Seven From Heaven
"For the L-rd, your G-d, brings you to a good land… a land of wheat and barley, of grape and fig and pomegranate; a land of oil-rich olive and sweet date."
- Devarim 8:7-8
This is how the Torah introduces the seven species of grain and fruit with which Eretz Yisrael is blessed.
These species are mentioned in a number of places throughout Tanach. In many cases there is a comparison between them and our people to whom G-d gave this Land.
Our Sages (Mesechta Succah 5b) even saw in these seven species hints to the various measurements of substance and time, that play a crucial role in halachic matters.
We pay special tribute to G-d after consuming any of these species by making a special blessing, different from the one we make after all other food and drink. Whether it is the birkat hamazon (grace after meals) we say after eating bread made from wheat or barley and their three sub-species, or the condensed version (me’ain shalosh) said after partaking of cake, wine or the rest of the species, we offer thanks to G-d not only for the food but also for the Land with which it is identified.
Regardless of whether these species grow in Eretz Yisrael or elsewhere, this special blessing is made simply because a species which is described in the Torah as one of the blessings of Eretz Yisrael sets it apart from everything else – just as Torah sets the Land and the people apart from the rest of the world.
This is the ultimate expression of our people’s love of the Land.
Wheat -The Food of Knowledge
In the debate among the Talmudic Sages (Sanhedrin 70b) as to what exactly was the food of the Tree of Knowledge from which Adam ate, it is the position of Rabbi Yehuda that it was wheat. This is a sharp departure from the positions of his colleagues who identify that tree as one which bore grapes or figs.
The basis of Rabbi Yehuda’s compulsion to identify this sinful food as wheat, despite the obvious difficulty of connecting wheat with a tree, is the fact that this tree is described by the Torah as one whose food imparts knowledge. A baby, he points out, does not have the understanding to say the words “father” and “mother” until it eats wheat. It is logical, therefore, to assume that only food which imparts such understanding in a child could be considered the food which gave man the knowledge to distinguish good from evil.
Wheat was the principal ingredient of the flour offerings in the Beit Hamikdash. It, and its subspecies spelt, are mentioned (Pesachim 35a) as ingredients which qualify for use in the matzah we eat on Pesach to fulfill our mitzvah.
Barley - The Secondary Grain
Although barley plays a secondary role to wheat and was traditionally used more for sustaining animals rather than humans, there were special functions in religious life in which it featured.
Along with its subspecies, rye and oats, barley qualified for use in baking the matzos for Pesach as did wheat. There were two flour offerings in the Beit Hamikdash for which only barley could be used.
One of these was the Omer flour offering which was brought to the altar along with an animal sacrifice on the second day of Pesach (16th of Nissan). Once this offering was made it was permitted to enjoy the new grain.
The second use of barley was in the flour offering brought to the Beit Hamikdash by a sotah, a married woman suspected of adultery. The reason why barley, usually animal food, was designated for this offering is given by Rabbi Gamliel (Sotah 14a):
“Her behavior (becoming involved with another man) was like that of an animal, so must her sacrifice be one of animal food.”
Grape - The Fruit of Joy
When Yotam presented his parable to the people of Shechem who had abandoned him and crowned his rival Avimelech as their ruler, he described the efforts of the trees to find one amongst them who would consent to be their king. The grapevine’s refusal was based on a reluctance to give up its traditional role of supplying the wine which “gladdens G-d and men.” (Shoftim 9:13)
Our Talmudic Sages Berachot 35a) ask: “That wine gladdens men is understood, but how does it gladden G-d?”
Their answer is that the Levites in the Beit Hamikdash only offered their praise to G-d in music and song when the wine libations accompanying the sacrifices were poured on the altar.
Although there is a general blessing praising G-d as the Creator of fruit which is made before consuming any fruit, even of the seven species, a special blessing is made before drinking wine. The reason, say our Sages (ibid. 35b), is because wine is unique in its ability to both satiate and gladden.
Caution must be exercised, however, as to how much gladdening wine, with its alcoholic element, should be allowed to induce. “There is nothing which brings so much sorrow to man,” say our Sages (Sanhedrin 70b), “as does wine.” This is a stern warning against intoxication induced by something with a capacity for bringing joy when used in moderation.
Fig - The Torah Symbol
When King Shlomo compared Torah to the fig (Mishlei 27:18), he conveyed an important message about gaining and retaining Torah knowledge.
Rabbi Chiya bar Abba quoted Rabbi Yochanan (Eiruvin 54a) as to why the comparison was made:
“Just as one constantly finds figs when he approaches the tree (since they do not all ripen at the same time, there are always some available for eating- Rashi), so too will one always find a new taste in the Torah he is studying.”
If this message about gaining Torah knowledge is derived from the comparison to the fig tree itself, there is another message from the words of this passage regarding the protection of that fig tree which yields fruit for its protector.
“One who sees a fig tree in a dream,” say our Sages (Berachot 57a) “it is a message from Heaven that his Torah knowledge is retained and protected in him.”
The fig tree thus conveys the double message of gaining Torah knowledge by appreciating the new thrill which comes with every step of learning, and the need to retain and protect that knowledge through constant review so that we can enjoy the fruits of our study even if we are not lucky enough to see a fig tree in our dreams.
Pomegranate - Symbol of Righteousness
Anyone who has ever eaten this exotic fruit is well aware of the extraordinarily large number of seeds it contains. King Shlomo’s comparison (Shir Hashirim 4:3) of this fruit to the Jewish people leads our Sages to finding merit even in those Jews whose standard of observing the mitzvot leaves something to be desired.
In one place (Berachot 6a) it is explained that the city of Tiberias is also called Rakat because the word raik means empty or unworthy. Just as in the above-mentioned passage we read the word rakota’ich as a hint to “the unworthy ones being as filled with mitzvah credits as a pomegranate is filled with seeds”, so too were even the unworthy people of Tiberias filled with mitzvot.
In another place (Berachot 6a) this appreciation of Jews is extended to the entire nation. Even the unworthy ones, our Sages tell us, are so filled with mitzvot like the pomegranate is filled with seeds that these merits will protect them against the fires of retribution in the World to Come.
Oil-Rich Olive - Promise of the Future
Of all the seven species mentioned in praise of Eretz Yisrael the olive alone is referred to not as a fruit but as the oil that comes from the fruit.
To understand this we must analyze a point made by our Sages (Menachot 53b) about the comparison that the Prophet Yirmiyahu made (Yirmiyahu ) between the olive and the Jewish People. “Just as the purpose of the olive is the oil which is extracted from it,” says Rabbi Yitzchak, “so too is the purpose of realized only after it reaches the end of its processing.”
Maharsha explains this comparison in the following way:
The olive itself has no great value as a fruit and consuming olives too frequently, say our Sages, can be harmful to the memory. Only after the olive has been squeezed and crushed to extract its very valuable oil is this fruit’s potential finally realized. The Jewish People have a great spiritual potential but it may take the crushing experience of suffering in exile to arouse them to repent their sins and realize that potential. In the days of Mashiach this process will be completed and the “oil” of the Jewish “olive” will come forth.
Date - The Honey-filled Symbol of the Righteous
When King David compares the righteous man to the blossoming date tree (Tehillim 92:13), the full meaning of this metaphor can only be appreciated by contrasting it to an earlier comparison (ibid. 92:8) of the enemies of G-d to the grass sprouting from the earth. In his commentary on this psalm, Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra notes that the enemies to which the psalmist refers are the enemies of the righteous man who are likewise considered enemies of G-d. Although these enemies proliferate like blades of grass they are doomed to soon wither like the grass. The righteous, on the other hand, are comparatively few in number like the date tree but are blessed with the durability of that tree.
Elsewhere our Sages comment on the psalmist’s comparison of the righteous man to both the date tree and the cedar. Their explanation (Bava Batra 80b) is that the comparison to the date tree is to convey that just as that tree yields fruit, so do the good deeds of a righteous man yield fruits of reward for him in the World to Come. And just as the cedar has the ability to grow back after being cut, so the righteous have the ability to bounce back after every setback.