seven species
Needlepoint depicting the Seven Species

In the Bible, seven species are listed as being indigenous to Israel: Grapes, Olives, Pomegranates, Figs, Dates, Wheat and Barley. Of these, three are considered most important and figure in almost all Jewish traditions: Grapes, Wheat, and Olives. Grapes, as wine, are present in most important life cycle events; wheat, as bread, marks community gatherings; and olives, as oil for light, mark man’s abilities in this world. During the yearly holiday cycle, however, only one of the three is intrinsically linked with a biblical festival. Shavuot, the holiday of weeks, also marks the festival of new wheat, with many synagogues being decorated with sheaves of wheat. What happened to Grapes and Olives? Were there ever festivals for these species?

A recently deciphering of a mysterious Dead Sea Scroll sheds light on ancient traditions of holidays for these species. University of Haifa researchers have decoded one of the Dead Sea Scrolls which describes the ancient calendar of the Qumran sect and the fight in the second century BCE over the calendar.

How to mark the passing of time has occupied cultures since the dawn of history. The Jewish calendar of today operates as a lunar calendar with correction for the solar year. Organizing time according to the moon is intuitive as the moon is easily visible and traceable. Historically, the correction for the solar year was done based on direct observation in order to maintain Passover as a Spring holiday. If there were not enough signs that Spring was imminent as the last winter month of Adar was coming to a close, a second Adar was added to make sure that Passover would be in the correct season.

With the coming of Greek science to Israel in the 4th century BCE, a new model was proposed – the solar year. This calendar was a 364 day calendar, perfectly divided into 4 seasons and an exact number of 7-day weeks. According to this calendar, the holidays would be always celebrated on the same day of the week. Because of the unchanging nature of the calendar, it was seen as perfect and therefore holy. Huge disagreements broke out between Jewish communities who wanted to keep the traditional modified lunar calendar and those who wanted to embrace the modern calendar afforded by Greek science.

This modern calendar was adopted by the community at Qumran, the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls. They saw the Jewish practice in Jerusalem as corrupt and desired to distance themselves from Jerusalem as much as possible. They directed their prayer not toward Jerusalem but toward the east and the rising of the sun fitting with their shunning of the lunar calendar in favor of a solar one.

The Qumran community also celebrated festivals of new wine and new oil which parallel Shavuot. Shavuot, the festival of new wheat occurs 50 days after the first Shabbat following Passover; the festival of the new wine was 50 days after the holiday of new wheat (Shavuot); and the festival of the new oil was 50 days after the holiday of new wine. These holidays were lost over the ages, perhaps with the destruction of the community at Qumran during the Great Revolt, perhaps with the distancing of the people of Israel from the land and the agricultural cycle.

As we celebrate Shavuot and the wheat harvest, we can remember and be thankful for all the fruits of the land, each in its own season.

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