In Devarim (aka The Book of Deuteronomy), the Torah refers to Israel as "a land of wheat, and barley, and vines, and fig trees, and pomegranates; a land of olive oil and honey." These Seven Species (Shivat HaMinim) figured prominently in both the foodways and religious observance in ancient Israel—the first fruits of their harvests were brought as offerings to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem—and they remain important in Israeli agriculture and Jewish culture today.
On the harvest holidays of Sukkot, Pesach, and Shavuot as well as festivals that celebrate nature and Israel—such as Tu B'Shvat, Yom HaAtzmaut, and Lag BaOmer, many have the tradition to incorporate some of these foods in their celebratory menus. Read on for recipe ideas and to learn more about the symbolism behind these healthful, delicious crops.
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It's said that there are no wasted words in the Torah, and that their sequence is never haphazard. That wheat is the first species mentioned, then, is a clue to its significance—it's the first crop of the seven to ripen, and a bountiful harvest signaled the probability of agricultural abundance throughout the growing season.
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Barley, another important staple in the ancient Israeli diet, is a sort of tether between Passover—when sheaves of newly harvested barley were brought to the Temple in Jerusalem—and Shavuot, which occurred 7 weeks later. Observant Jews today still mark this period via the counting of the Omer. Barley also figures prominently in the book of Ruth, which is read on Shavuot.
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Figs get early billing in the Torah; Adam and Chava (Eve) used fig leaves to cover themselves after eating from the Tree of Knowledge when they first realized they were naked. (In fact, some commentators believe this is an indication that the tree in question was a fig tree!)
Thanks to their shape, abundance of seeds, and lush texture, sweet ripe figs have also been regarded as a symbol of fertility and plenty since ancient times. Fig sap was also important in ancient cheese making.Continue to 5 of 7 below.
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Pomegranates are mentioned in the Song of Songs and show up as a common motif in ancient art. The finials used to decorate Torah scrolls today are called rimonim, the Hebrew name for pomegranates, and often share their shape. And according to lore, pomegranates contain 613 seeds to correspond to the 613 mitzvot —commandments—in the Torah.
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Like wheat and barley, olive oil was important in the Temple service, where it had many rituals uses, and was used to light the great menorah (yes, the one that's featured in the story of Chanukah).
Olive trees, which symbolize peace, are incredibly hardy; some ancient trees, documented by modern scientists to be at least 1600 to 2000 years old, still bear fruit.
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When the Torah speaks of "a land flowing with milk and honey," it's not talking about the products of cows and bees. The milk in question likely came from goats and sheep; the honey came from dates.
Like the pomegranate, the date palm is featured in ancient art and on coins. Not only were sweet, nutritious dates an important food, the trees, and their fronds provided vital building and textile materials.