Pomegranates have a long Judaic history — from Jewish ritual objects to ancient Jewish coins, to Jewish cuisine, and Jewish art, architecture and jewelry.
Apples and honey are certainly popular symbols of Rosh Hashanah, but pomegranates play a significant role during this holiday and in Jewish history as well.
A simple online search about pomegranates yielded many articles, recipes, historical and biblical references, explanations of their symbolism to many cultures as well as botanical and health information. Pomegranates also have a long Judaic history — from Jewish ritual objects to ancient Jewish coins, to Jewish cuisine, and Jewish art, architecture and jewelry.
Pomegranates, said to have originated in Iran and grown in the Mediterranean region since ancient times, are among the oldest cultivated fruit trees in the world. King Solomon used pomegranates as capitals for the columns of the First Temple, later destroyed by the Babylonians. Solomon also saw pomegranates as symbols of love and fertility, using a pomegranate metaphor to describe a lovely young woman in Song of Songs 4:3.
Priests during the Second Temple period had pomegranates embroidered on their robes. Ancient — and contemporary — Jewish coins are decorated with pomegranates. And the fruit often is seen on decorative silver covers for Torah scrolls, called rimonim, Hebrew for pomegranates.
Perhaps the best-known reason for the pomegranate’s symbolism at Rosh Hashanah comes from the belief that the fruit contains 613 seeds (arils), a number that corresponds to the 613 mitzvot or commandments in the Torah. Though many websites say the number of arils varies with each pomegranate, the mitzvot theory persists. According to the website myjewishlearning.com, a Sephardic Rosh Hashanah tradition before eating the seeds is to say, “May we be as full of mitzvot (commandments) as the pomegranate is full of seeds.”
On the second night of Rosh Hashanah, some Jews say the blessing of the new fruit over a pomegranate, a fruit that is not often eaten, thus making it “new.”
These tidbits were culled from various online resources.
• Pomegranates are mentioned in the Torah as one of Israel’s famed “seven species,” along with wheat, barley, grapes, figs, olives and dates. (myjewishlearning.com)
• In the Torah, Moses’ 12 spies brought back a pomegranate to show the fertility of the land while they were checking out Canaan.
• The word for pomegranate in Hebrew is rimon — the same word as grenade. Imagine throwing a pomegranate and, on impact, having its seeds “explode” out of its skin. This is a Greek tradition that persists from ancient times. Smashing a pomegranate on New Year’s Day symbolizes life and good fortune. (greekreporter.com)
• There is speculation in several cultures that pomegranates were present in the Garden of Eden and might have been what tempted Eve instead of the apple. (kew.org)
• In Sephardic homes, a pomegranate often is on the seder plate at Passover. (food52.com, Rebecca Firsker)
• Fertility is a popular attribute of pomegranates for many cultures, including Chinese, Turkish, Armenian and Middle Eastern as well as for the ancient Greeks and Romans. (nocamels.com)
• In ancient Egypt, pomegranates were thought to heal intestinal disorders. Today, we know they are full of antioxidants and anti-inflammatories that aid many ailments.
• Eaten whole or pressed into juice, pomegranates lend a tangy, floral flavor to a variety of foods. Pomegranate molasses, a common ingredient in Iranian and Turkish cooking, can be purchased at grocery stores or online. (food52.com, Rebecca Firsker)
• The skin of the pomegranate has been used to tan leather. Its flowers produce a vibrant red dye for fabrics and its roots yield a black dye. (Pomegranate: A Global History by Damien Stone)
Gathering the Seeds
The pomegranate, with its crown-like top, thick skin and pith layers, makes retrieving the arils nesting inside a challenge. Start with a fresh one with smooth, glossy skin without cracks or bruises, says Damien Stone in Pomegranate: A Global History (2017). He offers two methods:
1. Cut off just enough of the crown to reveal the pith. Score the skin downward in quarters and place it in a bowl of cold water for a few minutes. Hold the fruit underwater and break it into sections, separating the seeds from the pith. Seeds will sink to the bottom of the bowl. Discard the membrane and skin; wash the seeds and dry on paper towels.
2. Cut the fruit in half and use a utensil to vigorously whack it on the skin side to dislodge the seeds. This is effective, but messier.