Summary: Herodotus might help us understand a gemara. How widespread was this phrase in use?
Post: The other day, I was reading through "The Histories" from Herodotus, and I encountered the following passage, from Book IV:
Herodotus lived in the 5th century BCE, and at the least can shed light on the above expression in his own days. If we trust Herodotus -- Cicero called him the father of history while Plutarch called him the father of lies -- we might even date this expression to the days of this king Darius, who from some limited searching seems to be Darius I.
The Persians and Greeks did not, to my knowledge, attach any particular significance to the number 613. Saying 'as plenty as the seeds of a pomegranate' means a whole lot, since one gets the impression of a lot of seeds when one opens the pomegranate. Similar to as many as "the stars of the sky" or "the grains of sand".
Asking this question was really asking Darius which of his possessions he valued most of all, or found most useful, such that he would like to increase them abundantly. And so it was a great compliment that Darius paid to Megabazus.
There are gemaras that refer to pomegranates, as good signs. For example, in Berachot 57a, we read the position of Rabbi Chiya bar Abba about the meaning of certain dreams:
If one sees pomegranates in a dream, if they are little ones, his business will be fruitful like a pomegranate; if big ones, his business will increase like a pomegranate. If they are split open, if he is a scholar, he may hope to learn more Torah, as it says: I would cause thee to drink of spiced wine, of the juice of my pomegranate;20 if he is unlearned, he may hope to perform precepts, as it says: Thy temples are like a pomegranate split open.21 What is meant by 'Thy temples' [rakothek]? — Even the illiterate [rekanim]22 among thee are full of precepts like a pomegranate.The idea is that they have as many mitzvot as pomegranates have seeds. As discussed in earlier posts, some rabbanim -- Malbim and Chasam Sofer, who probably never saw a pomegranate in their lives, made the connection stronger by asserting that there were precisely 613 seeds in a pomegranate, parallel to the number of mitzvot. This is not the intent of the gemara, and it is not one of the ikarei emunah that pomegranates have precisely this number of seeds. This is good, because they don't.
One other point. On Rosh Hashanah, one of the simanim people use is the pomegranate. And we say a yehi ratzon "שירבו זכויותינו כרימון", that our merits increase like a rimon. I've seen a variant of שנהיה מלאים מצוות כרימון, that we be filled with mitzvot like a rimon. Both of these seem parallel to the above gemara.
But there are other possibilities of things we would want to increase. In the above gemara, Rabbi Chiya bar Abba related it to prosperity in business. (And on the previous page, Bar Hedya, a dream interpreter, gave differing interpretations based on whether he was paid:
They said to him: We saw a pomegranate sprouting on the mouth of a jar. To Abaye he said: Your goods will be high-priced like a pomegranate. To Raba he said: Your goods will be stale like a [dry] pomegranate.Thus, one could make other positive (or negative!) associations with a pomegranate.) Going with the "increase as many as" association, we could choose to increase business, wealth, power, Megabazuses, etc. Yet we choose mitzvot, as the one thing of all our possessions we treasure most and would most like to increase.
(See earlier posts on this subject here and here.)