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Israel Environment & Nature: Fig

FIG (Heb. תְּאֵנָה, te'enah), one of the seven species with which Ereẓ Israel was blessed (Deut. 8:8). It is mentioned in the Bible 16 times together with the vine as the most important of the country's fruit. The saying "every man under his vine and under his fig tree" depicts an era of peace and security in the past and the vision of an ideal future (I Kings 5:5; Micah 4:4; cf. Joel 2:22). On the other hand the prophets repeatedly warn against the destruction of the vines and the fig trees (Jer. 5:17; 8:13; Hos. 2:12; Hab. 3:17). The fig is also mentioned as a curative. A fig compress (develah) was used by Isaiah in the cure of King Hezekiah (II Kings 20:7; Isa. 38:21).

The cultivation of the fig in Ereẓ Israel goes back to veryearly times. Excavations at Gezer have uncovered remains of dried figs from the Neolithic Age, while an ancient Egyptian inscription refers to the destruction of the country's fig trees by its conquerors (Jeremias, Alte Test, 139). The spread of the fig in Ereẓ Israel is attested by place-names associated with the word te'enah or develah. The fig served as a basic food, possessing a high nutritional value, largely by virtue of its honey. The expressions "honey out of the crag" (Deut. 32:13) and "honey out of the rock" (Ps. 81:17) apparently refer to the honey of figs, the trees of which grow in rocky places (cf. Yal., Va-Era, 184). Similarly, the sages identify "honey" in the passage "a land flowing with milk and honey" with the honey of figs (Ket. 111b).

The fig tree sheds its leaves in winter, at the end of which, even before the tree is covered with leaves, the paggim ("green figs," Song 2:13) begin to develop in the form of small fruits, which are really tiny flowers covered with a soft skin, and which continue to grow during the summer months. Hosea (9:10) compared the young nation of Israel in the heyday of its glory to bakkurot ("first-ripe figs"), which are delicious and eagerly sought after (Isa. 28:4; Jer, 24:2). Not all the paggim reach the ripened stage, some falling off or withering (Isa. 34:4). Figs that ripen at the end of summer have an inferior taste (Micah 7:1), as do those that burst when overripe (Jer. 29:17). Figs were dried in the sun and were either left whole or cut up and pressed (develah, I Sam., 25:18; I Chron. 12:40). The word kayiẓ (II Sam. 16:1–2; Jer., 40:10, 12), which may refer to summer fruits as a whole, signifies primarily dried figs (cf. Isa. 16:9; Tosef., Ned. 4:1–2).

The importance of the fig in mishnaic and talmudic times is evidenced by the fact that more than 70 expressions connected with the fig occur in the literature of the period. Various strains of fig are mentioned: white and black (Ter. 4:8); those that ripen early and those that ripen late (ibid., 4:6; Shev, 9:4), The paggim of certain strains were pierced or smeared with oil to make them ripen early (ibid., 2:5). Other strains required caprification: to ensure the pollination of the fruit, branches bearing the fruit of the wild fig (Ficus carica caprificus) were hung up on the trees. These were infested with insects, which alone can pollinate the fruit of the cultivated fig (Ficus carica domestica; cf. Tosef., ibid., 1:9; TJ, ibid., 4:4, 35b).

At present, fig trees are cultivated in Ereẓ Israel mainly by Arabs, their economic value being limited in modern Jewish agriculture in that their fruit, not ripening simultaneously, must be picked almost daily by many hands (Num. R. 12:9). The fig tree has many branches, large leaves, and widely spread boughs. Large, shady fig trees are to be found in Israel, especially on the banks of streams and near springs, and are among the most beautiful trees in the country. The fig figures prominently in the aggadah, the consensus, on the basis of Genesis 3:7, being that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was a fig tree (Ber. 40a; Gen, R. 15:7).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.