in Dan's portion (Yehoshua 19:45) was a Levite city (Yehoshua 21:24; I Divrei HaYamim 6:54 locates it in Ephraim's territory). Today, Moshav Gat Rimon, near Petach Tivka, bears its name. Gat Rimon in Menashe's portion was also a Levite city (Yehoshua 21:25); and Rimon in Zevulun's portion was yet another Levite city (Yehoshua 19:13; I Divrei HaYamim 26:62); Kibbutz Beit Rimon in the lower Galilee is named after this city, and is adjacent to the Arab village Rumana, identified as the ancient Rimon.

The 600 remaining survivors of the tribe of Binyamin sat on the Rock of Rimon after the civil war (Shoftim 20:47). This place is identified with the cliff Khirbet al-Rumana, some 5 km southeast of Kafr Ramon, featuring many cisterns and rock-cut caves.

Shaul sat "beneath the rimon at Migron" (I Shmuel 14:2); this probably does not refer to a pomegranate tree, which does not offer much shade. It stands to reason that this is the name of a place Rimon. This Rimon is identified with the Palestinian village Ramon, located some 4 km southeast of Ofra, where many archeological findings were discovered, including those dating back to the First Temple times. The Jewish settlement Rimonim was established in 1980 3.5 km from Kafr Ramon, and today is home to approximately 170 (not yet religious) families. The place is mentioned in the Later Prophets (Zechariah 14:10): "Then the whole country shall become like the Arabah, from Geva to Rimon south of Jerusalem … and shall be inhabited from the Gate of Benjamin."

Naaman apologizes to Elisha that he is forced to bow down to an idol called Beit Rimon (II Melachim 5:18). The eulogy for Hadad-rimmon mentioned in Zechariah (12:11) seems to be a combination of Hadad and Rimmon, two Syrian deities that represent fertility; the pomegranate representing fertility probably due to its bountiful seeds.

There is also the mention of a person in Tanach bearing the name of the fruit: Rechav and Ba'anah, sons of Rimmon of Be'erot (II Shmuel 4:2), from the tribe of Binyamin.

The pomegranate as an ornament

The me'il of the Kohen Gadol was adorned by pomegranates fashioned from "blue, purple, and crimson yarns" (Shemot 28:33). In addition, 400 copper pomegranates decorated the tops of the two columns of the Beit HaMikdash: "The four hundred pomegranates for the two pieces of network, two rows of pomegranates for each network, to cover the two globes of the capitals on top of the columns" (II Divrei HaYamim 4:13).

In ancient cities in the Land of Israel (including Kfar Nachum and Beit Alfa), the pomegranate motif is prominent, and also featured on ancient coins.

The budding of the pomegranate tree is a harbinger of the Spring "Let us go early to the vineyards; let us see if the vine has flowered, if its blossoms have opened, if the pomegranates are in bloom. There I will give my love to you." (Shir HaShirim 7:13). Indeed, the Tunisian custom is to say the blessing of the trees (on the month of Nissan) specifically on a pomegranate tree, whose trees begin budding around the beginning of Nissan.

Medicinal properties and other uses

The Rambam notes that pomegranate husks can be used to stop bleeding in open wounds, and pomegranate juice is an antidote to diarrhea, to ease nausea, and for headaches following drunkenness.

Over the past 20 years, numerous studies were published on the health benefits of eating pomegranate seeds and drinking pomegranate juice. Pure pomegranate juice contains three times the antioxidants of red wine, reduces inflammation, is rich with vitamins C, E, K, and improves blood flow.

Pomegranate husks were used in the past to dye cloth, for ink, and even to treat animal hides. The Mishnah (Shabbat 9:5) states that the minimum amount that one is liable for taking pomegranate husks from one domain to another is the quantity it would be possible to use to dye a small garment. During orlah years (Orlah 1:8), the Mishnah states that it is forbidden to benefit from either the husk or crown. Rambam explains that it is because they are used as dying agents. Elsewhere (Shevi'it 7:3), the Mishnah states that this is also the reason that the husk, not only the fruit, is sacred during the shemita year.

Pomegranate tree branches were used to burn the Pesach sacrifice (Mishnah Pesachim 7:2). The Gemara (Pesachim 74a) explains that it is because these branches are not moist, containing hardly any liquid; because the Pesach sacrifice must be roasted and not cooked, these branches were the ideal roasting medium.

In recent years, pomegranate husk is used as an ingredient in animal feed.

Pomegranates and halacha

Pomegranates as an index

A broken vessel no longer is subject to the laws of ritual purity—tuma and tahara. The index for the size of a perforation that voids the vessel is the circumference of a pomegranate (Mishnah Keilim 17:1; Shabbat 95b). Perhaps since this was the largest fruit prevalent in the times of the Mishnah and Talmud. In practice, we are stringent that the size is less than a square tefach (Shulchan Aruch HaRav, Dinei Tikunei HaMikveh).

Orlah for the Pomegranate Tree

The first pomegranates appear on the tree at the start of their third year, when they are still forbidden due to orlah (only after 15 Shevat of the following year will they be permitted, with the status of neta revay). However, the greater problem of orlah has to do with rootsuckers, netzarim in Hebrew.

"וְיָצָא חֹטֶר מִגֵּזַע יִשָׁי וְנֵצֶר מִשָּׁרָשָׁיו יִפְרֶה" "A shoot will emerge from the stump of Yishai, and a twig will sprout from his roots" (Yeshayahu 11:1).

Trees are constantly sprouting branches and shoots. Shoots growing from the trunk aboveground are called chotarim (water sprouts; "it sees the face of the sun," [Bava Batra 82a]) while netzarim (rootsuckers, lit. "descendants") sprout from the root, underground. Halacha views netzarim as new trees, necessitating a whole new orlah count.

Pomegranate trees sucker extensively. While the mature tree already completed its orlah years, and its fruit is permitted, a rootsucker growing alongside it can produce fruit by its second year and will be orlah (a Torah prohibition)! It is often difficult to discern difference between a fruit growing from the original trunk or from the new rootsucker, since the branches intertwine with one another. This resultant mix of permitted and prohibited fruit is a genuine problem, since a doubt regarding orlah is only nullified in a ratio of 1:200, not 1:60 like most other prohibited foods.

In general, kashrut agencies ensure that farmers cut off root suckers, or at least mark them so that orlah fruit will not be harvested.

If you have a pomegranate tree in your yard, it is important to be aware of suckering, and either cut off suckers or mark them with marking paint.

This phenomenon occurs at times also with olive trees, fig trees, and others.

Pomegranate trees grown only for their ornamental value and not for their fruit, and it is clear from the way it is planted that it is being grown for ornamental reasons (growing inside the home, pruned in a particular fashion, etc.), are exempt from orlah (Shulchan Aruch, YD §293:23).

The pomegranate as a symbol

Pomegranates and beauty

It seems that pomegranates are seen as a manifestation of beauty because of its symmetry, red luster, and many shiny seeds. It is also the largest fruit of the Seven Species. Its symmetrical crown also magnifies its beauty.

The Gemara (Sukkah 31a), in regard to the etrog which is called peri eitz hadar (lit. a tree of majestic fruit), that if someone lacks an etrog it is forbidden to take a pomegranate in its place. From here we see that a pomegranate was also viewed as a magnificent fruit.

In Shir HaShirim, pomegranate also symbolizes beauty: "Your brow beneath your veil [gleams] like a pomegranate split open" (4:3, 6:7). Indeed, Rabbi Yochanan's beauty is compared to that of a pomegranate (Bava Metzia 84a): "One who wishes to see something resembling the beauty of Rabbi Yochanan should bring a shiny silver goblet … and fill it with red pomegranate seeds … and position it between the sunlight and shade. That luster is a semblance of Rabbi Yochanan's beauty."

Pomegranates, Torah, and Mitzvot

There are many places in Chazal where pomegranate seeds and juice are used as symbols of Torah and mitzvot:

On the verse in Shir HaShirim (8:2) "… I would let you drink of the spiced wine, of my pomegranate juice," Psikta Zutrata extrapolates the first part as "I will give your sons from the wine of the Torah that is prepared with all types of spices," and "my pomegranate juice" as "the rationale behind the Torah, which is sweet as wine." Shir HaShirim Raba (8:2) explains "my pomegranate juice," as "the agadot, which taste [delicious] like a pomegranate."

Psikta Zutrata adds that there is a pomegranate in Gan Eden from which G-d will prepare wine for the righteous.

Shir HaShirim Raba (6:11) on "the pomegranate has bloomed," expounds: "these are the children who sit and engage in Torah study, who sit row upon row, like the rows of pomegranate seeds."

Rabbi Meir's relationship with his mentor, Elisha ben Abuya, or Acher (the Sage-turned-heretic) is described with the analogy of eating a pomegranate (Chagiga 15b): "Rabbi Meir found a pomegranate, ate its contents and threw away its peel." Rabbi Meir continued to study Torah from Acher even after he became a heretic, since he was able to discern what was possible to learn from him and what wasn't.

How many seeds do pomegranates actually have?

We've all heard about the concept that pomegranates have 613 seeds. Do they? What are the sources behind it? Perhaps the following Gemara is the source of the parallelism between the 613 mitzvot and the many seeds in pomegranates (Eruvin 19a): "'Your brow beneath your veil [gleams] like a pomegranate.' Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said: Do not read 'your brow' [rakatech], rather 'your empty ones' [reikatech], meaning that even the sinners of the Jewish People are full of mitzvot like a pomegranate."   

The Chatam Sofer (Derashot II, Shabbat HaGadol 5591) states: "And in my humble opinion, since it is known that the pomegranate contains 613 seeds, equivalent to the 613 commandments, and I have already written about this in several places"). Malbim (Shir HaShirim 4:3: "Similar to a … pomegranate, which is full of 613 seeds), and the Yalkut Me'am Loez (Shir HaShirim 4:3) all write that pomegranates contain 613 seeds, equivalent to the 613 mitzvot.

It seems that this is not a precise scientific determination, but rather rooted in Jewish thought, just as we saw in the Midrashic literature above, where pomegranate seeds are compared to children studying Torah, to the rationale of the Torah, to mitzvot and more. Yet, there are those who claim that the pomegranates from the Chatam Sofer's time had an average of 613 seeds, or that there were rare pomegranates with exactly that number. Today, in any case, pomegranates have anywhere from 200 to 1,200 seeds. Next time you peel a pomegranate, count the seeds and see for yourself!