Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Shelach: Why specifically the ripening of the grapes?

I'll start this with a quote, in full, of a post on Shirat Devorah, which in turn is a quote from the Chumash Kol Menachem, page 102, from the commentary Toras Menachem:

"It was the season when the first grapes ripen..." [Shelach 13:20 ]

Moses did not command the spies to bring back grapes in particular, but just "fruit", and we find that they brought back various fruits - grapes, pomegranates and figs [v.23]

So why does the Torah stress that "It was the season when the first grapes ripen" and not simply, the time when fruit was ripening?

The process of spying out the Land to conquer it represents our daily mission of evaluating how to advance the "conquering" of this physical world for G-d, through the most effective use of time and resources for Torah.  Verse 20 concludes that the goal of this process is represented by grapes: grapes are unique in that their seeds are visible through their skins, and this teaches us that the goal of our observance is to make the physical "skin" of this world transparent to its higher, spiritual purpose.

Source: Based on Sicha of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shabbos Parshas Shelach 5750

That is, Bemidbar 13:20 -- the last pasuk of the first aliyah -- reads:
וּמָה הָאָרֶץ הַשְּׁמֵנָה הִוא אִם רָזָה הֲיֵשׁ בָּהּ עֵץ אִם אַיִן וְהִתְחַזַּקְתֶּם וּלְקַחְתֶּם מִפְּרִי הָאָרֶץ וְהַיָּמִים יְמֵי בִּכּוּרֵי עֲנָבִים:
Such that Moshe instructs them to take 'of the fruit', מִפְּרִי הָאָרֶץ, without specifying type of fruit. And the pasuk ends וְהַיָּמִים יְמֵי בִּכּוּרֵי עֲנָבִים, that the season was when the first grapes ripen. Yet, three pesukim later:

וַיָּבֹאוּ עַד נַחַל אֶשְׁכֹּל וַיִּכְרְתוּ מִשָּׁם זְמוֹרָה וְאֶשְׁכּוֹל עֲנָבִים אֶחָד וַיִּשָּׂאֻהוּ בַמּוֹט בִּשְׁנָיִם וּמִן הָרִמֹּנִים וּמִן הַתְּאֵנִים:
they take a branch and on it a cluster of grapes, זְמוֹרָה וְאֶשְׁכּוֹל עֲנָבִים, but they also take from the pomegranates and figs.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe asks a question based on this, and derives an important life lesson. And this is good drash, or drush, even if we eliminate the question on the basis of realia or close analysis of the narrative on a peshat level.

On a peshat level, though, how can we resolve this question?

The obvious answer is that not all fruits ripen at the same time. It could well be the יְמֵי בִּכּוּרֵי עֲנָבִים, the season of the ripening of the first grapes, and not yet the season of the full ripening of pomegranates or figs. Those fruits might still exist on the trees, but not fully ripe. Or they could have already have been ripe for a while, and still exist on the trees.

We can point to this chart, taken from Agriculture in Iron Age Israel [Oded Borowski, 1987, page 7], which tries to fix the seasons in Ancient Israel on the basis of harvesting in modern Israel, under the theory that the climate in the same geographical location would be the same across eras:

As you can see from the chart, the time of harvest of figs and pomegranates is about a month after the time of harvest for grapes. This handily answers the Lubavitcher Rebbe's question -- it was indeed not the time of harvest for pomegranates and figs.

From a peshat perspective, there is still an issue in need of resolution. Moshe indicated fruits in general, and indeed, they took other fruits besides grapes, so why even bother to mention that it was the יְמֵי בִּכּוּרֵי עֲנָבִים?

The answer is that this יְמֵי בִּכּוּרֵי עֲנָבִים is anticipating the stress placed in a later pasuk on the abundance of the size of the grapes. Thus,
וַיִּכְרְתוּ מִשָּׁם זְמוֹרָה וְאֶשְׁכּוֹל עֲנָבִים אֶחָד וַיִּשָּׂאֻהוּ בַמּוֹט בִּשְׁנָיִם
they cut off a single branch with grapes, and carried it on a pole using two people to carry it. See how great the produce of the land was. (And how dare they criticize it?) This was in spite of it being only the beginning of the first ripening of the grapes? Or, if bikkurim are more abundant than later growth, this יְמֵי בִּכּוּרֵי עֲנָבִים accounts for the abundance.

לַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא קָרָא נַחַל אֶשְׁכּוֹל עַל אֹדוֹת הָאֶשְׁכּוֹל אֲשֶׁר כָּרְתוּ מִשָּׁם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל
And these grapes were so impressive that they named the place after that cluster of grapes.

Yes, they also took samples of other canonical fruits of the land, מִן הָרִמֹּנִים וּמִן הַתְּאֵנִים, which was part of Moshe's instruction.


Question: I've only eaten, and purchased, seedless grapes recently. Are the seeds of non-seedless grapes indeed visible through the skin? I would guess that it depends on the specific type of grape -- some grapeskins are thinner or more translucent than others -- and whether the sun in shining behind them. There is a book, Illustrated Descriptive Catalogue of American Grape Vines: A Grape Growers' Manual, which described different species of grapes, with some of them having translucent skin. And here is a picture of grapes, where I think you can see some dark seeds through the skin:

1 comment:

Joe in Australia said...

Your explanation has a problem: according to that chart, figs and pomegranates ripen later than figs. Did they pluck unripe figs and pomegranates? If not, then why do we need to be told that the grapes were ripe?

I suggest that we're told this to explain *why* they plucked grapes. The figs and pomegranates may have been stored from the year before, and they could probably have brought dried raisins from the year before, too. But they were excited by the huge bunches of grapes that they saw *because* it was the harvest time, and they made a special effort to bring a sample back to Moshe. This makes their later failure all the harder to explain.


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