How the Pomegranate Became a Jewish Fruit

February 15, 2019 | Federica Spagnoli
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Mentioned repeatedly in the Pentateuch as one of the five fruits that the Land of Israel produced in abundance, the pomegranate has long had special significance in Judaism and Jewish iconography. Federica Spagnoli writes:

The pomegranate is attested in ancient Elam, [now in southwestern Iran], during the 4th millennium BCE, and then spread to the rest of the Near East, . . . reaching Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Syria, and Palestine by the end of the 3rd millennium. . . . The brilliant red and yellow of the pomegranate’s skin, the blood-red juice, and its healthy properties create associations with human fertility, and thus life and death. In ancient Mesopotamian art pomegranates are often represented with the deities of fertility, fecundity, and abundance.

Pomegranate seeds were found in the principal cities of the 3rd millennium BCE Syria-Palestine, such as Ebla and Jericho, and the spread of pomegranate in the Levant continued during 2nd millennium BCE. . . . By the beginning of the 1st millennium BCE, the pomegranate is found especially in funerary contexts in the Levant, and it also achieves further symbolic value connected to kingship. Its image continued to be reproduced on textiles, wood, ivory, and precious metals, as well as in symbolic ornaments.

The Bible provides several interesting references to pomegranates (Hebrew rimmonim). The earliest is in Exodus 28:33-34 and 39:24-26, [read in synagogues tomorrow], and refers to tying blue, purple, and scarlet yarns in the shape of pomegranates, which alternated with golden bells, to embellish the hem of a priestly robe. Similar decoration had been used on Near Eastern elites’ robes since the 2nd millennium BCE, as can be seen on old Syrian and old Babylonian royal statuary. . . . [G]arlands of bronze pomegranates encircled the top of the pillars flanking the entrance of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem built by Phoenician architects and artisans (1King 7:18-20).

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