“For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey.” (Deuteronomy 8:7-9)
Hebrew name: פיקוס התאנה
Scientific (Latin) name: Ficus Carica
Family name: Moraceae – Mulberry Family
Photo: KKL-JNF Photo Archive
Of all the fruit trees found in Israel, none has the central status and importance attached to the fig, which is scattered widely among the country’s mountains. There are countless references to it in the various literary sources of Israeli culture. It is one of the seven species with which the Land of Israel is blessed and is mentioned in company with the olive tree, the vine and the palm tree in the context of the land’s produce, bounty, abundance and sweetness.
The fig appears in descriptions praising the Land of Israel’s fertility:
“For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey; a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing.” Deuteronomy 8:7-9
Budding figs on Mt. Scopus. Photo: Tania Susskind
In Jotham’s well-known parable (Judges 9:10-11), the trees turn to the fig tree, after the olive tree’s refusal to be their king: “So the trees said to the fig tree: ‘You come and reign over us. But the fig tree replied, ‘Have I stopped yielding my sweetness, my delicious fruit, that I should go and wave above the trees?’
The fig tree is mentioned together with the fruits of the vine to signify praise for Israel and its virtues:
“I found Israel [as pleasing] as grapes in the wilderness; Your fathers seemed to Me like the first fig to ripen on a fig tree.” Hosea 9:10
In contrast, in describing the gloomy, painful situation of the Land of Israel when the calamity of exile befalls, “I will make an end of them --- declares the Lord. No grapes left on the vine, no figs on the fig tree, the leaves are withered; whatever I have given them is gone.” Jeremiah 8:13
A fig tree grows in water. Photo: KKL-JNF Photo Archive
The fig is a low, round tree, usually with many trunks. The leaves are thick and leathery, with a heart-shaped base and blunt rounded lobes - like the palm of a hand. The leaves fall off in winter. When cultivated, the fig gives two kinds of fruit, the first in early summer from figlets of the previous year, and the second in autumn.
The flowers are single-sexed; tiny, enclosed in a fleshy pear-shaped structure with a small hole at the apex through which insects enter. In a complicated, interesting process, the insect flies from the wild figs and enters the female fruits to lay its eggs -- pollination is thus brought about and more rapid maturation of the fruit results. Over the generations, farmers have developed various strains of figs that ripen without pollen.
The fig is very common in the Middle East and is one of the most important fruits of the region, with many, varied uses as food and for medicinal purposes. In the Land of Israel, it has long been one of the chief agricultural products, often mentioned together with grapes, olives and pomegranates.
The fig is highly valued, both for its immediate nutritional properties and because it can be stored and used in a variety of ways. In the writings of the sages and in ancient writings on agriculture in the Land of Israel, the fig is frequently mentioned.
It has many names and nicknames that refer to its multiplicity of uses, depending on whether it is dried or fresh, its shape, whether viewed singly or in a pile with other figs, and the stage of its harvest.
The common thread running through all its appellations is that the fig is an integral part of the diet, the customs and the landscape of Israel.