Sukkot: The Holiday of Harvests

Date palms of Mevuot Yericho, in the rain shadow of the mountains of the Judean desert
Date palms of Mevuot Yericho, grow in the rain shadow of the mountains of the Judean desert

When we received the announcements of tours for the intermediate days of Succot, I looked to go somewhere we hadn’t been yet, do something new. The One Israel Fund trip to the area east of Jerusalem looked interesting, especially since it promised we would pick dates in Mevuot Yericho, in the Jordan River Valley. We’ve been to a date farm but had never picked the fruit, so we signed up for the trip.

Dates are one of the Biblical Seven Species that grow in the land of Israel. In the Book of Deuteronomy (8:8) the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is described as a land of “wheat, barley, grape vines, figs, pomegranates, olive oil, and honey.” So how do dates get to be included among the Seven Species?

In ancient times, “honey” did not refer to the substance made by bees that we are familiar with. Wild bees were too hard to find, and collecting their honey could be dangerous. But dates were readily available, especially in desert areas. In those days there were more species of dates than today. The Romans recorded fifty different types of dates that grew in the area of Jericho alone. Many of them were softer and more moist than today’s dates. The dates were boiled and the syrup used as a sweetener, called honey.

The traditional seven species could never appear on a table together, because each one ripens at a different time of the year. The agricultural cycle in Israel is reflected in these products, and each one is associated with a particular holiday.

The first holiday of the cycle is Passover, celebrated in the Spring, at the time of the barley harvest. Seven weeks later, as the wheat is ripening, we celebrate Shavuot. Shavuot is referred to in the book of Exodus as Hag hakatzir, the holiday of wheat reaping. The Fall holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot, occur during the gathering of grapes, figs, pomegranates, and dates.

I’ve been watching the pomegranates and figs ripen on neighbors’ trees. Both fruits have noticeably ripened in the last few weeks. So I was looking forward to picking some ripe dates.

Or perhaps not. Date trees grow straight and tall, with one central stem, like grasses. The date palm does not have branches. The leaves all spread out at the top of the growing trunk, and the fruit hang down from that point as well. By the time the palm is old enough to be producing a crop, the tree is tall—very tall. On trips to the Jordan Valley, I had noticed the special fork lift trucks that are employed during the date harvest. A platform was raised high above the ground for the pickers to stand on. The more I thought about standing on an open platform, reaching up to pick dates, the less enthusiastic I felt.

Doron in his orchard of 13 year-old date palms at Mevuot Yericho
Doron in his orchard of 13 year-old date palms at Mevuot Yericho

Doron, the head of date farming orchard at Mevuot Yericho escorted us on a walk through the orchard. He told us he had grown up in France, but had felt out of place. He wanted to live in a place with more Jews and to connect with our land. After studying biotechnology, Doron made aliyah seventeen years ago and settled in Mevuot Yericho  An agricultural research station was being set up here, which matched his interests– to grow a crop suited to the desert and connected with Jewish tradition.

I ancient times date trees were symbolic of Judea and Israel. The date palm even represents Judea on some Roman coins minted in the area. After the destruction of the Temple by the Romans, many Jewish farmers went into exile. With no one to care for them, most of the date species in the land became extinct. By the tenth century CE, no date palms could be found in the land.

When the Jewish pioneers returned in the 19th century, they wanted to reintroduce date farming. They traveled all over the Middle East and brought as many species of dates to Israel as possible. As part of determining which species matched the land’s growing conditions, they also had to learn how to cultivate the plant.

The date is one of the few plants which cannot sexually reproduce by itself. An individual tree is either male or female. The pollen produced by the male date palm is spread by the wind to pollinate the flowers on nearby female trees. As the fruit begins to develop, the farmers carefully, and quickly, cull the smaller fruits from each date cluster, so the others fruits will grow to larger size. Then each stem which supports a hanging cluster is hand tied to a nearby leaf to support the developing fruits. As the time for harvest draws near, workers tie mesh bags around each cluster to protect it from insects and birds.

Surprisingly for a plant which grows in the desert, the date needs large amounts of water. To get it, date roots grow very deep. However, it does not need fresh water to survive. The date palm is one of the few plants that can use brackish water, water with a higher amount a salt in it.

Doron reached into the leaves growing out of the trunk of one of the trees, and isolated a leaf that had not opened yet. It was folded in on itself, with a triangular cross section. This was a lulav, the long palm leaf that we combine with branches of myrtle and willow and the etrog (citron) to wave during the special Sukkot prayers. He cut it off and passed it around for us to examine.

I looked around the orchard and noticed the trees here had no dates hanging from them. Where were the trees we would pick dates from?

Then I realized that I had forgotten an important thing about the agricultural cycle– the calendar. The Jewish Calendar is a lunar calendar, so the year is eleven days shorter than the solar year. Adhering to a strict lunar calendar would quickly mess up the holiday-harvest synchrony. Therefore, periodically, the Jewish year has to catch up with the solar year. It does so by inserting an extra month seven times in a nineteen year cycle.

Last year was a leap year. An extra month, Adar II, was inserted after the regular month of Adar. Thus all the holidays since last Passover have been “late,” as reckoned by the secular solar calendar. Doing so caused the date harvest in the Jordan Valley to end before Succot started. I was more relieved than disappointed that I wouldn’t be hoisted up in the air to participate in the harvest. My date picking experience was reduced to picking a box of them to buy from the stack on the table.

Medjool dates
Allen holds Medjool dates

Doron opened a box of the Medjool dates for us to taste. The Medjool dates are the big brown ones, two three bites of delicious sweetness. No wonder Europeans pay 100 NIS for a kilo. Here at the farm, we paid 35 NIS for a kilo.

Dates are considered a perfect desert food. They are easily portable and full of slowly digested sugars. The small Deglet dates have about 25 calories each, while the large Medjool dates are about 66 calories each.

But when confronted by a plate of dates, like most people, I don’t think of calories, I think of the taste. It’s Succot; the date harvest has just ended. It’s time to enjoy one of the Seven Species.

Location of Mevuot Yericho:

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