Home January 2013 A Tu B'Shvat Conundrum

A Tu B’Shvat Conundrum

In extolling the fruits of the Land of Israel, Moses spoke of “a land of wheat and barley, of [grape] vines, figs and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and [date] honey” (Deut. 8.8).  Surprisingly, this list, which is known as the “Seven Species of the Land of Israel,” does not include the almond tree.  Yet the almond has been a pillar of agriculture in this part of the world: archaeological evidence shows that it was well known locally already in the third millennium BCE.

Indeed, when Jacob sends Benjamin and the rest of his sons back down to Egypt, almonds are included in his gifts of “some of the choice products of the land” (Gen. 43.11).  And note which fruit stars in the most popular song for Tu B’shvat (Arbor Day, which this year falls on Saturday January 26): “The almond tree is blooming / And a golden sun does shine / Birds from every rooftop / Announce the festive time / Tu B’shvat is here—the festival of trees!”  Why then did the almond tree not make it into the Species of the Land of Israel?

In an article for Makor Rishon (an impressive multi-sectioned weekly newspaper with a national religious perspective — we needed something to partially neutralize our subscription to left-wing Haaretz), Dr. Akiva London, a professor at Bar Ilan University and the agronomist for the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, offers several reasons for the almond tree’s exclusion.  One reason is perhaps obvious: unlike the “Seven Species,” the almond was not a staple in the diet of the Land of Israel; it was prized primarily for its oil, which was used in perfumes and cosmetics.

A second reason sees the almond tree’s hardiness as barring it from the species list.  The almond tree requires little care, is able to withstand years of drought and grew wild in Biblical times.  Because of this, the almond might have represented the nomadic phase of the People of Israel, when they depended on wild fruits and on supernatural miracles.  The Seven Species, which require cultivation and nearby permanent human settlement, represent the move to developed agriculture in the Promised Land, where the people need to rely more on their own hard work.

An interesting feature of the almond tree is that while it is among the first trees to bloom (as indicated in the Tu B’Shvat song), its fruit is ripe only toward the end of the summer after a growth period of between 6 and 7 months (indeed so anxious is the almond to bloom that it, uniquely, flowers even before its leaves emerge).  In comparison, the Seven Species (with the exception of the date) blossom between Passover and Pentecost and have a much shorter time period until harvest.  Such agronomic trickery did not go unnoticed in the Land of Israel.  A book of proverbs from the First Temple period contains the following: “My child do not make haste like the almond tree, whose blooms are first and whose fruit is eaten last, but be wise like the mulberry tree, which tarries to bloom last and whose fruit ripens first.”  We can perhaps deduce from this that the almond tree was not “honest” enough to be included in the species.

And while we’re on almonds: For years I always felt that my Newyawka “am-mund” pronunciation was inferior to my wife Sarah’s beautiful Nebraskan “al-mund” pronunciation.  But then one day, NPR was interviewing an almond grower who pronounced the word “my” way.  To be on the safe side, I won’t say that Sarah is wrong; let’s just say that Sarah and I are both right, which I consider a small victory for me and New York.

Happy Tu B’Shvat!

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