The pomegranate is a magical food.
Some say it was not the apple, but this regal red fruit, each with its own crown, that was the original fruit on the Tree of Life in Garden of Eden. While we might never know this for sure, we do know that pomegranates have been grown, eaten and cherished for thousands of years.
Pomegranates originated in what is now Iran, where they have been cultivated for nearly 5,000 years. Esfandiyar, one of the most powerful mythical heroes of Zoroastrianism, the oldest religion continuously practiced in Iran, ate pomegranate to gain great strength and abilities before battles. Of course, he was always victorious. One theory is that the tasty Persian dish fesenjoon (or fesenjan in formal Persian), which is made with pomegranate syrup, has its root in the hero’s name.
As pomegranates spread, they became part of the art, architecture, folktales, literature and cuisine of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. From Iran and the ancient Mediterranean, the pomegranate traveled throughout Central Asia and Pakistan, reaching India and China around the first century CE and moving on to Indonesia, Africa and eventually Europe.
By the 16th century, Spanish sailors and conquistadores brought the fruit to North America, probably cultivating the first trees in what is now Florida. They were found growing wild in Georgia in 1772, and Spanish settlers brought the fruit to California in 1769. Today most of the US pomegranates are grown in the hot, dry summers of that state’s San Joaquin Valley.
It’s not surprising that there are many references to pomegranates in the Torah and other texts since it was cultivated in Egypt before the time of Moses. The Israelites wandering in the desert complained so much about leaving behind the thirst-quenching fruit that Moses had to assure them they would find pomegranates again in the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 8:7-8). And, in fact, pomegranates were one of the seven original species (shivat haminim) that the found upon arriving in the land of Israel.
The pomegranate appears as a symbol of love in the Song of Songs. So important and admired was this fruit that they adorned the robes of the Temple priests, and King Solomon decorated the columns of the first Temple with pomegranates. He also cultivated pomegranate trees and incorporated the fruit into the cuisine of his palace.
What is the source of such enduring admiration for this fruit? First, while perhaps not magical, each pomegranate does contain a treasure chest of health benefits. In the Middle Ages, dried pomegranates were recommended as an aid to digestion. Today we know the fruit is high in antioxidants, fiber, potassium and vitamins C and K. The healthful qualities can help lowering blood pressure and cholesterol as well as increasing circulation and strengthening the immune and digestive systems.
Second, nearly every part of the pomegranate can be consumed. Juicy seeds are added to salads and cooked dishes. Dried seeds are used as a spice called anardana in Pakistan and India. The juice alone is delicious and can also be boiled down to a tart syrup or thicker molasses, usually with some sugar added. When various forms are used in soups, stews, salads, drinks, marinades, salad dressings, jellies and preserves, pomegranate adds a special, somewhat magical tang of flavor. Tea can be made from the juice or syrup or from the skin dried and ground to a powder. And of course, snacking on the ripe, fresh arils is always refreshing and fun.
Finally, there is the symbolism. As the story goes, each pomegranate is said to contain 613 seeds (arils), the same as the number of mitzvot or commandments in the Torah. Although no one I know has ever hit that mark counting, there is still meaning here with the many juicy seeds representing blessings of doing good deeds as well as fertility and abundance. In ritual art, the fruit adorns everything from kiddush cups and candle sticks to Torah covers and crowns, which are called rimonim, the Hebrew word for pomegranate.
Pomegranates vary in flavor, sweetness and tartness depending on where they are grown. In Israel they continue to be an important crop with fresh juice served in restaurants, cafes and juice bars while pomegranate in various forms is used extensively in Israeli cuisine.
A fall-winter fruit, pomegranates begin to ripen in September, just in time to adorn High Holiday tables, providing both beautiful decoration and important symbolism. Perhaps this year, you will incorporate the meaningful blessing for magical pomegranates that has been part of the Sephardic Rosh Hashanah seder for centuries:
Y’hi ratzon mil’fanecha, Adonai Eloheinu, she-ni-he-yeh m’le’im mitzvot ka-rimon.
May it be Your will, Adonai our God, that we be as full of good deeds as the pomegranate is full of seeds.