Terebinth, Lycium, or Mandrake

BY RUCHAMA ALTER

Ninety two percent! That is the estimated percentage of Jews who were farmers in Mishnaic and Talmudic times. They, unlike us, would have immediately known which vegetation the title of this article is referring to.  

Aside from their historical significance, Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot are tied to agricultural seasons. Pesach is Chag HaAviv – holiday of the early unripe wheat. Shavuot is described as Chag HaBikkurim, holiday of the first fruit and the celebration of a successful farming season. Sukkot is Chag HaAsif, the time of the gathering crops before winter sets in. Our yearly cycle revolves around agriculture, and our lunar calendar is designed to ensure the holidays occur during the proper agricultural season.

Our appreciation for farming has increased during the war as most farms are left without workers. When we volunteer to help farmers harvest or plant their crops we acquire a better understanding of the arduous work it requires. Understanding the agricultural milieu of our forefathers now has greater meaning for us. What were their main crops, and in what regions did these crops grow?  

Since bread constituted our forefathers’ primary food, growing wheat was most important. Wheat fields spread throughout the lowlands (shfelah) from the area south of Chevron and northward. South of that, where the semi-desert begins, barley was the dominant crop, as it can thrive in less nurturing conditions. Barley was considered inferior to wheat as demonstrated in the halachic position of Rabbi Yishmael, whose beit midrash was in Kfar Aziz, south of Chevron. He ruled that alimony paid to a wife is to consist of double the amount of barley to that of wheat (Mishnah, Ketubot 5:8).

Olives and grapes were extremely important fruits. When one blessed the farmer, these two crops were mentioned alongside wheat (Bava Metzia 107). Olives provided much more than food. Olive oil was used as a preservative, cosmetic and a source of light. The gefet, leftover seeds and skin, created fuel that not only burned but produced steam that increased the heat. Chazal ruled that one may not place a pot in gefet even before Shabbat, for gefet may cause the food to cook (Tosafot, Shabbat 48). Grapes were important for their nutritional value, but primarily for the production of wine. Used for kiddush and havdalah, wine, water and beer were the only drinks available at the time. 

Dates grown in the Jordan Valley were famous worldwide. Appreciated during the First Temple period, the Jews returning to Israel from Babylonia realized the potential of this fruit and renewed date farming on a larger scale than before. They found types that were easier to dry and which could be preserved locally or exported. This trend continued in Greek and Roman times. Theophrastus, a colleague of Aristotle, tells of 11cm dates that grew in Israel (as opposed to 4cm today), and Pliny the Elder (1st Century CE) comments on the sweet dates grown in this region.  

Figs and pomegranates, the last of the seven species, were important but not to the same degree. Figs grew in outlying areas and were mostly dried for self use. Pomegranates were grown primarily near Shechem. Pomegranate seeds, like grapes, were preserved and could last several months, supplementing the daily diet far beyond their growing season.

The persimmon, the wonder fruit of the world, grew around Yericho and Ein Gedi. The sap of this tree was mixed with and preserved in olive oil as soon as it was collected to create an exquisite perfume that was worth its weight in gold and exported to nobility in Egypt and Greece. The revenue from the persimmon paid for Herod’s enormous construction projects, and later made Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi one of the richest men in Israel. For a long time, the identity of this tree and the perfume making process was a mystery. Today, some scientists and farmers believe they have rediscovered this treasure. You can visit a persimmon farm on the northern shore of the Dead Sea.

Though we often lump shepherding together with farming, sheep were considered a hazard in ancient times and were not permitted to enter lush farming areas. Their terrain was mostly the semi-desert in the Judean Hills and the area south of Chevron. These were dangerous border areas often invaded by nomads, and guards were needed to protect the herds. David provided this service to the flocks of Naval (Shmuel I, 25).

Though many of these details seem exotic to us, agriculture was our forefathers daily reality. Chazal, with their deep understanding of farming trends and needs, provide us with multiple insights into this world. The Mishnaic Seder of Zera’im could only be created in Israel, where the people and the land were in harmony.

 

Ruchama Alter is a tour guide and lecturer in Jerusalem and abroad. She completed her graduate studies in Bible and Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto.

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