This year the calendar for Passover comes out very unusually. The night for the Passover Seder, the festive meal eaten to commemorate being liberated from Egyptian slavery, is celebrated on Saturday night, creating a rare 2-day pilgrimage holiday in Israel. It’s difficult for some people in today’s busy world to take 2 days off from their everyday life and pursuits. Even in antiquity, though, the prospect of having a 2-day holiday hit some people hard – especially some very important farmers in Jericho.
Dates are one of the 7 indigenous, important species mentioned in the Bible, along with wheat, barley, grapes, olives, figs and pomegranates. These fruits were the ones brought to the Temple in Jerusalem as part of the First Fruits offering as part of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks. In Jewish writings, it further stipulates that dates grown in Jericho came to be the only ones acceptable for the offering because of their superior qualities. Jericho dates are not just connected to Shavuot, but also linked to Passover.
“For 3 acts the people of Jericho were not punished: working in the date groves on the day before Passover, leaving out a line from the Shema prayer, and harvesting before the Omer.” Mishna Pesachim 4,5
It was not acceptable to engage in agricultural or business pursuits during the afternoon before the holiday so as to leave enough time to prepare for this important day. But, despite that, the date growers in Jericho continued working until the start of the holiday in the evening. This led some to view them disparagingly, eliciting the response above.
Why were date farmers, especially those from Jericho, different from other kinds of farmers? To understand this question, we need to know a bit about dates. Date palms are unlike most other trees. Most trees are bisexual, having both sexes combined in one individual; dates, however, are dioecious with separate male and female trees. Dates “date” naturally through the wind carrying the pollen spores to the female flower. It is a true love story. In nature, in the Spring, the male trees “flower” exposing their pollen which contains 50-60% water. The female trees are not yet ready; but that is okay because the pollen must first dry. A few days later, when the dried pollen is carried by the hot Spring wind, the female trees have opened up to receive it. The amount of time for this pollination to occur depends on the date species and ranges from a few days to a few weeks, with the pollen itself only lasting up to 10 days. According to accepted wisdom in the ancient world, the pollination period was considered to be a few days at best. In the 4th century BCE, the father of botany, Tehophrastus, said that pollination must be done on the day the female flower opens, or the next day. If not, the entire year’s crop would be lost.
With the domestication of date plantations, nature’s way was tweaked by farmers to receive higher yield and quality. The farmers took on the role of “matchmaker” in the production of dates. As soon as the male “flowers” open, the pollen serum is collected and spread out on paper in a protected space in the sun to dry. The farmers can then use the pollen to “artificially inseminate” the female palm flowers at the exact right time.
Timing is crucial, especially in places where dates provide the livelihood for an entire community, such as Jericho. In the Bible (Deuteronomy 34:3), Moses describes the area as “the Valley of Jericho, the city of date palm trees”. Dates flower here in the Spring around Passover, and without the possibility of fertilizing the plants on the Holiday or on Shabbat, an entire year’s income could be lost, and important, sacrificial and practical crops devastated. So, much to the consternation of the establishment, the rabbis of the Second Temple period did not punish Jews living in Jericho for being in the fields for the entire day leading up to the holiday of Passover.
There is a saying that their is no Torah without bread: there cannot be religious flourishing without material sustainability. So, it is appropriate that on Passover, the holiday celebrating freedom, we need to remember that the only way to be truly free is through allowing people to work towards prosperity, as the farmers did in antiquity in the Jericho date farms.
Pesach Kasher v’Sameach! May you merit a Passover which enjoys both spiritual and material happiness!