Ein Gedi Date Plantation

Significance of the Date Tree 

The Kibbutz Ein Gedi has a date(dekel) plantation because it considers it a beneficial agriculture and connects them to their past. In Mesopotamia it was considered the tree of life, in Egypt it adorned the columns and walls of the palaces and was associated with longevity, in Greece it symbolized fertility. In biblical literature it is a metaphor for excellence and beauty “The righteous bloom like a date palm”(Psalms 92:13) and “Your stately form is like a palm”(The Song of Songs 7:8).

It is in reference to the fruits of the trees and the produce of the soil that the Torah praises the L as a woman, and of Israel :”A land of wheat and barley and vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey”(Deuteronomy 8). The honey that is mentioned here is the honey of dates. There are fruits which are mentioned in our biblical sources.  With reference to the praise to the land of Israel, the date is one of them, together with olives, grapes, figs, and pomegranates.

The date tree is so identified with Israel that its image has been imprinted on local coins in various periods: during the Hasmonean reign; by the Romans after the destruction of the Temple (When Judea Capta mourned in chains under a palm), and today in the five-agora coin, with the imprint of a capital of a column that was widely used during the Israelite period.

Fancy growing your own date tree?

Uses

All parts of the date tree are beneficial. The trunk was made into rafts for fishermen; halves of hallowed out trunks were used as drain-pipes in Sinai; the narrow brown fibers wrapped around the trunk were used to make ropes. (there were found ancient anchors at the bottom of the Dead Sea with ropes tied around them),floor mats and clothing were woven from them. The palm fibers are and excellent padding for stuffing chairs and mattresses. The branches (fronds) were used as thatch and building material for huts and fences; the spine of the frond for furniture and trunks. The hard leaflets at the bottom of the frond were used as pins or needles, the soft leaflets as raw material for waving baskets.

In the Judean desert, bowls manufactured from its bark at the time of the Bar Kochba rebellion were found, The wand of the fruit of the date fruit was used as a broom(mentioned in the Bible).

Scratching the palm trunk causes a secretion of liquid which serves, once fermented, as an alcoholic drink ; different parts of the date palm and its by products served for medicinal purposes as mentioned by Maimonides and in various apocryphical sources. The palm juice also served for embalming purposes in ancient Egypt.

The fruit can be eaten fresh or dried. A nourishing cake is still prepared by compressing sun-dried pitted dates; even the pits can be used for animal fodder, used as beads or buttons; even if blackened in fire, kohl for the eyes can be made. Finally pits, leaves, dry fibers and the rest of the remains of the tree were used for heat and fuel.

Nowadays there are some areas in the world in which the palm tree is as important as in days of old. A member of the kibbutz traveled to Morocco and found that all the parts of the tree still now serve a useful purpose. The same methods of weaving baskets than in ancient Israel were found, but with different patterns .The hut  adjacent to us is entirely made of palm materials and workshops on weaving are given in the Kibbutz. There was therefore a process of re-learning the various uses of the palm, as even now, I t is a source of income and a way of life.

The Jews still use palm fronds for their roofs of their sukkot, and the palm is one of the four species over which a blessing is made during that holiday. For the Moslems the plant is holy and it is forbidden to uproot it. Christians use it as a symbol of righteousness, love and fertility. In the book of Ben Sira (approx 120-250BC) allusion is made specifically to the palms of E.G. In chapter 24:14 Wisdom is as tall as the palms of Ein Gedi. Countless times in the Mishna, Talmud and Midrash the date is mentioned as a staple food as well as a source the of wealth in the ancient period. On several quotes of the Talmud and the Midrash, certain qualities of the palm tree are compared to the Jewish nation: the fact of being straight , tall and unbending. These qualities are attributed to Hanania, Mischael and Azaria in Shimoni3:591 (Shimoni was compiled in 12-13 Century CE with sources dating back to around the second century in the Common Era, or before) they refused to bend to a statue, as commanded by the king. They stood erect and unbending. In connection with the mosaic floor of the synagogue it is interesting to note that next to the forefathers of the Jewish nation they included these 3 specific individuals.  The historian Tacitus described the land of Israel and noted that “The date palms are tall and lovely in their uprightness”.

Reintroduction of the Palm Tree

Although Ein Gedi was famous for its palms in the second century BCE and Josephus Flavius  records that “The dates along the bank of the Jordan river are abundant and most bear fruit”, in 1866 when touring Palestine, the British researcher Tristam found on the banks of the Dead Sea only broken tree trunks. In E.G. were no palms, but inside the rocks of the area were whole fossilized palm fronds in excellent condition. The tree had disappeared from the whole area, including Jericho.

With the establishment of kibbutzim in Israel, started an attempt to reintroduce the palm trees in the area near the Kinneret, all along the Jordan Valley and eventually southwards to the Dead Sea. As there was no technical literature about cultivation of palms, it was done by many trials and errors.Some information could have been found in the Talmud but it was not consulted.  An important discovery was that if the palm tree was male, it would never bear fruit! The tree has seedlings only the first few years and they can be rooted. Only female trees bear fruit and its flowers must be pollinated with pollen of the male tree. The varietals characteristics of the tree are transferred only by female trees to its seedlings or off-shoots and, although through a seed or pit, date palm trees might grow, they are not going to give fruit.

The offshoots that grow near the base of the tree’s stem reproduce the sex, variety and quality of their parent. Only seedlings that are 15-20 kg. are capable of withstanding the trauma of being separated from its parent and be transplanted elsewhere. Their heavy weight makes them able to reproduce only in circumscribed areas i.e., in oasis, in cities,. Countries develop certain varieties and are very jealous about keeping the information inside. No information is exchanged between growers of different countries

In ancient Hebrew, Greek and Roman literature writings indicate that these societies learned how to preserve select varieties.

How to create groves of dates in Israel? Lots of imagination and ruse had to be employed in order to import the seedlings. The dry varieties of dates, that can be preserved, grow in Iraq, Persia and the Arabian Peninsula. Ben Zion Israeli, a founder of the Kibbutz Kinneret and Samuel Stoler, over the sorrow of the poetess Rachel who wrote:”There on the sea coast is a palm with a drooping crown” were driven into action. In 1933 Israeli traveled to Iraq on his truck, got in touch with the necessary contacts there, and brought, in a series of eight trips, one thousand seedlings and the tools necessary for their growth. The seedlings were planted and “Rachel’s Garden” came into being. By 1935 the Iraqi government forbade the export of seedlings, but due to an international agreement, he was able to get around the prohibition and imported additional seedlings from Iran via Iraq, through their common southern border.

A couple of years later some seedlings crossed the border of Egypt at night on camel back. After eleven years, through effort and imagination, a capital of parent palms had been established. “Rachel’s palms” were planted in the Kinneret Valley, Bet-Shean, and Sodom. After the establishment of the State of Israel, Israeli made a tour of the Jordan Valley and the Arava and recommended that the Arava should be settled around sources of water till present day Eilat. What was the recommended crop? Dates. In 1955 thirty six thousand seedlings were brought back from Persia. These dates are the ones that grow on the Southern Arava and Ein Gedi., they are called Na’ot Ben Zion in honor of Israeli.

Nowadays the Dekel No’or from Argelia and the Medjool from Morocco are successful in western markets and have been introduced in the Arava. They are very big and sweet. They came to Israel via California, forty thousand seedlings. When an American went to Southern Morocco to treat a disease that had attacked the dates, he was able to smuggle eleven seedlings in military airplanes back to the United States.  So far, the only two places in the world that successfully have been able to grow non-indigenous date palms have been California and Israel.