Biblical Gardening: The fruitful desert

The Garden of Eden is often equated with paradise, a heavenly piece of verdant real estate where the sun always shines, the rivers gently flow and the trees are full of fruit.

garden of eden 88 (photo credit: )
garden of eden 88
(photo credit: )
The Garden of Eden is often equated with paradise, a heavenly piece of verdant real estate where the sun always shines, the rivers gently flow and the trees are full of fruit. Yet, as Rabbi Ya'acov Moshe Harlap wrote in his classic Mei Marom, there is one place on Earth even more perfect than Eden, and that would be the Land of Israel. Harlap's evidence of Eden's inferior status, in comparison to the Land of Israel, is found at the end of the creation narrative. "God took the man [Adam] and placed him in the Garden of Eden" (Genesis 2:15). There are at least two explanations of this verse. The literal meaning is that God physically took Adam from where he had been created, a spot usually identified as Moriah, the future Temple Mount, and brought him down into Eden. The other interpretation of this verse is given by Rashi, who equates "took him" with "persuaded him with words" to enter Eden. Why was such persuasion necessary? According to Rabbi Harlap, Adam's sojourn in Eden was equivalent to the soul's sojourn on Earth. Just as the soul, basking in the light beneath God's heavenly throne, does not want to endure the travails of earthly life, so too Adam did not want to depart from the Land of Israel - which is equated with the world of atzilut, of intimate proximity to God - for Eden. But God sends souls to Earth, and Adam to the Garden of Eden, to achieve such perfection that the divine radiance of heaven (in the case of immortal souls) and the divine radiance of the Land of Israel (in the case of mortal humans) can be appreciated all the more. Adam failed in his mission to Eden. The reason for this, as explained by Harlap, was that Adam and Eve did not eat the fruit that they were instructed to consume. Adam was told that "from every tree of the garden you may eat except for the Tree of Knowledge" (Genesis 2:17). Yet Adam and Eve did not eat fruit from any tree. The serpent, noticing that none of the fruit had been consumed, then approached Eve and asked, "Did God say you should not eat from any tree in the garden?" (Genesis 3:1), opening a conversation that led to consumption of the forbidden fruit. Harlap makes the point that if fruit from permitted trees had been eaten by Adam and Eve, the serpent would not have been able to ask this question and the first sin would never have been committed. We can only wonder at the reluctance of Adam and Eve to eat fruit that they were permitted, if not commanded, to consume in the Garden of Eden. Perhaps the fruits were not as attractive to the eye as the luscious varieties we grow today. It is doubtful, for instance, that one of the fruits Adam and Eve could have eaten was the pitaya, which just might qualify as the most eye-catching fruit on earth, one that grabs your attention with its pink, red or yellow skin, and smooth flavor and texture that will remind you of melon, strawberry and kiwi all at once. Its flesh is either red, purple, or white and contains tiny black seeds like those of the kiwi. Individual pitaya typically weigh more than one kilogram and, if you should decide to grow them, you will also enjoy their fragrant flowers that open at night. The pitaya (Hylocereus and Selenicereus species) is a vining cactus or epiphyte indigenous to Mexico, Central America and Colombia that grows up to 15 meters tall. It is being grown commercially in several parts of the world, including the Negev. I saw my first pitaya cactus growing up the trunk of an olive tree, which is an indication of its minimal water requirement. Pitaya cacti require 10 times less water than typical orchard trees. Yosef Mizrahi, a professor at Ben-Gurion University, sees the Negev as the new Garden of Eden for the growth of pitayas and other drought tolerant cactus fruits. The limitations of a desert environment from the standpoint of human comfort - blinding sunlight and heat, limited water resources and remote location - are seen as advantages to a plant physiologist or fastidious fruit grower. The long, hot summers make it possible to harvest pitaya fruit virtually year around. The lack of rainfall and low humidity make pesticide-free growing a reality, since the dry desert climate is inhospitable to harmful insects and pathogenic fungi. The sharp increase in water costs is not a deterrent to growing water-thrifty species. Lastly, as the desert is far from population centers and sources of pollution, the fruit grown there will be free of contaminants associated with an urban environment. Mizrahi has also been instrumental in the widespread cultivation and export of apple cactus (Cereus peruviana), so-called because its fruits resemble red apples, known commercially as koubo. The plant consists of many columns or pipe-like appendages on which the fruits are borne. Nopal is the trade name for the plant we call sabra, famous for its edible beaver-tail pads and sweet fruit. Left to their own devices, the nopal produces fruit in July and August only. Yet, with fertilization, it may be induced to provide crops over a much longer period. An interesting side note is the nopal's clinically proven effectiveness in reducing swelling of the prostate.