Learning Torah from a Pomegranate
by Rabbi Allen S. Maller
A Yom Kippur poem “Eleh Ezkerah” describes ten martyr rabbis as being “full of mitzvot like a pomegranate.” The poet took this image from a Talmudic discussion on the meaning of seeing a pomegranate in a dream. The Talmud in Berakhot 57a, explains that if the pomegranates are split open, and the dreamer is a scholar he may hope to learn more Torah … if the dreamer is unlearned, he can hope to perform mitzvot” for even empty (heads) among Jews are as full of mitzvot as a pomegranate (is full of seeds).”
Even though it is clear that the Talmud does not state there are exactly 613 seeds in a pomegranate, two 19th century ultra-orthodox rabbis; Chatam Sofer and Malbim, make this erroneous claim. This error became as wide spread in 21th century ultra-orthodox thought as the equally erroneous Christian idea that the tree of knowledge was an apple tree. Both of these errors are the result of growing literalist views in interpreting religious texts in both orthodox Christian and Jewish communities. This emphasis on literalism is surprising because for over 2,000 years all rabbis have recognized four major types of Biblical commentary, and only one of them was literalism (P'shat). P'shat was also the least used type of interpretation. In Kabbalah and in Hassidic literature P'shat is used less than 10% of the time.
In truth there are hundreds of seeds in a pomegranate. The name derives from Latin, meaning "fruit/apple with many grains/seeds". If you count the seeds in the fruit of the fourteen different types of pomegranate trees, you will find that the numbers vary greatly; by type of tree, by individual tree and even between individual pomegranates on each tree. The seeds usually number between 200 and 800. Thus the Talmud is teaching us that even Jews who belong to as many as 14 different communities, and to thousands of different kinds of synagogues, and who are not scholars, do hundreds of mitzvot. Pomegranates with more seeds do not taste better, nor are they more nutritious. They may reproduce themselves more. The same is true for Jews. More isn't always better.