By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
My first introduction to pomegranates was through my father. He never used that name, though: at the time, it was called a “Chinese apple.” He let me taste it and I loved the seeds’ sweet and sour taste. In fact, I still love that taste and eat the fruit the same way he did. None of this “put it under water and take the seeds out.” We ate it straight, mess and all. That was part of the fun – watching everything get red and stained, although now I will put a towel or apron over my shirt to protect it.
I never saw anyone else eat a pomegranate until I was an adult and had no idea the fruit had a Jewish connection My father certainly didn’t eat one at Rosh Hashanah as a way to celebrate the New Year. That’s not a biblical commandment, by the way, so if you hate the taste, you don’t have to eat one. Pomegranates are mentioned in the Bible, though, and are considered one of the seven biblical species from the land of Israel. They are also used as decoration on some Jewish ritual objects.
Why do people eat pomegranates during the High Holiday season? One explanation is that we’re asking to be as fruitful and fertile as the seeds in the pomegranate during the coming year. Others claim the fruit contains exactly 613 seeds, which is the number of commandments in the Torah. (There’s a big debate about the true number of commandments, but rabbinic authorities settled on that number, although there are more than 613 laws in the Torah. Which laws are part of the 613 and which are considered a subcategory of them is the subject for a different type of column.) Since the fruit is usually found in stores in the fall, people use it as a new fruit (the first tasting of the year) so they can say the Shehecheyanu blessing on the second night of Rosh Hashanah, giving them the opportunity to say the blessing both nights.
A little research shows that the pomegranate is an ancient Middle Eastern food. Some cultures considered the fruit sacred, including the Canaanites. It was also used in Babylonia as part of the worship of the goddess Ishtar; some historians believe the custom of using the fruit was initially adapted for use by those living in Babylonia after the destruction of the First Temple. There is no definitive evidence to support this theory. The first known Jewish writing connecting pomegranates and fertility appeared during the 13th and 14th centuries, although that doesn’t mean that the connection couldn’t have occurred earlier.
For those of us who appreciate the use of food as a symbol, the original timing and the reasoning matter little. While it’s interesting to ponder the origin of the custom, the most important thing is how it adds a religious/spiritual/generational element to our meals. When I cut into a whole pomegranate and carefully open it to eat the seeds, I think of my father. The fruit’s Jewish connection also links me to generations past who used the seeds to hope and pray for a good year. Both connections are worth celebrating.