Gardening: Walnuts and the Jews

In the Bible, Talmud and Midrash, Israel is likened, in turn, to a number of noteworthy trees and vines and their fruits.

walnut 88 (photo credit: )
walnut 88
(photo credit: )
In the Bible, Talmud and Midrash, Israel is likened, in turn, to a number of noteworthy trees and vines and their fruits. In various contexts, the people of Israel - and/or their most righteous representatives - are compared to an almond tree, a grapevine, a pomegranate, an olive tree, olive fruit, an etrog and a date palm. Yet it may come as a surprise to learn that the rabbis found the walnut tree and its nuts to be especially suggestive of the personality of Israel. In the Song of Songs (6:11), God goes down into an egoz garden - El ginat egoz yaradti. Egoz is equivalent to the Aramaic egoza, a nut - usually walnut - tree. In the accompanying Midrash, Song of Songs Rabba, the people of Israel are likened to a pile of walnuts. When one of them is moved or disturbed, each walnut in the pile is affected. The letters in egoza have the numerical equivalent of the letters in het, the Hebrew word for sin. For this reason, nuts should not be eaten on Rosh Hashana, when God examines and judges us, weighing our good deeds against our sins. In this context, the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman) sees walnuts as illustrating the principle of kol yisrael arevim zeh lezeh, that each Jew is responsible for every other, particularly when it comes to protesting the sight of another Jew committing a sin. When one walnut tumbles from the pile - when one Jew from the family of Israel sins - the rest come tumbling down along with it. Yet, when it comes to sin, the Midrash instructs, it is also therapeutic to think of ourselves as walnuts. Just as a walnut can be totally submerged in garbage and filth without damage to its inner kernel, so too the Jew. Walnut roots exemplify the process of repentance or return to God. The roots of other trees need to be covered, but walnut tree roots require exposure. Similarly, the sins of Israel can only be expiated if they are explicitly revealed through vidui or confession. Botanist Yehuda Feliks explains that walnut trees are highly susceptible to soil-borne fungus diseases for which the prescribed treatment is airing out or exposure of roots by removal of the soil around them. There is another unusual aspect to walnut trees in respect to covering their roots. The roots of walnut trees in general, and black walnuts (Juglans nigrans) in particular, exhibit allelopathy. This means that walnut roots exude a toxic substance that may make it difficult or impossible to grow other plants or ground covers in the soil above them. Those who recklessly climb high into a walnut tree without thinking, the Midrash continues, are destined to fall and be killed. This is due to the walnut tree's smooth and slippery bark. According to Resh Lakish, just as the walnut tree upon which the climber carelessly ascends plays a role in his death, anyone in Israel who reaches a position of leadership through reckless exploitation of the public is destined to be brought down by the public as well. In areas of the Land of Israel where the winter is cold, walnut trees can be germinated from their nuts without special treatment. Just plant the nuts in well-drained soil, four centimeters deep and with the shell seam vertical, this time of year. If you live in a mild-winter area closer to the coast, you can satisfy walnuts' winter chilling requirement by placing them in moist sand, in plastic bags, in the refrigerator. This process, known as stratification, will cause the nuts to sprout within two months. After germination occurs, carefully transplant the seedlings into the ground. If you wish to grow walnuts in pots, make sure the containers are elongated in order to accommodate the seedlings' plunging taproots. In any event, once walnut seedlings are planted in the ground, they should not be moved. Walnuts, like oaks, have delicate roots and seldom survive transplanting. Ginat Egoz, written by Joseph Gikatilla in medieval Spain, is a seminal kabbalistic work. The title formalized three kabbalistic methods of Torah exegesis. Ginat is an acronym for gematria (numerology), notarikon (acrostics), and temura (letter substitution), while egoz or walnut, with its two coverings (a hard shell and a leathery coat surrounding it), represents the hidden Torah, which is always wrapped in a cover and is contained in an ark that is also covered. The four chambers of a walnut are analogous to the four mysterious creatures, described in the Book of Ezekiel (Chapters 1-3), which pull God's chariot throne. Unlike most flowers, which contain both male and female reproductive structures, walnut flowers are either long, green male catkins or short, golden female spikes. The flowers are unattractive to bees and pollen is dispersed by the wind. Thus, if you are choosing a site for your walnut garden, a breezy location should be favored over a cloistered one. Other wind-pollinated trees include pecan, a walnut relative, as well as pistachio, carob and date palm. The walnut illustrates the ancient "Doctrine of Signatures," which held that the appearance of plants and their fruits signified their curative properties. Thus, heart-shaped strawberries would be good for the heart and kidney beans would improve kidney function. Consumption of walnuts, which resemble the brain, would strengthen that organ. Indeed, research has revealed that walnuts contain serotonin, a chemical manufactured in the brain and whose lack is often reported among individuals suffering from a variety of mental disorders.