Almonds in the Bible

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The Land of Israel is praised for the seven species mentioned in Deuteronomy / Devarim chapter 8. Recently, a friend asked me why almonds aren’t included in the seven species.

That leads to the issue of what almonds represent in the Bible.

This article attempts to answer that “simple” question.

Let’s start by reviews the 7 species. Here are the verses that list them for us:

Devarim / Deuteronomy Chapter 8

7 For the Lord your God is bringing you to a good land, a land with brooks of water, fountains and depths, that emerge in valleys and mountains,
8 a land of wheat and barley, vines and figs and pomegranates, a land of oil producing olives and honey.

Here are the seven species:

  • Wheat
  • Barley
  • Vines in the verse means grapes
  • Figs
  • Pomegranates
  • Olives
  • Honey in the verse means date honey

As you can see, the 7 species are 2 grains and 5 fruits. We could ask that since wheat and barley are so similar, why not drop barley and substitute almonds?

The Word Almond in Hebrew

Almond blossoms in French Hill, Jerusalem
Almond blossoms in French Hill, Jerusalem

Let’s stop for one minute and look at the Hebrew word for almond: “shaked” from the 3 root letters shin-kuf-dalet.

As a noun “shaked” means both almond tree and almond.

The same 3-letter root is also used as a verb. As a verb this root means to watch or to wake.

Based on these definitions of the verb, we understand how the tree was named. The almond tree is the one of the first trees to blossom and bear fruit every spring. That is, this tree awakens first every spring.

This leads us to the idea that the almond tree and almond blossoms represent something that happens swiftly.

Joseph in Egypt

But I think the omission of almonds becomes more curious when we look at an event recorded in Genesis.

Let’s set the stage. Joseph has been sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt. Due to Joseph’s abilities to interpret dreams and manage crises he has risen to second in command of Egypt.

Egypt enjoyed 7 years of abundant harvests (as predicted by Joseph) and has now entered into the 7 years of famine.

Meanwhile, in the Land of Canaan, Jacob’s family needs food. He sends 10 of his sons to Egypt to buy food. That trip has its ups and downs, but is overall successful. See Genesis / Bereshit chapter 42.

Joseph’s brothers end up speaking with him, but do not recognize him. Joseph tells them that when they return to Egypt to buy more food, they must bring their youngest brother with them.

About a year later, Jacob wants his sons to return to Egypt to buy more food. He does not want his youngest son, Benjamin, to go with them.

The other brothers refuse, reminding their father that the deal with leader they spoke to, is they must bring Benjamin with them.

The Almond in Genesis – A Worthy Gift

Almonds in the Bible

After some discussion, Jacob agrees to send Benjamin. Here’s how the Torah records Jacob’s decision. Note, in this passage Jacob is called by his other name, Israel.

Genesis Chapter 43

11 So Israel, their father, said to them, “If so, then do this: take some of the choice products of the land in your vessels, a little balm and a little honey, wax and lotus, pistachios and almonds.
12 And take double the money in your hand[s], and the money that was returned in the mouth of your sacks you shall return in your hand[s], perhaps it was an error.
13 And take your brother, and get up, go back to the man.
14 And may the Almighty God grant you compassion before the man, and he will release to you your other brother and Benjamin, and as for me as I am bereaved, I am bereaved.”

How are we supposed to understand the phrase “choice products of the land?” Rashi explains:

Rashi Genesis Chapter 43

11 some of the choice products of the land literally, “from the song of the land.” Targum renders: “from what is praised in the land,” about which everyone sings, [rejoicing] that it came into the world.

It seems like Rashi and Targum are hinting at 7 species that the Land of Israel is praised for. In fact, the commentary Daat Mikra says explicitly that in Jacob’s gift there is a reference to the seven species since he included honey, which means date honey.

In that case, why didn’t Jacob send all of the 7 species? Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch provides this answer:

The Hirsch Chumash – Genesis Chapter 43

Why didn’t Ya’akov send one of the seven species, which are the “praise of the land,” here called “zemirat haaretz”? Apparently because all the crops had failed. All the things he sent were products that keep for a long time and were left over from previous years. Thus the Midrash (Midrash Rabbah 91:13) takes the “botnim and shekeidim” as nut oil and almond oil rather than nuts and almonds; the fruits themselves were eaten up long ago.

According to his approach, none of the actual fruits were still available to send as a gift, only the juice (date honey) or oil.

No matter whether we consider that Jacob sent almonds or almond oil, we still have our question. If almonds were important enough for Jacob to send as a diplomatic gift, why aren’t they counted as one of the seven species?

To attempt to answer this question, let’s dive into the other places in Tanach where almonds are mentioned.

Almond Tree in the Bible – Numbers

When the Jewish people were in the wilderness for 40 years, Korach staged a rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron.

As a demonstration of Aaron’s position as High Priest, Moses had the leader of each tribe write his name on his staff and give it Moses.

Here’s what happened next:

Numbers / Bamidbar Chapter 17

22 Moses placed the staffs before the Lord in the Tent of the Testimony.
23 And on the following day Moses came to the Tent of Testimony, and behold, Aaron’s staff for the house of Levi had blossomed! It gave forth blossoms, sprouted buds, and produced ripe almonds.
24 Moses took out all the staffs from before the Lord, to the children of Israel; they saw and they took, each man his staff.
25 The Lord said to Moses: Put Aaron’s staff back in front of the Testimony as a keepsake [and] a sign for rebellious ones. Then their complaints against Me will end and they will not die.

All of the staffs were made of wood. However, only Aaron’s staff sprouted and produced almonds during the few hours it was placed inside the Tent.

Here’s part of Rashi’s comment on this verse:

Rashi Numbers Chapter 17

23 It gave forth blossoms [This is to be understood] in its literal sense.

buds This is the budding of the fruit after the blossom falls off.

and produced ripe almonds when the fruit was recognizable, it was recognized that they were almonds. … Now why almonds? That is the fruit that blossoms quicker than other fruits. Likewise, he who opposes the priesthood; his punishment comes quickly, as we find in the case of Uzziah: “and the tzara’at shone upon his forehead” (2 Chronicles 26:19).

Almond Tree in the Bible – Jeremiah

The first chapter of the book of Jeremiah describes God appointing him to be a prophet.

At first Jeremiah complained that he was too young and did not know how to speak. God “touched” him on his mouth and assured him that he would be able to speak to the Jewish people.

Then God showed him a vision:

Jeremiah Chapter 1

10 Behold, I have appointed you over the nations and over the kingdoms, to uproot and to crush, and to destroy and to demolish, to build and to plant.
11 And the word of the Lord came to me, saying: What do you see, Jeremiah? And I said, “I see a rod of an almond tree.”
12 And the Lord said to me; You have seen well, for I hasten My word to accomplish it.

Rashi Jeremiah Chapter 1

12 You have seen well This almond tree hastens to blossom before all other trees. I, too, hasten to perform My word. And the Midrash Aggadah (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 12:8) explains: An almond tree takes twenty-one days from its blossoming until it is completely ripe, as the number of days between the seventeenth of Tammuz, when the city was broken into, until the ninth of Av, when the Temple was burnt.

Jeremiah understands that the branch of the almond tree he was shown is not a staff, rather a rod. A staff is used by a person for support. A rod is used for punishment.

As Rashi points out, the almond tree in Jeremiah symbolizes a punishment that is coming soon and coming quickly.

Almond Tree in Ecclesiastes

Ecclesiastes was written by King Solomon to teach us how to balance the material and spiritual aspects of our lives. He teaches us that our ultimate goal is reverential fear of God and properly serving Him.

Almond tree in Jeremiah

The almond tree is mentioned in the last chapter of Ecclesiastes.

Ecclesiastes Chapter 12

1 And remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of evil come, and years arrive, about which you will say, “I have no desire in them.” …

5 Also from the high places they will fear, and terrors on the road, and the almond tree will blossom, and the grasshopper will drag itself along, and sexual desire will fail, for man goes to his everlasting home, and the mourners go about in the street.

Rashi explains the significance of the almond tree and its blossoms:

Rashi Ecclesiastes Chapter 12

the almond a tree of almonds, that is to say, old age will spring upon him like this almond tree, which hastens to blossom before all the other trees.

The idea symbolized by the almond is something that comes quickly. In case, what comes quickly is old age. The young person cannot perceive how quickly and relentlessly time moves.

The old person can look back on his life and wonder how swiftly it has gone by.

Why Almonds are not Part of the Seven Species

tiles showing the 7 species

We can now propose a theory of why almonds are not included in the seven species.

Let’s summarize how the almond or almond tree is used in all of passages mentioned above:

  • Genesis – as a gift to the ruler in Egypt. But perhaps the verse means only almond oil since no nuts remained.
  • Numbers – as proof that Aaron was the legitimate High Priest and a hint of swift punishment to those who rebel.
  • Jeremiah – it symbolizes a punishment that is coming soon.
  • Ecclesiastes – it symbolizes old age that comes quickly.

We have found almonds mentioned four times in Tanach. Only one of the four may be in a positive sense.

When Jacob sent a gift to the Egyptian leader he may have sent real almonds because they are among “the choice products of the land.” However, Rav Hirsch suggests that there is also a hint of a land devastated by drought.

In the other 3 verses the almond clearly represents something negative. In two of them it’s a hint of punishment coming soon and quickly.

In the 4th verse, old age does not indicate a punishment. It is rather symbolic of lost opportunities that will never occur again.

Therefore, my theory is that almonds are not included in the seven species because predominantly they represent loss and punishment.

Granted, the 7 species sometimes are used in Tanach in a negative sense. But overall they symbolize positive aspects of life.

The wheat and barley represent food for people and animals. Grapes and figs are often used to symbolize people living in peace and tranquility.

Pomegranates, besides being beautiful and sweet, with their many seeds hint at the many opportunities to fulfill God’s commandments. The olive gives oil which is used for anointing and providing clear light.

Finally, the Land of Israel is spoken of as a land flowing with milk and (date) honey.

Almonds as a symbolic tree and fruit, do not fit into these positive ideals associated with the seven species.

Further Reading

Here are the other articles I’ve written about the 7 species:

Seven Species in the Bible

Seven Species and Tu BiShevat

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