My children’s favorite fruit is probably the pomegranate, or rimon, as they call it in Hebrew. I must admit that I’m a pretty big fan myself. And it seems that I’m not the only one.
Pomegranates seem to be the “newest thing” these days, almost as if they were just discovered. The fruit is extolled for its health properties and its beauty is acclaimed. The word pomegranate derives from the Latin pomum (“apple”) and granatus (“seeded”), perhaps because it appearslike an apple at first glance. Yet it is distinguished by its leathery skin and crown – perhaps alluding that the pomegranate is “higher” than an apple, much like a crown is above the person who wears it.
Let us examine pomegranates in parsha, which this week is the reading of Tetzaveh. Our portion discusses mainly the clothing that the Kohen (Priest) would wear while serving in the Holy Temple.
In describing the robe that he would wear, the Torah tells us that in making the robe, “on its bottom edge you should make pomegranate shapes of turquoise, purple and crimson wool, all around the edge, and golden bells among them all around. A golden bell (should be followed by) a pomegranate (which is followed by) a golden bell and (then another) pomegranate (and so on), on the bottom edge of the robe, all around” (Exodus 28:33-34).
Believe it or not, despite the fact that the Torah uses the word “pomegranate,” there is actually a debate whether this part of the Kohen’s robe actually resembled a pomegranate!
Rashi, the 11th century French commentator, writes that, “the shapes were round and hollow, like a sort of pomegranate, shaped like hens’ eggs. The golden bells had clappers inside them. Between every two pomegranates, one bell was attached and suspended on the bottom hem of the robe” (ad loc.).
Nachmanides, on the other hand, doesn’t see eye-to-eye with Rashi. Born in Spain at the end of the 12th century, Rabbi Moses ben Nachman was a Kabbalist and major commentator on the Talmud and Bible.
Nachmanides was troubled with Rashi’s description of the Kohen’s robe. He writes (ad loc.), “I don’t know why Rashi wrote that the pomegranates are separate from the bells, since according to this logic the pomegranates have no purpose whatsoever [editor’s note: this is in accordance with the Talmudic principle (Shabbat 77b) that nothing was created without purpose]. And if you will say that the pomegranates were purely for decorative purposes, then why choose pomegranates? Surely apples would have been a better choice [according to the mystical teachings of Kabbalah]. Rather, it would seem that the bells are located inside the pomegranates.”
This debate is no mere triviality.
Yet why, after refusing to accept Rashi’s interpretation that the robe had individual pomegranate shapes on its edge, does he insist that they must be the shape of apples? Why not oranges or another circular fruit?
Yet the reason that Nachmanides asserts that they were shaped like decorative apples, is because, when describing the shape of the menorah, the Torah tells us that there were round shapes on the arms of the menorah, which Rashi explains were decorative and were shaped like apples.
Thus, since there is already a precedent for this shape being used for decoration, Nachmanides states that the robe – if indeed the shapes are merely decorational – should also be shaped like apples, consistent with the menorah.
On a deeper spiritual level, this debate also has significance.
Pomegranates allude to us as we stand on a low spiritual level, while apples refer to us on a higher level. King Solomon writes that, “As many as a pomegranate’s seeds are the merits of your unworthiest” (Song of Songs 4:3), thus connecting the “unworthy” with the pomegranate. Apples, on the other hand, refer to our inner nature, which remains holy and untained by sin. The sweetness of an apple alludes to this spiritual “sweetness.”
Rashi, whose commentary was written to explain the basic, contextual meaning of the verses and is meant to be accessible to all, thus explained that the shape was like a pomegranate – for his commentary was written even for the “pomegranates” amongst us.
Nachmanides, on the other hand, included explicit mystical teachings in his Biblical commentary, and thus said that the shape was that of an apple, because our inner nature is indeed “sweet,” regardless of how we may be behaving externally.
So next time you encounter a “pomegranate”, remember that deep down – and even etymologically – it is as sweet as an “apple.”