There is a Talmudic dispute over whether or not we say a blessing over an unripe tree fruit.ˆ The great Kabbalist, the Arizal (Rabbi Yitzchak Luria), explains the deeper significance of the argument. He tells us that an unripe fruit, once it has fallen (or has been picked) from the tree, no longer has potential to turn into a healthy, delicious food, one which is able to nourish and sustain.
Once unripe fruit has fallen, it’s relegated to the side of the stagnant; therefore its energies can’t be tapped and used for holy purposes. That is, until it has decomposed and become compost or fertilizer, which can then be used to build up the soil and grow new fruit.* Unripe fruit is forever incomplete and is unable fulfill its original, intended purpose. If however it undergoes radical transformation, via destruction and rebirth, it can provide fertilizer for new growth.
Our words, thoughts and deeds are in fact our own personal “fruits”. If we make sure they get plenty of sunlight (inspiration, from words of wisdom of the tzadikim and our own prayers), water (spiritual and practical teachings of the Torah), and soil (culture, community, and continuity), they ripen, and we are able to harvest the benefits.
In fact, allowing fruit to ripen on the tree is such an important process, we’re taught that if Adam and Chava (Eve) had only waited three more hours for the fruit of the Tree of Knowing to ripen, they would have been able to experience Shabbos (Shabbat) in the Garden of Eden and would never have been driven into exile.
Sarah Yehudit Schneider, prolific author of holistic Jewish mysticism (I am currently reading her You Are What You Hate: A Spiritually Productive Approach to Enemies), explained via email about the waiting and ripening: “It seems that the waiting itself is transformative, and it is that which would have effected the ripening, along with the transformative lights of Shabbat itself, the combination of the two would have effected the ripening and enabled them to eat the fruit at their Shabbat seuda [meal]°.
“I must say that in this context, it is almost more a ripening of themselves, in order to be able to ingest this mind-altering food and not be overwhelmed (as Chava [Eve] commented—“the fruit is desired to expand consciousness”), then a ripening of the fruit itself. Although both perspectives are true.”
The Torah is generally learned on a variety of levels, as Sarah Yehudit Schneider’s comments reveal. The four primary levels of understanding the Torah are: Pshat (the simple meaning, which isn’t always so simple); Remez ( the hint “between the lines” which may include the gematria°); Drash (interpretations that are difficult to pull directly from the text); and Sod, the secret and mystical meaning.
The first letters of Pshat, Remez, Drash, and Sod form an acronym: PaRDeS, which refers to an orchard and which is where we get the word “paradise” from. This is also a word uses to refer to the garden of Eden—for this is where Adam and Chava spent their time learning the Torah on a multiplicity of levels.
The importance of allowing fruit to ripen is not only a soul metaphor but also a very real phenomenon.
I first ate unripe fruit seven years ago, when I moved to Brooklyn. All that was readily available in the neighborhood stores was “supermarket fruit”—hard, dead-green fruit (or vegetables) that had been gassed to artificially ripen them. Alternately, out of season fruit and vegetables could be purchased, these were shiny new varieties bred to survive a fourteen hour flight plus a twenty hour drive and still look pristine and glossy after several days on display. (I still don’t “get” eating strawberries in January).
Admittedly, I was a bit spoiled. Before the move, I had access to a 3-season farmers’ market, home grown organic herbs and veggies, and roadside stands. And when I wasn’t able to get tree-ripe fruit, I always let my fruit ripen at home because it was simply more delicious.
Meanwhile, the Torah sages were right on all counts—and I found out the hard way. My first Brooklyn summer I ate a half a cup of blueberries that were suspiciously sour tasting and whitish-green inside, though deep-sea blue outside. I’m not sure why I didn’t listen to my instincts. A short while later I could literally feel my duodenum convulsing as I lay on the floor in agony, remembering some long-ago and far-away warning about never, ever eating raw, unripe berries.
My husband then told me about the Talmudic dispute about unripe fruit.
Several months later, around Chanukah time, I was visiting someone and she offered me a bowl of rock-hard, picture-perfect peaches. I declined. She ignored me and proceeded to cut up a peach for me and put it on a plate. “These are delicious,” she emphasized. “Very hard, just the way I like them,” said my host.
I began to notice that a lot of people (not just here in Brooklyn, but in general) prefer very hard fruit. They’re missing out, not only on taste, but on health benefits. Ripe fruit, and especially fruit ripened nearly to the point of rottenness, provides the body with major doses of antioxidants.
Unripe fruit is very acidic, and may even be harmful to the health. Fruit has the simple sugars, water, and vitamins our bodies need in varying amounts, and when ripe, the nutrients are far more bio-available.
Your best bet is to buy fresh picked seasonal ripe fruit and vegetables; if that’s not possible, than find a store that doesn’t refrigerate stone fruit (plums, peaches, cherries, apricots, mangoes) or papayas, bananas, berries, pears, melons, potatoes, garlic, onions and tomatoes. That way they will have a chance to ripen. Cold kills the ripening process.
Apples, carrots, grapes, summer squash, lettuces and leafy greens, eggplant, celery, etc. all do need cooler, though not too cold, temperatures to stay fresh. Citrus fruits except for tomatoes, should be refrigerated, but remove from the refrigerator a couple of hours before using for best flavor and juiciness.
Still, if you have any access to fruit ripened on the tree or vine that is absolutely the best tasting and arguably the most nutritionally beneficial.
And don’t be fooled: Stores love to say produce is tree or vine-ripened—when it is not. For example, take “vine-ripened” tomatoes. In your average supermarket or produce store they’re sometimes called “pinks” but they’re really green (unripe) tomatoes that have been allowed to get a little less green on the vine before they’re picked than the “regular” tomatoes you normally see. Those are actually picked dead-white-green and gassed with ethylene, which is why they’re tasteless and so acidic.
Five Fruit and Vegetable Tips
1. Try not to buy fruit that looks preternaturally perfect, unless you know for a fact that it is freshly picked and tree-ripened.
2. Ripen fruits in a paper bag at room temperature.
3. E-coli and Samonella are just a few of the microorganisms that appear on produce. People always think that meat or fish or mayonnais-y foods cause food poisoning, but uncooked fruits and vegetables are a prime culprit. The produce sprays in the supermarkets are supposed to get rid of pesticide residue and many bacteria. I use a brand called Environne, but there are other brands out there, too.
4. Some fruits and vegetables benefit from the Peace Corps treatment (including those you peel, like melons and oranges and bananas, since as you peel or slice them, your hands or the knife drags whatever was on the peel into the flesh of the fruit): Fill the sink or a very large bowl with water, add 1 tablespoon food grade hydrogen peroxide or regular 3 percent drug store hydrogen peroxide, (you can also add a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar), put in soakable produce (not berries, bananas, mushrooms and other soft produce) and let soak for 5-10 minutes. Then, either with your hands or a vegetable brush, scrub under cool tap water. The old way was to use 1 teaspoon from a fresh bottle of regular Clorox™ bleach per gallon of water but hydrogen peroxide is far safer. If you’re visiting a farmers’ market and insist on biting into that just-bought peach, wash under water while rubbing with your hands.
5. Chinatowns, Hispanic, Indian, West Indian, Russian, etc. neighborhoods often have interesting varieties of fresh fruits and vegetables and sometimes you can find truly-tree ripened fruit in these places.
ˆFRuiT, from the Hebrew, PeiRoT or PeiRoS. The F and P sounds are interchangeable and in the study of linguistics (PRuiT). Some types of fruits retain the P/F sound. PeaR/PoiR, Peach, aPPle, Plum, etc.
Notes: *See the teachings of the Arizal, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, in this Kabbalah Online piece by Moshe Yaakov Wisnefsky at Chabad.org.
°Sarah Yehudit’s source material is a text called Drush Aytz HaDaat (The Study of the Tree of Knowing/Knowledge). The author is the “Leshem”, Rav Shlomo Eliyashav (1841 to 1925). The Leshem was a Kabbalistic master, well known for his mystical yet often accessible teachings.
°°Each Hebrew letter is has a numerical value as well as verbal/concept meanings. The numerical values of letters, words, and phrases are uncovered in order to give fascinating insights into the text.
Terms: Shabbos/Shabbat: The Biblical Sabbath (from Friday night until Saturday night) Tzadikim: Singular, Tzaddik, Holy Person Chava: The original Hebrew for “Eve”