“For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land…a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey.” Deuteronomy 8:7-8
Israel isn’t just the land of milk and honey, but of wheat, barley, figs, dates, grapes, olives and pomegranates, too!
These foods, known as the Seven Species (shivat haminim), are mentioned many times in the Bible. They have grown abundantly in the land of Israel for thousands of years. Still today, the Seven Species are vital agricultural products of the land and are widely used in Israeli cuisine and religious rituals.
Eating from the Seven Species is one of the few established customs or observances for Tu b’Shevat. Called the Jewish Arbor Day or the New Year of the Trees, it comes each winter just as the first buds appear on trees in Israel. The holiday is celebrated this year beginning on the evening of February 3 and all the next day.
The practice of holding a Seder in conjunction with Tu b’Shevat developed in the sixteenth century and has enjoyed a revival in our modern world. You are invited to join one of the community Seders for Tu b’Shevat in our area this year, including two co-sponsored by JFE—at the JCC of Northern Virginia and the Jewish Study Center at Adas Israel.
But getting back to the Seven Species, what makes these foods so special beyond their natural profusion in Israel?
First, as a group they cover the range of flavors humans enjoy—sweet, salty, savory and sour. What’s even more amazing is the fact that the Seven Species are so healthy that these foods together provide nearly all the nutrition a person needs to not just survive, but thrive. Let’s take a look at each of these foods individually.
Wheat (hitah) is one of our most important staple foods, as in the proverbial “bread is the staff of life.” Whole wheat, the leading source of vegetable protein, is also a great source of dietary fiber and contains a wealth of nutrients, such as manganese, copper, zinc, calcium and potassium, to name just a few. Bread plays such a central role in Jewish tradition that it is the only food that we are commanded to bless after we eat it in addition to before.
Barley (se’orah) is used for beer, we admit, more than anything else these days. But that wasn’t always the case. One of the first grains cultivated by humans, barley was so important in the ancient world that its harvest was celebrated on the second day of Passover when ancient Israelites would cut an omer (measure) and bring it to the Temple as an offering. This began the Counting of the Omer, 49 days to the first day of Shavuot when the wheat harvest is celebrated.
Figs (te’enah) are so rich in vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals that they are sometimes called the healthiest of all fruits. They even contain some of the fatty acids essential for our brains. In ancient times, dried figs were often chopped and pressed into a cake. Israelites were known to have enjoyed fresh or dried figs every day, especially interesting since it takes a fig tree over three months for its fruit to ripen.
Dates (tamar) are also called dvash (honey) in the Bible, which is mentioned a prize-winning 55 times! “Date honey,” also known as silan, results from boiling the dates a long time to produce a thick, long-lasting syrup used as a sweetener. Dates are also eaten fresh or dried and contain many phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals, such as iron, potassium, A, K and B vitamins, copper, magnesium, manganese…and more.
Grapes (gefen) are eaten fresh, dried (yes, raisins really are dried grapes), juiced, preserved in jellies and jams and, perhaps most importantly, in the production of wine since ancient times. Often called “the queen of fruits,” grapes are actually berries. High in antioxidants, minerals and vitamins like C and A, their high water content makes them good for hydration as well.
Olives (zayit) are an important resource used as oil for cooking and dressing foods, as an ointment for skin and hair (especially in ancient days) and as sacred oil for lighting the ner tamid, the eternal light above the ark where the Torah is kept (as in the story of Hanukkah). Numerous health-protecting nutrients have been identified in olives including antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and cancer-fighting benefits. Maybe that’s why olive trees live hundreds of years?
Pomegranates (rimon), most often eaten fresh or made into a juice or wine, are known for their medicinal properties including as an immune-system builder. Pomegranates have been held sacred in most of the world’s major religions including Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism and Islam. And let’s remember that some say there are 613 arils or seeds in each pomegranate, equal to the number of mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah.
So, it seems people as far back as the first Hebrews to settle in Israel after 40 years of wandering in the dessert were onto something good with the Seven Species they found growing in the land. For me, there’s something that feels special…connected…about continuing to incorporate these same delicious, healthy foods at my table.