Tuesday, November 09, 2010

How many seeds in a pomegranate?

Summary: Malbim declares that there are 613 seeds in a pomegranate. Who are we going to believe, him or our own eyes. And if our own eyes, are we denigrating the Malbim to say that he is incorrect?

Post: See also my 2007 parshablog post, and this 2008 article by Rabbi Ari Zivitofsky, "What's the Truth About... Pomegranate Seeds?", as well as the brief discussion at Mi Yodea.

The Malbim is one of two famous sources for the explicit assertion that there are 613 seeds in a pomegranate. The pasuk in Shir Hashirim 4:3 states:

ג  כְּחוּט הַשָּׁנִי שִׂפְתוֹתַיִךְ, וּמִדְבָּרֵךְ נָאוֶה; כְּפֶלַח הָרִמּוֹן רַקָּתֵךְ, מִבַּעַד לְצַמָּתֵךְ.3 Thy lips are like a thread of scarlet, and thy mouth is comely; thy temples are like a pomegranate split open behind thy veil.

and Malbim explains:

Note the line I underlined, where he states that the pomegranate is full of 613 seeds. There is mashal and nimshal in play here, and this is supposed to stand as the mashal. One must first explain the metzius of the mashal, and then progress to explaining the nimshal. Thus, despite this detailing aspects of an allegory, it is fairly clear that he intends this literally.

The other source is the Chasam Sofer, from a Shabbos Hagadol Derasha from 5591. I haven't tracked this one down to see it inside yet, but if you, dear reader, know where it is in some accessible (say, online) source, I would much appreciate it.

However, if you buy a pomegranate and count the seeds, you will NOT discover 613 seeds. This was likely simply an improper extension of a gemara (e.g. Eruvin 19a) that Israel is full of mitzvot just as a pomegranate is full of seeds.

Frum Satire had a recent satirical post about someone who went off the derech because of this:
“I sat down one day with a fresh rimon and decided to actually count the seeds” he relates his story as tears stream down his face. “I expected to find exactly 613 and when I found significantly less than that I called my rebbe to tell him that our counting methods were off” His Rabbi told him that he was just like benai yisrael in the desert and they too had miscounted – or that he may have lost some of the seeds, but Moishe knew the truth and since then he has been a non-believer.
Related, see this post at Rationalist Judaism about the Dangers of False Inspiration. To relate it to the issue at hand, if you "prove" Judaism to people using false or shoddy proofs, when the proofs fail, the Judaism might just fail as well.

There was an interesting exchange or two in the comments at Frum Satire. Specifically, this:

Taking into account who the Malbim was, I would venture to say he must have somehow known this for a fact.
Who knows. Maybe there was a strain of pomegranites which did actually contain 613 seeds, and the ones which didn’t – came from grafting and other genetic shtick.
Heshy (=Frum Satire):
There are loads of things which great scholars got wrong in their day – besides most of this stuff seems to be metaphorical
Hey Hesh, be careful, don’t mess with the Malbim.
Metaphorical translations are not rational options in every situation. It’s pretty clear he means it in a physical sense.
My personal inclination is to lean towards the genetic thing. I cannot accept that the Malbim would say anything without knowing 100% that it’s true.
I would agree with Yankel that it is pretty clear that he means it in a physical sense. However, I would disagree with him that the Malbim would say anything without knowing 100% that it is true. This is an unfortunate side-effect of venerating our rabbis.

There are two ways of acquiring knowledge. One is through conducting empirical tests. Another is through tradition, or in other words hearing words of others and believing them.

Both of these are useful ways of learning things about our reality. And nowadays, we use both. Do you believe that there are blood types of A, B, AB, and O? If you do, is this because you have personally performed various tests to conclude this? Or, did you learn this in elementary school or high school? The truth is, it is the latter. You trust others, where it is reasonable to do so.

How many bones does a person have? You can consult a medical textbook and discover this. Would you conduct an autopsy, or dig up a grave? Absolutely not!

Let us say that the Malbim wrote that a person had X bones, or that there were blood types of A, B, and O? Would you assume that he conducted the research personally, or that he relied upon others?

It is fairly obvious that he would have relied upon others. To waste his time rediscovering all this for himself would be pointless. Further, if he had consistently wasted his time in such a manner, he would not have been the Malbim!

Let us say a rabbi, even of the caliber of the Malbim, uses known fact to explain a pasuk, and it turns out that the facts are wrong. To take a practical example, you and I likely learnt about tongue maps in elementary school. But in fact, it turns out to have been scientifically disproven. And a close relative even received a low mark in science class when he claimed to be able to taste a bitter taste with the tip of his tongue, since he must have made an error! If tongue maps were contemporary to Malbim, and he referred to this scientific fact to explain a pasuk, would that mean that nishtaneh hateva regarding tongues? Or that he was talking about different tongues? Or that our present evaluation of metzius must be wrong? This should not be called "messing" with the Malbim. And it isn't denigrating him in any way to assert that he was wrong in this.

This even though the assertion about 613 does not come from any secular scientific source. He might well have received it as a Jewish tradition, trusted the tradition, and didn't waste his time testing it. Indeed, while there are many ways of interpreting this gemara, consider (Sanhedrin 100a):
R. Johanan was sitting and teaching: The Holy One, blessed be He, will bring jewels and precious stones, each thirty cubits long, and thirty cubits high, and make an engraving in them, ten by twenty cubits, and set them up as the gates of Jerusalem, for it is written, And I will make thy windows of agates, and thy gates of carbuncles.12  A certain disciple derided him saying, 'We do not find a jewel even as large as a dove's egg, yet such huge ones are to exist!' Some time later he took a sea journey and saw the ministering angels cutting precious stones and pearls. He said unto them: 'For what are these?' They replied: 'The Holy One, blessed be He, will set them up as the gates of Jerusalem.' On his return, he found R. Johanan sitting and teaching. He said to him: 'Expound, O Master, and it is indeed fitting for you to expound, for even as you did say, so did I myself see.' 'Wretch!' he exclaimed, 'had you not seen, you would not have believed! You deride the words of the Sages!' He set his eyes upon him, and he turned in to a heap of bones.13
One could assert that subjecting traditions to empirical testing is irreverent. Are we sure that Malbim would have done this, or indeed had this scientific approach?

(The assertion, mentioned in that comment thread, that the average number of seeds is 613 is pure bunk. See my discussion here.)


Hillel said...

R' Waxman,
Not sure I agree with the bone analogy, since conducting an autopsy is a complex and difficult procedure, whereas cutting open a fruit is not. I also don't think it would've been a waste of time, since something that convenient should surely have raised some suspicions, no?

That being said, perhaps we should ask whether Malbim had ever seen a pomegranate. After all, he spend most of his life in Russia, Poland and Romania (tho late in life, after publication, I believe, he was in Turkey and France) - and Eastern Europe in the mid-nineteenth century wasn't exactly a haven of exotic fruits. He was also not a wealthy man, and pomegranates would have been very, very expensive.

My guess is - as you wrote - he meant it literally and was relying on some outside source - not because it was a fact he chose to take for granted, nor because experimentation would have been a waste of time (surely had someone written such a thing about the leaves of a cabbage or leek he would have been suspicious and investigated!) but because he likely had no choice in the matter.

S. said...

The CS's derasha is right here:


S. said...

The CS's derasha is right here:


S. said...

>I also don't think it would've been a waste of time, since something that convenient should surely have raised some suspicions, no?

Yes and no. On the one hand, it sounds absurd on the face of it. But it only sounds absurd given a particular set of assumptions. For example, I had a rebbe tell us with a completely straight face that in FACT, in Eretz Yisrael, the almond trees begin blossoming on Tu Be-shevat. As he put it, "It's true, they really do." He apparently believed it. He was in his 50s. I was in my teens. And you know what? Given my assumptions and so forth - I believed him. Somewhat paradoxically, this same rebbe was the first Orthodox Jew I ever heard cast doubt on whether the Maharal really created a golem. Go figure.

Why should we assume that something which sounds absurd to us sounded absurd to the Chasam Sofer or the Malbim? If at some point in the past 20 years the almond thing did not sound absurd to two American-born, English-speaking and thinking people (ie, my rebbe and I) solely because of our (mistaken) assumptions and understanding of science or nature, why would this be different for the pomegranate thing (which, by the way, my grandfather personally debunked to me by counting)?

Like Josh says, it is not at all certain that the idea of tongue maps is any less marvelous, yet we were expected to just buy it as the truth.

Hillel said...

I basically agree. My point is that you and your Rebbe believed the tree story because it was about almond tress in Israel, which (and correct me if this is not true) he and you likely knew little about firsthand. Had it been about apple trees in NY (assuming you grew up there) you might well have had some more serious reservations.

Malbim, similarly, likely never saw a pomegranate, so his only information came from other sources, which, while he might have had doubts, he had no basis to contradict. Same is almost certainly true of the Chasam Sofer in 18th century Germany/Austria/Hungary.

Basically, I'm concerned someone might read these statements and think one of five things:
(From the right):
1) This is proof for daas torah, since gedolim like Malbim and Chasam Sofer believed this remarkable thing against proofs from 'science'.
2) This is proof pomegranates used to have 613 seeds - since such great Rabbis wouldn't have written it if they hadn't first checked firsthand. (By extension: If pomegranates can change so fundamentally in a hundred years, obviously eggs, olives, dinosaur bones, etc. over thousands of years are no different.)
(From the left)
3) This is proof these Rabbis were completely credulous and ignorant, believing outlandish claims.
4) This is proof these Rabbis were lazy (or, worse, intellectually dishonest) relying on old wives' tales when a simple experiment would have disproved said superstition.
(From the center)
5) These Rabbis were smart, reasonable honest people who would never had said such an obviously wrong thing, therefore they must have meant it allegorically.

I'm saying I don't think any of these statement are correct; Malbim didn't meant this statement allegorically, nor was he being lazy or blindly relying on "daas torah" for this vort, nor was he so credulous. I believe had it been in his power (within reason) to verify the accuracy of this statement, he would have done so. He and Chasam Sofer did not because they did not have that ability based on the time and place where they lived.

S. said...

>I basically agree. My point is that you and your Rebbe believed the tree story because it was about almond tress in Israel, which (and correct me if this is not true) he and you likely knew little about firsthand. Had it been about apple trees in NY (assuming you grew up there) you might well have had some more serious reservations

Right - thanks for fleshing out the point a little bit more. I agree with you that such a statement could only have been accepted about an exotic fruit, and despite the proximity of Northern Italy and the Austrian-Hungarian empire, I doubt that pomegranates were often seen in Pressburg or Rumania.

That said, I bet that they were seen from time to time and I can't believe no one bothered to count. Still, the persistence of the myth to this day does indicate that the assumptions people have will inform whether it sounds absurd to them or not. If it doesn't sound absurd, then who has the time to deseed and count 613 seeds?

Getting back to the question of the consequences of such beliefs, the unfortunate fact is that Orthodox Judaism is packed with such folk beliefs in many cases embedded in what are considered reliable sources, if I may, as much as a pomegranate is filled with seeds.

joshwaxman said...

thanks. that makes good sense as well. either way, i would not consider this to be a pegam of the Malbim.

thanks. i'm going to try to make the Chasam Sofer into a separate post.

kol tuv,

Hillel said...

So you're saying there are exactly 613 such misconceptions in Judaism?

S. said...

On average.

Akiva said...

An interesting question is the location of the Malbim. Fruits and vegetables were not available in older times outside of their primary growing region. This is why one finds many small towns with Jews in Europe had only 1 esrog for succos, if they were lucky.

So the Malbim might not have had an option of checking a rimon, nor ever even seen one in his life! And hence would naturally rely on a mesorah.

We see this is a number of responsa where gedolim are commenting on items they clearly have no experience with (such as spacial relationships of areas of Israel by gedolim of Europe that were wildly inaccurate).

Anonymous said...

"Aristotle maintained that women have fewer teeth than men; although he was twice married, it never occurred to him to verify this statement by examining his wives' mouths."

Bertrand Russell, Impact of Science on Society (1952) ch. 1

Joe in Australia said...

Is there an online manuscript for this? The "taryag" bit looks to me like a spurious addition and it makes much more sense with this omitted.

Here's my translation that should make this clear: "... like a SLICE OF POMEGRANATE which is full of [613] seeds, so too is the (soul's) essence full of the divine radiances of the intellect, called YOUR VOID (the word that would normally be read as "temples" could be read this way as well), as it (the essence) does not occupy space, and is like something void in which nothing is found, but is nonetheless as full as a slice of pomegranate. (end translation)

Now, what has 613 have to do with anything? Malbim's analogy is to the fullness of a pomegranate, not to any particular number of seeds. He's comparing it to the divine powers of the intellect, not to mitzvos. And he's only talking about a piece of pomegranate, not a whole one - so there's no scope for 613 seeds in any case. Drop the 613 and it reads perfectly well; leave it in and you have a confused text and an improbable assertion.

joshwaxman said...

Malbim was born in 1809, so it is unlikely that we will find any manuscripts. The best we could possibly do is a printing that he himself commissioned.


Alex said...

According to this study http://www.aquaphoenix.com/misc/pomegranate/ (thank you wikipedia for the link), the average number of seeds of all varieties of pomegranate is 613.

Coincidence, forgery, halacha l'mosheh miSinai? Not for me to decide.

joshwaxman said...

that study is absolute nonsense, and no scientist would take it seriously. see my previous discussion, in depth, of why:


kol tuv,

Michael Sedley said...

I have a freind that for years has been counting Pomegranate seeds, she finds it a good activity to keep her kids busy.

She said that most pomegranates do have 550-650 seeds and once found one with exactly 613, and has found several with 610-615, so in fact the association with pomegranets and 613 isn't so far fetched.

To say that EVERY rimon has 613 seeds is false, but to say that they have "about 613 seeds" or "some have 613 seeds" is accurate.

Anonymous said...

Actually,your post of 2007 doesn't say it's nonsense.Moreover it doen't look like a bunch of charedim who learn malbim wrote it,so it doesn't look like a trick to fool people..

Anonymous said...

Actually,you don't seem to discuss how likel the malbim would be to write such things.It's not usual for him,so that should be pointed out.

joshwaxman said...

please comment with your real name, or at least choose a pseudonym.

"how likel the malbim would be to write such things"
i have not done a comprehensive survey of how many times Malbim refers to metzius. have you? i don't know that it is "usual" or "unusual" for him to refer to metzius.

also, why should the usualness or unusualness impact anything?

here is a separate example of Malbim referring to metziut.

"Actually,your post of 2007 doesn't say it's nonsense."
I used much more polite language. But yes, that WAS the point of my 2007 post.

"Moreover it doen't look like a bunch of charedim who learn malbim wrote it,so it doesn't look like a trick to fool people.."
It was either conducted by someone who does not understand the idea of a weighted average (unlikely) or by someone who heard of this urban legend and thought it would be funny to put together a study that "confirmed" the legend.

regardless, i don't think you will find any scientist or mathematician who would endorse the conclusion of the study. and if you do, let me speak to him for 5 minutes, and he won't.

kol tuv,

b said...

Of course it makes a diffrence if he says such things usually!If it's very rare or just never happens,it means he must have had a compelling reason to say it.Also,it's very hard to swallow the idea that, that website heard about this malbim at all,judging from it.p.s.are you a scientist or mathematician?

B said...

Actually you argue from yonah the oppisite that the malbim was making a regural well known statement,nothing like the 613 one.

joshwaxman said...


first, thanks for selecting a pseudonym.

why are you assuming that this 613 statement was not a regular well-known statement as well? the Chasam Sofer, when making an identical claim on Shabbos HaGadol 1831, which was during the Malbim's lifetime (1809-1879), refers to it as a davar yadua.

Why first assume that this is not a davar yadua, and then look to see how common it is?

kol tuv,

joshwaxman said...

"Also,it's very hard to swallow the idea that, that website heard about this malbim at all,judging from it"

why would you assume this fellow saw the Malbim? every Jewish kid knows this "fact", and it is mentioned in many Jewish cookbooks attributed to "Jewish tradition", "Jewish legends", "kabbalistic tradition", etc. start with these 1200 books at Google Books. my assumption is that he heard the Bubbe Maaseh, not that he heard read the Malbim or the Chasam Sofer inside.

"are you..."
i suppose. see the sidebar. plus, i've talked this over with people who design experiments for a living, and have an even stronger grasp of statistics than i have. they agreed with me. have you consulted a mathematician or a scientist.

kol tuv,


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