The seven species are pomegranate (above), grapes, dates, figs, olives, wheat and barley.
Why do we eat fruit of the Seven Species on Tu B’Shvat?
The Seven Species of the Bible are a central feature of the celebration of Tu B’Shvat, which this year occurs in late January. The reason usually given for eating foods from this group, especially its fruits, is that they are symbols of God’s creation, and that by eating them we give thanks to Him and reaffirm our ties to the Land of Israel.
These are good reasons, but if we look deeper we begin to comprehend the profound basis for the singling out of these particular plants from all others that grow in the Land of Israel.
This is what the Bible has to say:
For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill, a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and [date] honey (Deuteronomy 8:7-8).
The land you are about to enter, Moses advises, is unlike Egypt, where crops were irrigated by channeling the seasonal overflow of the Nile. In the Promised Land “its hills and valleys soak up water from the rains of heaven,” where not you but God “will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late” (Deuteronomy 11:10-14). The farmers in Israel will be entirely dependent on seasonal rainfall to grow their crops. When we consider that Israel lies in the climatically unstable zone between moisture in the north and aridity in the south, we begin to appreciate the problems inherent in the establishment of agriculture. The early rain, beginning in late October or early November; the heaviest rain in December and January; and the late rain at the end of March to early April vary from season to season. Rain can take the form of heavy downpours causing erosion and flooding, and are unevenly distributed: Rainfall in the north may average over forty inches, down to less than three inches in the south.
The condition of the soil, furthermore, determines how (or if) moisture is absorbed into the soil. In the uplands of the hill country, soils, while fertile, are relatively shallow and therefore unable to hold moisture on their slopes. Rain was anxiously awaited (and still is), but what form it would take determined the fate of entire crops. Worst of all was a prolonged dry spell, which would mean total crop failure and the specter of famine.
These conditions help to explain why Baal, pagan god of sky and rain, was central to Canaanite worship, and why the Seven Species — a group that encompasses basic grains and foods — are singled out in Moses’ description of the bounty that awaits them in the land. Unlike the more tolerant trees represented in the choice products such as pistachio and almonds that Jacob was able to send down to Egypt even during a period of severe drought (Genesis 43:11), the fruits of the Seven Species are extremely sensitive in different ways to the unsettled conditions that prevail during the fifty days between Passover and Shavuot as they form flowers for pollination or are in their embryonic fruiting stage.
Is it any wonder, then, that their neighbors’ gods would appeal to anxious farmers in the Promised Land? Why not take out a little insurance and worship both Baal and the God of all creation itself. Why put all your eggs in one basket?
In this way the Seven Species became a floral symbol both of the challenges that awaited the Israelites in the new land and a reminder to be faithful to Him so as to bring about the rain in its season — so that “you may gather in your new grain and wine and oil” (Deuteronomy 11:14).
In their centuries-long transformation from shepherds to mainly farmers, the Israelites developed techniques to grow their crops on the cleared slopes so that precious soil would not be lost during heavy downpours. The steepest hillsides were left for pasture (an early example of good land management), and cisterns, hewed out of rock, collected and stored rainwater. Perhaps this ingenuity, when faced with adversity, is what continues to drive the development of innovative farming techniques in Israel (drip irrigation, for instance).
Perhaps, too, this excellence in farming is part of the Jewish character, formed by the discipline of the law. The very inspiration for Tu B’Shvat, for instance, comes from the Talmud’s tractate on New Years for the purpose of establishing dates for important occasions. The fifteenth of Shvat, a way of dating the age of fruit trees for the purposes of taxation, was regarded as the average date when fruit trees awakened from their dormancy and began to soak up winter rains from the warming soil. Fruit trees that blossomed before this date would be taxed with the previous year’s produce, because they were using the previous year’s rain. Trees that blossomed after this date were taxed with the new year’s produce, thus the New Year of the Trees. It wasn’t enough for the Jewish farmer to simply grow fruit trees (difficult enough), but living according to Torah standards he needed to know the precise age of his trees so he could meet his obligations.
Not only did farmers in this difficult land succeed in growing the Seven Species, their fruits were famous throughout the region. From various sources we learn that fruit-tree farming during the biblical period was so successful that ancient Israel was known for special fruit tree strains: the high quality of olives from the Galilee, grapes and wine from Judea and Samaria, figs from the Plains and dates grown in the Jordan Valley. Egypt, Persia, Rome, and Greece were among the buyers. The Persian Darius I (522-385 BCE), instructed his officers to procure fruit tree stock. The First Century CE Roman, Pliny the Elder, mentions shipping fruit trees, particularly the fig, pomegranate and grapevine, from the Land of Israel to Greece and Rome.
Over millennia, the fruits of the Seven Species became synonymous with the land and with the people who lived from it. The first century Jewish historian Josephus described Israel as a “garden of God,” because it was so lush with groves and orchards of “the most precious and most beautiful of trees in amazing variety.”
Jo Ann Gardner is the author of “Seeds of Transcendence: Understanding the Hebrew Bible Through Plants” (Decalogue Books, 2014). Her website is joanngardnerbooks.com