Our sages tell us that if a salted food was brought to the table to be eaten first and bread was brought as a second course, the blessing should be made over the salted food and thus discharge the requirement to recite a blessing over the bread (M. Berachot 6:7).
The Talmud immediately questions this ruling (B. Berachot 44a): Can it be that the salted cuisine is the primary food, while bread is subordinate? Bread provides nourishment and satisfies hunger; it is the basic form of sustenance and therefore should not be inferior to any other food. The talmudic sages respond by telling us that the mishnaic dictum must be referring to a food that is even more superior to bread and this can only be one thing: the fruit of Ginossar.
Ginossar is the region around the Kinneret. Elsewhere the Talmud identifies Ginossar with Kinneret, explaining that Ginossar was called Kinneret because the fruits of this area are as sweet as a kinor, a lyre (B. Megilla 6a).
The Ginossar fruit was so exceptionally sweet that according to some commentators it needed to be eaten with salt (Ritva, 13th-14th centuries, Spain; and others). Alternatively, after eating Ginossar fruit something salty had to be brought to the table to revive those who had partaken of the sweet, syrupy fruit. The bread was then brought as a condiment to the salted food (Tosafot, 12th-14th centuries, France-Germany). Thus bread is considered subordinate only to Ginossar fruit, but not to other food.
After mentioning the sweetness of Ginossar produce, the Talmud regales us with tales about the uniqueness of the fruit of that region. One sage relates that when the students accompanied Rabbi Yohanan to eat Ginossar fruit, each of the 100 disciples in attendance would gather 10 fruits; when there was a retinue of only 10 students, they would each gather 100 fruits. Either way Rabbi Yohanan would be presented with 1,000 pieces of Ginossar fruit, and the sage would devour all those delicious fruits, swearing that he was not satiated and could eat more.
One sage ate so much Ginossar fruit that a sweet syrup oozed from the pores on his face, and a fly that landed on his forehead slipped off. Other sages partook of this fruit to the extent that it made their hair fall out. Resh Lakish ate so much that he became delirious, and his mentor and colleague, Rabbi Yohanan, had to call for help to bring him home. The Talmud, however, does not limit these fruity tales to the produce of Galilee.
Throughout the Talmud, we hear of various sages who make the journey between the two Torah centers of that period - the Land of Israel and Babylon. These travelers carried traditions and interpretations from one study hall to the other and facilitated a measure of cross-fertilization of ideas. It should not come as a surprise that when these travelers arrived in Babylon, they reported on the bountiful produce of the Land of Israel. Thus Rav Dimi told of one city in the area of Har Hamelech in Judea in the time of King Yannai where they would take out 60,000 bowls of chopped salted fish each week to feed the fig-pickers. With so many fruit-pickers, we can only imagine how much fruit was gathered.
Another traveler, Ravin, provided some insight into the size of the trees: King Yannai had one tree in Har Hamelech where thrice monthly almost 600 liters of newly hatched pigeons were harvested from its branches.
In a similar fashion, elsewhere in the Talmud we find such excessive praise heaped on the produce of the Land of Israel (B. Ketubot 112a). Indeed the bountiful fruit of Israel was recognized and sampled by the 12 spies who were sent to explore the Promised Land after the Exodus (Numbers 13).
These extravagant talmudic descriptions almost defy the imagination. Indeed, one commentator unabashedly states that these accounts are exaggerations (Rabbi Yosef Haim Ben Yehoyada, 19th-20th centuries, Baghdad). The challenge for us, however, is to cull contemporary significance from the tales our tradition has preserved.
According to one approach, the Kinneret and its environs have an unrivaled spiritual quality and thus the fruit grown on the banks of this lake - such as at Ginossar - are particularly sweet. Because of this mystical valence, our sages went to great lengths to partake of the fruit of the Kinneret area (Rabbi David Luria, 19th century, Lithuania). Another authority states that fruit from anywhere in the Promised Land is full of spiritual value and by eating fruit from the land, we are animated by and gain vigor from the Almighty's Holy Presence (Rabbi Yoel Sirkis, 16th-17th centuries, Poland).
Perhaps we can add another dimension. Our sages established what must be in a town before it can be considered a worthy place of residence for a scholar (B. Sanhedrin 17b). A list of 10 items is provided: a court of law, charity collection apparatus and an honest distribution method, a synagogue, a bathhouse, a lavatory, a doctor, a blood-letter, a scribe and a schoolteacher. According to one opinion, there is a further requirement: There also must be a variety of fruit, for an assortment of fruit brightens the eyes.
Medically, fruit intake affects our eyesight. A lack of the vitamin A contained naturally in so many fruit and vegetables - famously carrots, but also lemons, apples, apricots, melon, mango, potatoes, pumpkin, spinach and broccoli - can be harmful for vision, though the damage can be repaired by reintroducing vitamin A rich products.
Thus eating fruit can improve our eyesight which assists us in going about so many of our daily functions and significantly allows us to pore over the texts of our tradition at our own pace.
Before the advent of eyeglasses that could compensate for poor vision, it was imperative to look after the eyes, thus our sages instructed us to unabashedly eat fruit to preserve our eyesight, and what better product than the holy and succulent fruit of the blessed Land of Israel.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.