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Galilee Diary: Carobs

Galilee Diary: Carobs

One day [Rabbi Choni] was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked him, How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit? The man replied: Seventy years. He then further asked him: Are you certain that you will live another seventy years? The man replied: I found carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted these for me so I too plant these for my children.
    –Babylonian Talmud, Ta'anit 23b

Walking around Shorashim at this season, the road and the sidewalks are covered with carob pods in various stages of pulverization by pedestrians and cars. The pods have been ripening for a couple of months and are now a chocolate brown, full of sugar, and chewy-crunchy. Fully ripe, they fall off naturally and pile up on the ground, as we have no livestock to eat them, and apparently, no one with a strong enough interest in eating them or cooking them into syrup to gather more than a handful now and then. Where they've landed on the road, they get pounded pretty quickly into a beige powder punctuated with light-brown seeds shaped like lentils, hard enough to resist crushing even by cars. Where they pile up they give off a musky-sweet smell - for me, a signifier of mid-summer.

The carob is one of the mainstays of the Galilean landscape. Oak, olive and carob are the most familiar trees around here - it's hard to imagine a landscape photo or painting, seeking to depict the Galilee, without those three. Interestingly, however, carob is not mentioned in the Hebrew Bible; only in the New Testament, in the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:16, where carob pods are mentioned as pig fodder). Of course, many people know carob by the name "St. John's Bread," which seems to be a New Testament reference. This brings us to an interesting etymological tangle: According to Matthew 3:4, John [the Baptist] wore a camel's hair garment and a leather belt, and subsisted on "locusts and forest honey." It turns out that the Greek word for locust (the bug) is phonetically similar to the word for a cake made of carob flour. So it is not clear what John actually ate in the desert - both locusts (which are kosher) and carob cookies would be appropriate subsistence fare. It seems that the term "locust bean" which is used to refer to carob or to an African relative of carob, may have originated from this confusion. And the common name "St. John's Bread" implies that the biblical description refers to carob, not insects.

In any case, even though carob didn't make it into the Hebrew Bible, it was a familiar feature of the flora of the country, and is mentioned numerous times in the Talmud as a cultivated tree. Apparently the fruit was mainly used as animal feed, and thus came to symbolize the food of the poor or the desperate: As in the story of John above, so too when Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai and his son (see last Galilee Diary) hid from the Romans for twelve years in a cave, their diet was carobs and water.

For European Jews, carob fruit was traditionally associated with Tu Beshvat, because it keeps well for months without refrigeration, so Jews anywhere could eat of the fruits of the land of Israel, in any season, no matter how long the delivery time. In the wider world, carob seeds were known for their uniform size, and thus apparently became the source of the weight measure karat, a fifth of a gram (the Latin name of carob is ceratonia).

There are certain North American sensations, the smell of burning leaves, the feel of an early spring snow-melt day, that, when I experience them, resonate very deeply, recalling primal memories. Still. However, I guess 23 years has been long enough for me to accumulate enough memories as an adult for sensations like the smell of carobs in summer also to affect me, confirming that my adopted home has indeed become home.

Published: 7/24/2013

Categories: Israel, Living in Israel

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