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When Hashem Gives You Olives

August 8, 2020

Everything in the Torah can be understood on multiple levels. And one of the pleasures of Torah study is seeing the truth in the various interpretations of one word or phrase. So I’d like to share one simple question from Parshat Eikev, followed by one technical, halachic answer, and then a philosophical, inspirational idea.

Our parsha discusses praise for the land of Israel, and lists the seven species that are specially associated with the fruit of the land. “ארץ חטה ושערה וגפן ותאנה ורמון ארץ זית שמן ודבש, a Land of wheat, barley, grape, fig, and pomegranate; a Land of olive oil and date honey. (Devarim 8:8)” While the list of fruits sounds familiar and delicious, the puzzling part of the verse is the repetition of the word ארץ, or land. Why is it mentioned twice, once at the beginning of the verse, and once again at the end, before listing olive oil and date honey?

I assume that many of you are jumping out of your seats with your hands raised, waiting to shout out the halachic answer. I would call on you if I could! This is because many of us learned this together recently in our daily study of Kitzur Shulchan Aruch. (It’s never too late to join the group! Contact me if interested.) We were studying the proper order when reciting multiple blessings on different foods. For example, we say hamotzi on bread or mezonot on other grain foods before making the bracha of borei pri ha’etz or borei pri ha’adama on fruits or vegetables.

One category of fruit that is given special priority is the שבעת המינים, the seven species listed in the verse above. If one has several fruits in front of him, and plans to eat them all, if any of those fruits is from the seven species, then that is the one upon which he should make the bracha of borei pri ha’eitz, and that will exempt his blessings on the remaining fruits (according to Mishna Berura 211:13).

What if one has several of the sevens species before him? In that case, the Gemara teaches, he should make the blessing on the fruit that is listed earlier in the verse. Then the Gemara tells a little story:

רַב חִסְדָּא וְרַב הַמְנוּנָא הֲווֹ יָתְבִי בִּסְעוֹדְתָּא. אַיְיתוֹ לְקַמַּיְיהוּ תַּמְרֵי וְרִמּוֹנֵי. שְׁקַל רַב הַמְנוּנָא, בָּרֵיךְ אַתַּמְרֵי בְּרֵישָׁא. אֲמַר לֵיהּ רַב חִסְדָּא: לָא סָבַר לַהּ מָר לְהָא דְּאָמַר רַב יוֹסֵף, וְאִיתֵּימָא רַבִּי יִצְחָק: כׇּל הַמּוּקְדָּם בְּפָסוּק זֶה קוֹדֵם לִבְרָכָה? אֲמַר לֵיהּ: זֶה שֵׁנִי לְ״אֶרֶץ," וְזֶה חֲמִישִׁי לְ״אֶרֶץ."

R. Chisda and R. Hamnuna were sitting at a meal. They brought dates and pomegranates before them. R. Hamnuna took and recited a blessing over the dates first. R. Chisda said to him, “Does the master not hold of that which R. Yosef, and some say R. Yitzchak, said, namely that the food that precedes in the verse precedes for the blessing?” He (R. Hamnuna) said to him, “This (the dates) are second to the word ארץ, and this (the pomegranates) are fifth to the word ארץ.” (Berachot 41b)

This is the technical answer for the repetition of the word ארץ. R. Hamnuna teaches that with numerous fruits from the seven species before you, one makes the bracha over that which is closest to the word ארץ. So the word is inserted a second time into the pasuk as a way of prioritizing certain fruits over others in regards to their blessings.

But when I learned (and taught) this, I was still bothered. Rather than repeating the word ארץ, the pasuk could have merely listed the fruits in order from most to least important, and then there would have been no need to repeat any words! If dates are prioritized over pomegranates, then simply list dates first in the pasuk! If the fruits were listed in order of importance from one to seven, then the Torah could have avoided the need to repeat the word ארץ!

And this leads to a second, perhaps complementary, answer to our original query. R. Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg in his book Haksav V’hakabalah explains that there is a fundamental distinction in the nature of the foods listed in the beginning of the pasuk and the end. The pasuk begins by describing Eretz Yisrael as land of wheat, barley, grapes, figs, and pomegranates. The end of the pasuk repeats ארץ, and describes Eretz Yisrael to also be a land of olive oil and [date] honey. These last two foods are in their own, unique category, because they do not grow in the way that they are described. Olive oil isn’t something that grows from a tree, rather it is something that is squeezed or pressed out of an olive. Honey does not grow as honey, but is rather squeezed or pressed out of dates. The second ארץ specifies the blessings of Eretz Yisrael that aren’t merely handed to us, but that require human effort and intervention to bring about the desired product.

This is an important lesson regarding our relationship with Eretz Yisrael that goes beyond just its fruit. On one hand, Eretz Yisrael is a gift from Hashem, that lives, exists, and shines regardless of our investment or commitment. How many people step off the plane at Ben Gurion Airport and cry tears of emotion having done nothing more than stepped on to the ground of Eretz Yisrael? It is like grapes or pomegranates that are sitting there just waiting to be plucked and enjoyed, gifts straight from Hashem.

But Eretz Yisrael is also something that we need to work for. It takes a tremendous amount of effort and work. People put their lives on their line in the IDF, families uproot their homes to live there, and generous donors give large amounts of money- all for the purpose of taking Hashem's gift and protecting, preserving, developing, and growing it. It takes some work to get the olive oil out of the olive, but that’s also part of the beauty of the Land.

The truth is that Eretz Yisrael is a microcosm for everything in our lives, wherever we may be. We all receive certain gifts from Hashem, things that we don’t feel we deserve and don’t claim to have earned. The gift might be family, health, community, money, personality, wisdom, strength, or many other things. And we should never take any of those for granted. But at the same time, it should always cause us to think: how can I take what Hashem has given me and make it even greater? If He has blessed me with family, am I spending enough time with my family members? Am I giving them the attention, nourishment, time, and consideration that they deserve? If He has blessed me with money, am I using it in ways that are positive, lasting, generous, and wise? Am I investing in the future of the Jewish people? Am I helping those who may not have received that same blessing? If He has blessed me with a charming personality, am I using that to connect with people and inspire them? Am I using that to call, visit, and bring joy to others?

We all have many blessings, and the first step is to thank Hashem for these gifts. But the second step must be making sure we’re not just satisfied with olives, but, as the old (or new, I guess) saying goes, when life (Hashem) gives you olives, use them to make olive oil!

Have a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Fox

Tue, August 3 2021 25 Av 5781