A UNIQUE EXAMINATION OF FOODS, PLANTS, AND ANIMALS IN THE BIBLE
SEVEN SPECIES AND A GOOD LAND
The parsha of Eikev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25) commences with (7:12) “And it shall come to pass eikev you heed these ordinances, and keep them and do them; and the Lord your God shall keep with you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers.” The word eikev -- from the root “to be rounded/hill-shaped,” whence the word ahkaiv (“heel,” Genesis 25:26) -- possesses several meanings, as Ramban notes, all implying a round path or circuit. (Perhaps that was a meaning of the name Ya’akov/Jacob, as his life was one of circuits, i.e. leaving and returning to the land, contending with and supplanting his twin.) Ramban points out that eikev can be the preposition “because,” as in Genesis 26:5 and Isaiah 5:28. The word can also mean the noun “reward/result,” as in Psalms 19:12 and Proverbs 22:4. Thus Rashi explains eikev as a play on words in the sense of heel -- “if the minor commandments, which a person tramples with his heel, you must listen to” –- the context denoting reward; God rewards also for observing the types of laws that people tend to consider as less important, such as monetary regulations. Ibn Ezra understood eikev to be an adverb, “in the end,” for the heel is the conclusion/end of something, as in Psalms 119:33. Thus “in the end” there will be reward. Accordingly, the parsha of Eikev entails the reward of the Israelites in return for adherence to the Torah, all of the Torah.
Moses then assures the people of God’s assistance in conquering the land (7:17-26), before turning to the subjects of the nature of the unknown land and some of its food (8:1-10). This section commences (8:1), “All the commandment that I give you this day you shall observe to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and inherit the land which the Lord swore to give to your fathers.” Moses then briefly recalls the wilderness period, emphasizing the lessons derived from food “that He might make you know that not by bread alone does man live, but by all that comes out of the mouth of the Lord does man live (8:3).” Subsequently, in direct contrast to their stays in the Egypt and the wilderness, the people were informed of the unique climatic patterns and irrigation conditions of the land awaiting them across the Jordan River (Deuteronomy 8:7), “For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing forth in valleys and hills.” In addition, the distinctive nature of the land is evidenced by certain key crops awaiting the Israelites in their new home (8:8), “A land of chittah (wheat) and seorah (barley), and gefen (vine) and t’einah (fig tree) and rimmon (pomegranate tree); a land of zayit shemen (oil-olives) and devash (date honey).”
This catalog of two grains and five fruits, collectively called the Seven Species (Shivat ha’Minim), is listed in the order of their importance. Indicative of the basic Jewish diet two thousand years ago, the Mishnah (Ketubot 5:8) listed the minimum amount that a poor man had to provide on a weekly basis for his wife, “Two kabbin of wheat (2.3 quarts/2.2 liters) or four kabbin of barley (4.65 quarts/4.4 liters), half a kav of legumes (1.15 quarts/1.1 liters), half a log of oil (2 cups/0.5 liters), and one kav of dried figs (1.15 quarts/1.1 liters).” Wheat and barley, generally in the form of flatbreads, constituted the bulk of the diet. Grapes and olives were the two most important fruits, although rarely consumed in their natural form; grapes were predominantly used to make wine, the foremost beverage, and olives pressed for their oil, the principal fat. Indeed, there is no mention in the Torah of eating olives in fruit form. (For more on grapes and wine, see Noach in Genesis and Naso in Numbers. For more on olive oil, see Vayechi in Genesis and Tetzaveh in Exodus.) The vine and fig appear together 16 times in the Bible, connoting spring (Song of Songs 2:13) and peace and security (1 Kings 5:5; Zechariah 3:10). Figs pointedly follow vines in the first section, while in the second grouping devash (date honey, see Shemot 1 in Exodus) follows olive oil. Figs were far and away the most popular table fruit in ancient Israel, eaten in season fresh and occasionally boiled into a honey, but primarily consumed dried, either singularly or pressed into round cakes (devailah/devailim, i.e. 1 Samuel 25:18, Isaiah 38:21). Not as significant as figs, dates, although consumed fresh and dried, were most prominently boiled in a thick syrup (devash). Also mentioned is the pomegranate, which only recently has gained much attention in the West for its flavor and health benefits. (For more on pomegranates, see Pekudei in Exodus.) All of these seven constitute the products with which the land of Israel is praised.
In regard to the Seven Species, the Torah wrote “a land” preceding the first five plants, and a second time in relation to the final two, olive oil and honey. Indeed, the guiding word in this section is eretz (land), found a total of nine times in Deuteronomy chapter 8:
(8:1) All the commandment that I give you this day you shall observe to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and inherit the LAND which the Lord swore to give to your fathers.
(8:7) For the Lord your God is bringing (present tense/passive) you into A GOOD LAND (eretz tovah), a LAND of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing forth in valleys and hills.
(8:8) A LAND of wheat and barley, and vine and fig tree and pomegranate; a LAND of oil-olives and date honey.
(8:9) A LAND in which you will eat bread without scarceness, in which you will lack nothing in it; a LAND whose stones are iron and from its mountains you will mine brass.
(8:10) And you shall eat and be satisfied and bless the Lord your God for THE GOOD LAND (ha’aretz ha’tovah) which he has given (past tense) you.”
(8:14) And your heart will become haughty, and you forget the Lord your God, who brought you forth from the LAND of Egypt, from the house of bondage. (The contrast between the land of Israel and Egypt is further developed in Chapter 11.)
The term adamah refers to the earth’s surface outside of the water (the ground/soil), while eretz denotes a distinct portion of (land or country) or all of this ground (“earth,” i.e. Genesis 1:10, Deuteronomy 32:13). This distinction is evident in the verse commencing a discussion of the sanctity of the land (Deuteronomy 12:1), “These are the statutes and ordinances, which you shall observe to do b’aretz (in the land) that the Lord, God of your fathers, has given you to possess it, all the days that you live on ha’adamah (on the soil).” Thus the Grace After Meals (Birkhat ha’Mazon) and the blessing after eating any of the Seven Species besides bread (Al-ha’Michya) includes the phrase “on the spacious and good eretz (land),” as the blessings on these items are predicated on the land of Israel, while the blessing before eating vegetables and other produce is “Who has created the fruit of ha’adamah (the ground),” referring to the generic soil in which it grew.
The Midrash (Bereisheet Rabbah 13:12) explains the source of the word eretz and the three other biblical names for dry land: eretz, tevel, adamah, and arkah. “The name eretz corresponds to the vernal equinox that forces up (m’altzah) the crops; tevel to the summer solstice that lends seasoning/flavor (m’tabbelet) to the crops; adamah to the autumn, when the ground consists of clumps of dirt (adamah, as the land dries up before the rains, it forms clods of dirt); arkah to the solstice of Tevet (the month falling in the middle of winter) that causes the crops to wither (moreket).” A possible source of the word eretz is from the rutz (movement) of the earth during the spring, which causes the crops to begin to ripen. Another possible source for the word eretz is the Hiphel tense of the root rutz (to run), meaning “to bring out hastily (i.e. Genesis 41:14),” hence “to stretch forth quickly (Psalms 68:32)” and “to distribute quickly (2 Chronicles 35:13).” For during Creation the dry land stretched forth quickly from the water at God’s command (Genesis 1:9).
In Eikev, the word eretz emphasizes the nature of the Israelites’ new homeland and its abundance in contrast to the wilderness and lifestyle they are leaving behind (Deuteronomy 8:2,15,16). Similarly, the bread of the land (8:9,10) contrasts with the bread of the wilderness, manna (8:3,16). In particular, there are seven sequential citations of the guiding word beginning with “a good land (8:7),” the indefinite article used as the people were as yet unfamiliar with their future home, and ending with “the good land (8:10),” the definite article denoting a familiarity and insight after Moses’ brief discourse. The text within these two “good lands” encompasses the heart of this section, an understanding of the nature of the people’s future land and lifestyle, the two innately intertwined. The term “good land,” which appears ten times in Deuteronomy, also connects this stage in the development of the Covenantal Community to the Redemption from Egypt (Exodus 3:8) -- living in Israel under the Torah being the ultimate goal of the Redemption -- as well as to the response of Joshua and Calev to the slander of the other ten spies, the latter group preferring to remain in the wilderness (Numbers 14:7 and Deuteronomy 1:25, see also the article on Shelach), and to the warning recited twice daily in the Shema (Deuteronomy 11:17) and the warning in Joshua’s final address (Joshua 23:16). (The “ha’aretz ha’tovah /the good land” of 23:16 pointedly contrasts with “ha’adamah ha’tova /the good earth” in Joshua 23:13.)
The “good land” contrasts with the bad land (i.e. Numbers 13:19), the word rah (bad) denoting inferior quality as well as unpleasantness and evil. By employing eretz, the Torah is not dealing simply with the quality of the soil. The term “good land,” like “land flowing with milk and honey” (see Shemot 1 in Exodus), is laden with significance. And the key to understanding the “good land” are the Seven Species.
The indivisible number seven is the basic unit of routine and a completed cycle, denoting a connection to the solar week/year and nature. It all harkens back to the seven days of Creation, the period that established God as the Creator. In Kabbalah, seven also alludes to the seven middot (qualities), the seven foundations on which the world is based (1 Chronicles 29:11): chesed (kindness), gevurah, might, tiferet (beauty/harmony), netzach (victory/endurance), hod (majesty/splendor), yesod (foundation), and malchut (sovereignty).
Hirsch sees the Seven Species as presented in the order of “increasingly warmer climates.” Thus Israel is a land in which temperate zone plants, such as wheat and vines, thrive not far from date palms, which require a hot, less humid climate. “So this land has the happy advantage that it bears a richness of the most select fruit of all zones.” In addition, these plants flourish in different sections of the country. Palms require very specialized conditions to bear fruit in general and quality dates in particular, in Israel a warm area lying primarily in the Rift Valley running from Jericho (called “the city of date palms” in Judges 1:16) north to the Sea of Galilee. On the other hand, grapes do best in higher altitudes, where temperature fluctuations between day and night result in the fruit ripening slower, contributing to the character and sweetness of the fruit. Yet these distinction areas lie in close proximity to the others.
The Meshech Chochmah (Meir Simcha HaKohen of Dvinsk, 1843-1926) notes that the Torah wrote “land” a second time in relation to the latter two, olive oil and honey, because both of these were uncommon foods in Egypt. Olive trees did not fare well in ancient Egypt and any olive oil in the country had to be imported, primarily from Canaan. Among “the choice of the land” that Jacob instructed his sons to “carry it down to the man as a present” was “a little honey(Genesis 43:11),” as the climate of Egypt was unsuitable for producing dates, although Egypt did produce bee honey. Thus the Israelites complaining in the wilderness -- “this is no place of seed (wheat and barley), or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates (Numbers 20:5)” –- noticeably omitted any reference to olive oil and date honey, items with which they lacked any familiarity in Egypt. Hence the addition of the second “land,” reflecting the Levant’s special gifts.
One obvious difference is that the first three fruits are cited by their plants and raw state, while the latter two are both mentioned in terms of their processed state. In addition, the very last item, date honey, made by boiling and pressing dates, requires much more effort than olive oil, which is easily pressed from the raw olive. Thus olive oil and date honey serve as a connection in the progression between the two parts of the verse as well as between the two halves of the section, transitioning from the wilderness to the land, from nature and raw products to bread to eating to being satisfied. For the good land is not a synonym for paradise. Although the Promised Land is rich in natural resources, entering the land is definitely not a return to Eden, where, like the wilderness, food was furnished with no personal effort. Moses reveals that the situation will no longer be ‘manna from heaven,’ but instead hard work will be necessary to achieve this abundance. Thus the text (Deuteronomy 8:9) cites “bread” and the two metals, all items requiring labor and processing in order to generate a useable product.
There were other important foods in ancient Israel besides the Seven Species, including carob, almonds, millet, capers, and various legumes. Fish, caught from the streams and lakes, and vegetables, most collected wild from the fields, were generally added on the Sabbath and festivals. Note that most of the other foods grew wild or required relatively little labor to produce. Hard work is one of the keys to understanding the Seven Species.
Pointedly, the text employs “zait shemen (oil-olive) and devash (date honey),” terms denoting the processed form of these fruits. Wheat, barley, olive oil, and date honey all necessitate processing, not to mention that dates are the most labor intensive of all produce. Eating and being satisfied come about because of all of the previous plowing, sowing, weeding, irrigating, harvesting, and processing. Every step of the production process requires human activity and creativity, the converse of manna and the wilderness. Thus Moses logically developed his introduction of the land: from inheriting the land, to its natural resources (flowing water), to raw crops (the first five of the Seven species), to processed goods (the final two of the Seven Species) followed by the ultimate use of the grains (bread) and to metals and to enjoying those goods and lastly a warning about forgetting the ultimate source of those goods.
The Seven Species were more than simply the most important plants in Israel and a symbol of the hard work ahead; collectively they underscore Moses’ promises and warnings in Eikev. As explained in the parsha of Miketz (Genesis 43:11), the Seven Species starkly contrast with Jacob’s six choice products “of the land” – “take of the choice of the land in your vessels, and carry it down to the man as a present, a little balsam sap, and a little honey, tragacanth and labdanum, pistachios, and almonds.” Jacob's gifts, which represented the bounty of the land of Canaan, can be, and at his time were, all culled from the wild. Unlike the Seven Species, which require cultivation, Jacob's choice items require little or no human effort to produce in abundance, almost manna-like in nature. On the other hand, the Seven Species are all demanding agricultural items, reliant on the whims of nature as well as much care and attention on the part of the farmer. Insufficient rainfall or the arrival of hamsin (hot winds) from the south as well as idleness or mistakes by the farmer could spell doom for the extremely dependent Seven Species. (For more on the unique weather system of Israel, see Bechukotai in Leviticus.) Thus the Seven Species represent the very nature of life in Israel.
Because it requires a partnership between God and man to yield the Seven Species, only they are brought as the bikkurim (first fruits) in the Temple (Bikkurim 1:3). The bikkurim highlight the reliance of the annual production of the Seven Species on God, who controls the forces of nature on which these plants depend. (For more on bikkurim, see Ki Tavo in Deuteronomy.)
Although the land of Israel possesses certain physical benefits, life in this unique land entails certain spiritual dangers. Since so much effort was necessary to generate the Seven Species, they carry the potential risk that a person will think “it was my power and the might of my hand that have brought me this prosperity (Deuteronomy 8:17).” Another spiritual danger inherent in life on the western side of the Jordan was in the possibility of worshipping the forces of nature on which these species depend. Consequently, the Torah ominously ends the section of the Seven Species with a warning, “If you forget the Lord your God and follow other gods and serve them and worship them, I warn you this day that you shall surely perish (8:19).” The abundance of the land can serve as either a vehicle for blessing God or for denying God, and people must be constantly vigilant to this danger.
Thus among the laws and insights in Deuteronomy, Moses reveals the only blessing (berakhah) explicitly mandated in the Torah (Deuteronomy 8:10), “And you shall eat and be satisfied and bless the Lord your God for the good land which he has given you.” According to Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Berachot 8:12) and Sulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 209:3), the Torah directed only a blessing after eating bread, the Birkhat ha’Mazon (Grace after Meals), consisting of three blessings, and in addition the rabbis instituted an abridged version, the Al-ha’Michya (“on the sustenance”), also called berakhah m’ein shalosh (blessing condensed from three), a special blessing recited after eating any of the Seven Species. Other authorities (Rosh 6:16; Tur Orach Chaim 209; Tosafot Berakhot 49a) contend that the biblical command of blessing pertains to all of the Seven Species and, therefore, the recitation of al-ha’michya is also biblical. In any case, a blessing over food “from the land” was previously unnecessary, as the Israelites had been sustained for forty years by manna. In the future, however, sustenance would no longer come directly from God, but from the earth (adamah). Thus by thanking God after consuming a meal from the land (eretz), a biblical meal always being centered on wheat or barley bread, a person would be constantly reminded of the indirect divine role in providing sustenance.
In addition to blessings recited after eating, the Sages instituted blessings to be recited beforehand. The Talmud (Berachot 41a) explains that whichever of the Seven Species is mentioned in the verse closest to the word eretz (land) receives the blessing first. Thus a blessing is pronounced on bread made from wheat before any other food. The Talmud (Berachot 41b) recounted a discussion between Rav Hamnuna and Rav Chisdah when, during a meal, a bowl of pomegranates and dates was placed before them and Rav Hamnuna recited the blessing of fruit over the dates, which are the last item cited, and not the pomegranates. Rav Chisdah queried, “Do not the Sages explain that whatever comes first in the verse, ‘A land of wheat and barley and the vine and figs and pomegranates, a land of oil-olives and date honey’ also receives primacy when blessing?” Rav Hamnuna replied that although pomegranates are mentioned before dates, they are recorded fifth after the first citation of eretz (land), while dates are mentioned second after the second citation of eretz. It is the proximity to eretz that reveals each item’s prominence and, therefore, pomegranates fall last of all seven foods.
The pomegranate’s position in ancient Israel was not one based on its flavor or desirability, which was very high, but rather on practicality and general benefit. Wheat, barley, olive oil, and wine served as the basis of the diet and economy of ancient Israel. Figs and dates constituted the primary fruit crops, dried or transformed into honey, then used to enliven the diet as well as provide essential nutrients throughout the year. All of these objects were also major cash crops, frequently exported and, therefore, a source of security and prosperity. Pomegranates, on the other hand, were not a necessity. Farmers tended to plant pomegranate orchards only when they had sufficient grains, olives, and figs. The pomegranate’s principal moment in the sun, so to speak, was for a brief time each autumn, a fleeting taste of pleasure and indulgence. Although the seeds were dried or boiled into a thick syrup, this fruit’s epitome was fresh. Uniquely, pomegranates were beyond basic nourishment. They were a luxury item, although one accessible to everyone. Pomegranates were an inessential extravagance that makes a good thing in a good land even better. God was providing the Israelites, when they followed the commandments, not only basic sustenance, but indulgences as well. For God was not asking the Israelites to be ascetic in their land. Indeed, the Jerusalem Talmud (Kiddushin, Chapter 4, Halacha 12, 48b) notes, “On the day of judgment, every person who saw choice food and did not partake will be held accountable for his actions.” To refuse to enjoy a permissible food rejects God’s benevolence as well as passes up an opportunity to pronounce thanks in the form of a blessing. God only requires adherence to his commandments in order to enjoy the benefits of the good land.
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