What’s the truth about Pomegranate seeds, Judaism, and the Talmud
Misconception: According to rabbinic tradition, a pomegranate (rimon) has 613 seeds.
Fact: The pomegranate is used in rabbinic tradition as an example of a fruit that contains many seeds, but not necessarily 613.
Background: The pomegranate (Punica granatum1) has been cultivated all over the Mediterranean region since ancient times, and was well known in the Biblical period. It is one of the Shivat Haminim, the Seven Species for which the Land of Israel is praised (Deuteronomy 8:8), and was one of the fruits brought back by the Twelve Spies (Numbers 13:23).2 Both the decorative items hanging from the Kohen Gadol’s robe (Exodus 28:33–34; 39:24-26) as well as the ornaments atop two columns in the Beit Hamikdash, built by King Solomon, resembled pomegranates (I Kings 7:13–22; Jeremiah 52:22-23; cf. Tosefta Ohalot 13:9). The pomegranate is mentioned in Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs, as a symbol of beauty (e.g., 4:3; 4:13; 6:7),3 and the Gemara suggests it be used as a decoration for the sukkah (Tosefta Sukkah 1:7; Sukkah 10a) and should be eaten when breaking the fast after Yom Kippur (Shabbat 115a). According to the Gemara (Gittin 19b), water soaked in pomegranate rind was used to reveal invisible ink. The pomegranate tree is also noted in Jewish sources: King Saul used it for shade (I Samuel 14:2), and because its branches are particularly dry, spits of the wood were used to roast the korban Pesach (Mishnah Pesachim 7:1). A pomegranate was used as a symbol on Jewish coins from period of the Great Revolt and, in contemporary times, it was chosen to adorn the 1.20 shekel stamp (along with the shofar).
The pomegranate was valued in other cultures as well. Greek archaeologists recently found 2,700-year-old pomegranate seeds. The Romans tanned pomegranate skins and used them as leather, and the Great Harris Papyrus notes that the Egyptians imported pomegranates from Israel in the twelfth century BCE. The boiled rind of a pomegranate was used as a remedy for tapeworm, the juice was used by some cultures as a natural dye (cf. Mishnah Shabbat 9:5) and Homer, Chaucer and Shakespeare all extol the pomegranate’s virtues in their works. Because of its many seeds, the pomegranate denotes fertility and family in many cultures. Ironically, it was also prescribed by Hippocrates and others to prevent conception. Today, there are numerous varieties of the fruit, some with white—instead of the brilliant ruby—seeds.
In the last decade or so, pomegranates have become increasingly popular. Though the pomegranate is savored for its flavor, news about its medicinal value has made the fruit’s reputation soar. Among other benefits, pomegranate juice may help fight the hardening of the arteries, which in turn can help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. It also reduces signs of aging, and is full of antioxidants. It’s a great source of vitamins and minerals, and research has shown that it may help fight prostate and skin cancers.
The misconception about the pomegranate having 613 seeds is widespread, but its source is readily apparent. In a discussion on the meaning of seeing the fruit in a dream, the gemara in Berachot4 explains that “seeing small ones portends business being as fruitful as a pomegranate, while seeing large ones means that business will multiply like pomegranates. If, in the dream, the pomegranates are split open, if the dreamer is a scholar he may hope to learn more Torah … while if he is unlearned, he can hope to perform mitzvot ….” Drawing upon a verse in Shir HaShirim (4:3; 6:7), the gemara concludes by stating that even “the empty ones among the Jews are full of mitzvot like a pomegranate [is full of seeds].”5 Many misread this gemara to mean that there are precisely 613 seeds in a pomegranate, as there are 613 mitzvot. It should be clear, however, that the gemara uses pomegranates to imply an abundance. In fact, the very name “pomegranate” is derived from Latin’s “pomum” (apple) and “granatus” (seeded), alluding to the fruit’s many seeds.
In the piyyut (liturgical poem) “Eleh Ezkerah” about the Ten Martyrs, recited in the Yom Kippur Mussaf, the martyrs are described as being “full of mitzvot as a pomegranate and as the corners [of the altar].” The piyyut essentially states that just as the corners of the altar were full of many drops of blood from the numerous sacrifices, so too were the martyrs full of mitzvot. It’s clear that the author does not mean that there were exactly 613 drops of blood on the altar; similarly, he does not mean to imply that a pomegranate has exactly 613 seeds.6
Metzudat David understands the reference to a pomegranate in Shir HaShirim (4:13) the same way; he states that the pomegranate symbolizes abundance because it is filled with [many] seeds. Similarly, the Rokeach (Hilchot Rosh Hashanah, 203) explains, based on a midrash, that on Rosh Hashanah the shofar is blown during Mussaf because at that point in the day, after we have recited the Shema, read the Torah and davened Shacharit, we are “full of mitzvot like a pomegranate.” Here, again, the pomegranate refers to an abundance of mitzvot, not 613.
Even though it is clear that the Gemara does not explicitly state there are 613 seeds in a pomegranate, the Chatam Sofer, in a derashah (Shabbat Hagadol, 5591), and the Malbim in his commentary on Shir Hashiriim (4:3)—both important nineteenth-century rabbinic scholars—mention the idea.
On Rosh Hashanah, a traditional practice is to eat simanim, or symbolic foods, in order to presage good things for the future. The specific “Yehi ratzon” recited before eating the pomegranate, one of the simanim, is another well-known source for the misconception. The origin of eating simanim can be found in the Talmudic discussion of omens (Horayot 12a; Keritot 6a). Abayei comments that since “simana milta,” “omens are of significance,” a person should make it a practice to “see” [other texts state to “eat”] five specific symbolic foods at the Rosh Hashanah table.7 According to the Talmud, these foods are “qara,” “rubya,” “kartai,” “silka” and “tamari” (gourd, fenugreek, leek, beets and dates). Other foods have been added over time, such as the pomegranate. The earliest source for using a pomegranate as one of the simanim is found in the writings of Rabbi Hai Gaon (tenth century, Babylonia); it is mentioned later by the Abudraham (fourteenth century, Spain; Seder Tefillat Rosh Hashanah) and thereafter it is mentioned by many authorities, including the Rema (OC 583:1).
The custom today is to bring each specific food to the table, recite an appropriate “Yehi ratzon,” and then eat the fruit or vegetable.8 The prayers recited are usually related either to the name of the food or to its qualities,9 such as its sweetness or its tendency to grow quickly.10 Thus, for instance, the request associated with the rubya, the fenugreek, is typologically different from that associated with the pomegranate, though both prayers mention the hope of “increasing [one’s] merits.” The prayer for the rubya states, “sheyirbu zechuyoteinu” (“may we increase our merits”). This is a play on the word “rubya,” which resembles “yirbu,” the Hebrew word for increase. 11 The prayer for the pomegranate is “sheyirbu zechuyoteinu kerimon” (“may our merits increase as the seeds of a pomegranate”). Because the term used is kerimon—translated as “like a pomegranate”—it is clear that the prayer refers to the fruit’s qualities— specifically, to its large number of seeds.
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