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Ancient Jewish History: The Seven Species

"A land of wheat, and barley, and vines; of fig trees and pomegranates; a land of olive oil and honey."

The Seven Species may no longer dominate the diet of modern Israelis - but the biblical seven species still characterize the local landscape. They were the staple foods consumed by the Jewish people in the Land of Israel during biblical times. In modern Israel – with dozens of species in a diverse diet – only wheat remains a staple. However, the seven species dominate large areas of the countryside, accentuating a sense of continuity between the biblical Land of Israel and the modern state.

Olives: More than any other fruit, the olive symbolizes this continuity. The gnarled barks of the ancient olive trees on Israel’s terraced hillsides seem to exude a wisdom accumulated from witnessing centuries of human history. In ancient times, olive oil was used to cook, to light lamps and as soap and skin conditioner. Today, the olive remains a popular food and its golden oil is a coveted commodity. Moreover, olive oil has become more popular since the discovery that it lowers cholesterol. Olive wood, with light and dark grains, is popular for small decorative items, while the olive branch persists as a symbol of peace.

Grapes: During the parched heat of the late summer, the grapevines lend the countryside a welcome rich green hue as the vines bear their fruit. Wine has always been an integral part of the rituals of Judaism, as in the "kiddush" blessing on Sabbath and holidays. In ancient times, grapes were also used for seasoning and in vinegars. Today wine is a major industry, and over the past decade high-quality kosher wines have become widespread while nearly 100 "boutique" wineries have sprung up. Moreover, because grapes, especially dark grapes, are rich in iron, the fruit is recommended to ward off heart disease. Stuffed with meat and rice, the leaves of the vine make a popular dish.

Wheat: With a cool and wet winter followed by a dry spring, Israel’s climate is ideal for wheat growing. Today the northern Negev is the bread basket of Israel. In winter the fields around Kiryat Gat are a rich green, turning a glorious golden color in the late spring before the harvest begins during the festival of Shavuot. In biblical times as today, bread was the staple of the local diet. The modern Israeli supermarket bulges with a choice of local breads like halla and pita as well as imported concepts like the baguette and standard sliced loaf.

Barley: In biblical times barley was the poor-man’s staple - eaten as porridge and barley cakes. Cattle and other livestock were also fed barley. Today, the grain has become a marginal culinary ingredient used in soups and stews. Barley’s most common modern use in Israel is as the basic ingredient for beer, sold locally in bottles and cans and served in pubs from the barrel.

Figs: The fig tree — with its distinctive leaves, used as clothes by Adam and Eve - is a ubiquitous part of the Israeli landscape. In biblical times the fig was eaten fresh or as a seasoning, in addition to being used to make honey and alcohol. The fig itself, ripe in midsummer, is today an expensive delicacy. In fact it is best eaten straight from the tree in the late afternoon after being baked naturally by the sun. Dried figs covered in sugar are also a popular item.

Dates: Date palms are only found in the hotter inland rift valley. In biblical times they grew in the Jordan Valley, but with modern irrigation techniques the palms have also taken root near the Dead Sea and further south in the Arava. In the biblical era dates were made into honey, and many believe the notion of the "land flowing with milk and honey" actually referred to date honey. Today, dates are a popular sweet snack before or after meals and fetch premium prices for export to Europe.

Pomegranates: Pomegranate trees are prevalent in Israeli gardens. The tree with its rich green leaves and red flowers becomes heavy with fruit for Rosh Hashanah (New Year) The plump red fruits are often plucked to decorate the succa during the feast of Sukkot (Tabernacles). In biblical times the pomegranate was used for making wine and seasonings in addition to its function as a dye. Then, too, it was appreciated for its aesthetic qualities, particularly the crown near the stem. Tradition has it that a pomegranate has 613 seeds to represent the 613 commandments in the Torah (five books of Moses). Today the pomegranate is traditionally eaten on the New Year although rarely otherwise, and occasionally used for flavoring in cooking.

Sources: Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs