“Your limbs are an orchard of pomegranates
And of all luscious fruits….
I will let you drink of the spiced wine,
Of my pomegranate juice.” (Shir HaShirim)
My journalist friend Ramona brought pomegranate wine for Shabbat dinner yesterday. “It’s a new Israeli product,” she told us as she uncorked the slender long-necked bottle with a flourish. “I just wrote an article about it.” Ramona poured a small amount into each of our shot glasses and we marveled at the deepness of the red. I thought of Marilla Cuthbert’s notorious raspberry cordial and took only a very small sip, savoring the dry sweetness.
The next day, as is our custom, Ramona and I met in San Simon park two hours before the end of Shabbat to read aloud and translate from Ari Elon’s Alma Di. We decided to skip ahead a few chapters to read the piece entitled “Nectar Rimonim,” which begins with a passage from Masechet Brachot (57a):
A person who sees pomegranate halves in his dreams–
If he is a Torah scholar, he should anticipate Torah,
as it is written:
“I will let you drink of the spiced wine,
Of my pomegranate juice.”
If he is an ordinary Jew, he should anticipate doing good deeds,
as it is written:
“Your brow behind your veil
Gleams like a pomegranate split open.”
Even those who are empty among you
Are filled with good deeds like a pomegranate.
Elon explains that this passage reflects the rabbinic understanding that there are two Torahs: the Torah that is learned, and the Torah that is commanded. Torah scholars are the custodians of the Torah that is learned. They immerse themselves in Torah all day and all night, a love affair that knows no ends and no bounds; they cannot be interrupted to bless or to pray or to kindle a lamp. The ordinary Jew, however, does not understand the love affair of the scholar. This Jew builds a life around good deeds, incorporating Torah into the fabric of his or her own body.
For the scholar, Torah is not the incorporated self but the body of the beloved. The left hand of Torah is under my head. The right hand of Torah caresses me. Torah leads me through its hills and valleys, and keeps me up all night until I am sick from love.
Late at night, when I am too tired to read or write, I review my day’s learning while shelling a pomegranate. I put on an old t-shirt and stand over the kitchen counter as the red juice spurts on my hands and arms and runs in rivulets down to my sticky elbows. The kitchen, even long before I am finished, looks like a crime scene: The red stains on the white walls cry out from the earth, “Someone was murdered here!” But even those who are empty are filled with good deeds like a pomegranate.
Pomegranates have a very long season in Israel. From August to March I eat pomegranate seeds in yogurt for breakfast each morning. I bring the 200-gram plastic Danona containers to the Beit Midrash and store the seeds in a tupperware container in the refrigerator. Before we start learning, I open the yogurt, stir in the seeds and watch as the milky whiteness becomes streaked with pinkish-red.
I taste of the sweet tang of my pomegranate yogurt all week, but not on Shabbat. On Shabbat I hide my paperback masechet in my siddur and pretend I can learn and daven at the same time. By the time shul is over, it is too late for breakfast. By the time Ramona and I reach the last page of “Nectar Rimonim,” it is too dark to see the pages in the book we are holding. It is not night yet, but it is nightfall. The sky is a deep red and the orb of the sun is suspended on the horizon like a ripe pomegranate.