613 Mitzvot, 613 Seeds: A Look at the Pomegranate’s History, Symbolism, and Uses

August 24, 2023Crystal Hill

As Rosh HaShanah approaches, many of us will be sending out cards bedecked with motifs of bees, honey, apples, shofars, and pomegranates to wish our friends and family a happy new year, or shanah tovah. Some of us will maximize the beauty of our Rosh HaShanah dinners by dipping apples in honey from a pomegranate-shaped dish. Some families, especially in the SephardicSephardiסְפָרַדִּי Jews who come from Spanish backgrounds and from lands around the Mediterranean Sea. and Israeli communities, will give pomegranates a place of honor during the Rosh HaShanah seder, signifying a wish for blessings in the coming year while saying the blessing "may we be as full of mitzvotmitzvahמִצְוָהLiterally, “commandment." A sacred obligation. Jewish tradition says the Torah contains 613 mitzvot Mitzvot refer to both religious and ethical obligations. as the pomegranate," a phrase from the Babylonian Talmud ( B'rachot 57a). Pomegranates are often one of the foods people eat when beginning the new year and reciting the shehecheyanuShehecheyanuשֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ"[God] who has kept us alive;" blessing recited to acknowledge beginnings, happy occasions; and festivals. . But why is the pomegranate such a prominent symbol and what are some other ways to use it?

The pomegranate's biblical significance can be traced back to Exodus 28:33, when God describes the robes Aaron, the high priest, is to wear when performing rituals: "on its hem, make pomegranates of blue, purple, and crimson yarns all around the hem, with bells of gold between them all around." Over time, the pomegranate's significance has continued to grow, with rabbinic scholars expounding on this prescribed decoration as an abstract representation of Adam (the golden bells) and Eve (the pomegranates) ( B'reshit Rabbah 18:4).

The pomegranate makes another prominent appearance in the Book of Numbers as one of the fruits used to demonstrate Caanan's bounty when Moses sends the 12 scouts to gather information about the land. Pomegranates remain linked to Israel as one of the Seven Spices. But why are pomegranates associated with Rosh HaShanah? The answer lies in the way the Hebrew calendar is inextricably bound to the agricultural cycles of Israel. In Israel, pomegranates are in season during Rosh HaShanah. Not only that, but they are also one of Israel's oldest exports. Egyptian records mention importing pomegranates from Israel as early as the twelfth century BCE. Thus, eating pomegranates as one year ends and another begins is a way to simultaneously reflect on the past as we look to the future. Pomegranates provide us with a tangible way to connect with Israel's land and history, remind ourselves that "all of Israel and the Jewish People are responsible, one for the other" (Shevuot39a), and help us consider the ways we can be full of mitzvot in the coming year.

The pomegranate has also become a symbol of the 613 mitzvot included in the Torah thanks to the age-old theory that each fruit holds 613 seeds. Interestingly, a 2006 experiment by Columbia graduate student Alexander Haubold seemed to confirm this. Haubold gathered data by counting the seeds of 206 pomegranates sourced from around the world. The average number of seeds calculated from the sample size was exactly 613! That said, it is likely the average number of seeds has increased since then due to selective breeding aimed at maximizing the number of seeds in each fruit. Whether or not this average holds true, learning about Haubold's experiment cemented the link between pomegranates and mitzvot in my mind!

Whether or not pomegranates still have an average of 613 seeds, there are certainly well over 600 ways to use them. Pomegranates are considered a superfood, with high levels of antioxidants and vitamin C. While pomegranate juice is likely one of the easiest ways to quickly get that tasty health boost, there are many interesting ways to utilize the entire fruit!

The peels (and/or pith) can be dried and powdered to use in teas. Be warned, though, that both are notoriously bitter and pomegranate peel can be unsafe if ingested in large quantities. So, remember to put the powder in a tea bag first (you can easily find reusable or disposable empty tea bags online) or strain your tea after brewing it. Adding honey, sugar, cinnamon, or maple syrup to tea are just a few ways you can cut the bitterness (and are my own go-tos!). You can also add milk, creating your own custom PSL (pomegranate spiced tea latte) at home! Pomegranate powder isn't just limited to uses in food and drink, though. It can be used to make ink or even facial masks as well if you're in the mood to pamper yourself (though I wouldn't recommend tasting either of these concoctions)!

The seeds, however, are where the pomegranate's versatility shines. From tea bases (whether you strain the seeds out before serving is up to you) to molasses or chutney, the possibilities are nearly endless! You can also dry the seeds and add them to cookies, stews, breads, salads, or spice rubs to add a bit of tanginess to your meal.

Whether you're preparing your Rosh HaShanah meal or just looking for a new dish to introduce to your friends and loved ones, check out some of our recipes that feature the pomegranate, a fruit full of seeds as well as symbolism, history, and versatility!

Related Posts

Judgment Days

Some label Rosh HaShanah and the period between the New Year and Yom Kippur as "Judgment Days," a time during which the trajectory of our lives for the coming year is reached.

Simple Ways to Make Yom Kippur Meaningful at Home with Young Children

As the high holidays approach, we are reminded that there are so many meaningful Jewish moments to celebrate. Within the joy and ruach (spirit) of holidays like Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, and Simchat Torah, lies the solemn and serious Yom Kippur. There are a myriad of ways to make Yom Kippur meaningful for young children, for whom especially, Yom Kippur is not an easy holiday to understand.