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Nourishing body and soul: Shavuot and the Seven Species

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The Seven Species as depicted on a set of Israeli stamps issued in 1958
The Seven Species as depicted on a set of Israeli stamps issued in 1958 WIKI COMMONS PHOTO

Although it’s customary to eat dairy foods on Shavuot, you may want to try a different way to mark the holiday’s agricultural roots – with foods that can nourish your soul as well as your body.

In the days of the Temple, Shavuot was the time when farmers would bring the first harvest of seven special grains and fruits to Jerusalem. Nowadays, we have no Temple but you can still enjoy dishes made from the Seven Species: “wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and [date] honey.” (Deuteronomy, 8:8)

WHEAT has always been considered fundamental to Jewish life. “If there is no flour there is no Torah; if there is no Torah there is no flour.” (Pirkei Avot, 3:21) In Foods of the Bible, Phyllis Glazer presents an overview of how our ancestors would mill grains, and she explains what kinds of breads, cakes and other dishes would be prepared.

Mystically, wheat corresponds to chesed (kindness), the kabbalistic characteristic of “expansion” where we reach out toward others. Is there an ingredient more emblematic of kindness than this staff of life?

READ: WAIT…ARE THOSE VEGGIES KOSHER? THE NUANCES OF BEING A KOSHER VEGETARIAN

Although BARLEY may not have the profile of wheat, it does have a very strong connection to Shavuot. In the Book of Ruth (traditionally read on this holiday), Boaz first fancies Ruth working in the field under the hot sun and gives her a gift of “six measures of barley.” (Ruth, 3:15) After you’ve pondered that, you can try your hand at Barley Bread Cakes and wash them down with some Barley Tea.

Complementing wheat and its kindness is barley’s mystical quality of gevurah (restraint) with its characteristic “contraction, reduction and setting boundaries.” Rebbetzin Chana B. Siegelbaum notes that “due to its contracting quality, barley is highly effective in reducing liquid when added to soup.”

There are numerous references to GRAPES and wine in the Torah, from Noah’s indiscretions after the flood to the huge grape cluster that the spies brought back after they toured Canaan. Later, the Israelites were compared to the fruit of the vine. “As grapes in the desert I found Israel.” The late food writer and historian Gil Marks presents a few recipes that incorporate wine, such as Ashkenazic Chicken with Wine, and Israeli Raspberry-Orange Wine Soup.

Grapes are represented by the mystical quality of tiferet, beauty, the perfect balance between chesed (nourishing) and gevurah (eliminating) qualities. How does this play out in the physical world? “Grapeseed oil nourishes the skin, while also containing a very high content of antioxidants that help in eliminating free radicals.”

FIGS hold the distinction of being the first fruit mentioned in the Torah when fig leaves allowed Adam and Eve to cover up. (Genesis, 3:7) If you prefer to eat figs rather than wear them, consider Fig Apple Compote, Figs Poached in White Wine and Spiced Fig Pickles.

According to Rebbetzin Siegelbaum, “Figs correspond to netzach (endurance), which engenders longevity. The fig tree reflects everlasting fruitfulness as it has one of the longest periods of ripening, spanning more than three months.”

The Lubavitcher Rebbe suggests that the fig represents our capacity for a deep and intimate involvement in our every positive endeavour – an involvement that signifies that we are one with what we are doing.

According to the Midrash, the POMEGRANATE has 613 seeds, corresponding to the number of mitzvot. The fruit was held in such high esteem that it adorned the Temple’s columns and was used widely on the nation’s coins. Nowadays, you can hear silver “rimonim” jangling on the Torah’s ornamental finials when the scrolls are carried in synagogue. You can contemplate the fruit’s importance as you dine on Pomegranate Chicken Breasts or Poached Fish with Pomegranate Sauce.

“Pomegranate, a very beautiful and majestic fruit, even has a crown. It corresponds to hod, which means majesty and glory. Hod is also related to the Hebrew word toda, which means thanks and recognition.”

“I am like a green OLIVE tree in the House of God; I trust in the love of God for ever and ever.” (Psalms, 52:10)

“Olives, Judaism and the Land of Israel” looks at the importance of the olive in Judaism from its symbolism of peace in the story of Noah to its importance in that little jug of oil in the story of Chanukah.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe suggests that “the ‘olive’ in us is that part of ourselves that thrives on struggle, that revels in it, that would no more escape it than escape life itself. ‘Just like an olive,’ say our sages, ‘which yields its oil only when pressed,’ so, too, do we yield what is best in us only when pressed between the millstones of life and the counter forces of a divided self.”

When the Torah mentions “HONEY,” it isn’t actually referring to bee-honey but to gooey sweetness you get by boiling dates. Israel currently exports nine varieties of dates including medjoul, halawi and zahidi. Use them in Date Pecan Bread, Rice Krispie Date Roll, Spicy Hot Dates or hundreds of others at Just Fruit Recipes.

READ: A LOOK AT ISRAEL’S UNOFFICIAL SYMBOLS, FROM ARAK TO SHAKSHUKA

“The tzaddik (righteous person) shall bloom as the date palm.” (Psalms 92:13)

The Rebbe points out that the “olive in us is contrasted by the date, which represents our capacity for peace, tranquility and perfection. While it is true that we’re best when we’re pressed, it is equally true that there are potentials in our soul that well forth only when we are completely at peace with ourselves.”

Would you like to internalize these teachings in a hurry? With Shavuot around the corner, you may not have time to whip up seven different dishes. So here are some timesavers – daring recipes using all seven ingredients at once.

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