The Magnificent Seven

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 The seven species (Shiva’at Haminim in Hebrew) are the seven agricultural products listed in the Bible as the agricultural produce of the good land that God has bequeathed to the people of Israel. The seven species were the only acceptable offerings of first fruits that pilgrims could bring to the Temple in Jerusalem. They consist of two grains and five fruits: wheatbarleythe grape, the fig, the pomegranateolive oil, and date honey (Deuteronomy 8:8), Jewish tradition places special importance on these seven species, which are used, for example, as decorations for the sukkah during the festival of Sukkot and as the main ingredients of the mystical meal on Tu Bishvat.

The seven species, which are listed in the order that they ripen each year, reflect the main agricultural products in the time of the Bible and their dietary significance. Wheat and barley, the first two species on the list, are used for making bread, the most important component of the human diet during biblical times. The most important fruit was the grape (a source of both wine and raisins), followed by the olive (oil), figs (eaten fresh and dried), and pomegranates (juice).

The land also offered other fruits, which were no less important than the seven species, but were excluded from the list. They include the almond, the carob, and a variety of vegetables, among others. It seems that the seven species were chosen primarily for their ability to produce food that had a long shelf life. Almonds were considered a delicacy, while carobs grew wild in the forests and were not cultivated as an agricultural product.

Vegetables form an interesting category of their own. They are mentioned in the five books of the Bible only in one solitary verse, when the people of Israel complained to Moses about the hardships of the desert: “We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic” (Numbers 11:5). One theory for this omission might be that vegetables may not have been cultivated in the Promised Land and greens were collected from the woods and meadows. This might be the reason that vegetables were considered a food for the poor, as hinted at in Proverbs: “Better a meal of vegetables where there is love than a fattened ox where there is hate” (Proverbs 15:17).

In ancient times, the ability to preserve food was of cardinal importance. It afforded survival during the seasons when there was no harvest. That apparently is why these particular seven species were chosen to represent the bounty of the land, a divine gift. Their produce could be kept for a long time and thus provide sustenance even in days of drought or harsh winters.

Finally, the seven species became a symbol of the Land of Israel because all of them, except the pomegranate, were domesticated from wild plants indigenous to the land.

Sukkot is the festival of the harvest, the time when the fruit of all these species has been collected from the fields, before the rains. Now that the harvest is in and the work is done, it is time to head to Jerusalem, with an offering from the harvest to give thanks to the Lord.

 

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