by Eliezer Segal
(AJNews) – When the Bible wants to extoll the merits of the promised land, it often praises it as “a land flowing with milk and honey.” This phrase appears some twenty times in scripture, most often as an incentive for the Israelites to keep their faith in reaching that elusive destination. For me it conjures up an image of rivers coursing with creamy white liquid or with overflows from hives and honeycombs. As enticing as those reveries might be, they do not appear to conform to any actuality in the land of Israel either now or in previous eras.
Natmanides was puzzled that the holy scriptures were attaching so much importance to two seemingly random features of the Israeli agricultural landscape rather than more prominent crops like grapes and olives. Therefore, he argued that milk and honey should be understood as indicators of more fundamental assets in the country’s ecology. After all, in order to allow for the cultivation of healthy, milk-producing animals and luscious fruits, there is need for fertile meadowlands, pure water and fresh air. The milk and fruit juices are thus to be seen as benchmarks for the general agricultural abundance that extends to crops like grain, grapes, olives and cattle.
The Torah mentions honey—d’vash in Hebrew—in its enumeration of the seven agricultural species for which the land of Israel is celebrated. Rabbinic tradition understood it as date nectar. However, it was generally accepted that this identification need not necessarily be applied to the honey of “land of milk and honey.”
Indeed some interpreters suggested that the word talav, which normally denotes milk, is alluding here to white wine, a usage that is attested in some ancient texts. Others point out that the word sometimes has a broader connotation of “best,” analogous to “cream” in some English idioms.
The identification of milk and honey in this context was indeed the subject of a dispute between sages during the era of the Mishnah. Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus stated that “milk” refers to juice from fruits, and “honey” to date nectar. On the other hand, Rabbi Akiva argued that milk and honey should both be understood in their normal senses as milk from animals and honey from bees.
The Talmud collected some interesting eyewitness reports attesting to the literal fulfillment of the biblical hyperbole in their own generations. The Babylonian sage Rami bar Ezekiel claimed that on a visit to Bnei Brak he had observed goats grazing under fig trees. The fruit oozed with honey and the animals overflowed with milk, prompting Rami to declare that the mingling of these fluids was an aptly literal illustration of the biblical promise. It was also related that Rabbi Jacob ben Dositheus slogged through three miles of fig honey en route from Lydda to Ono.
Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish reported that the flowing milk and honey of Sepphoris in the Galilee extended for an area of sixteen square miles. The Talmud remarked that, though milk and honey are to be found in other regions of Israel, Sepphoris was disproportionately blessed with that resource. The Jerusalem Talmud contains a dispute as to whether the entire land was equally blessed with milk and honey, or the phenomenon was restricted to specific regions.
Rabbi Jacob Reischer found the account of Rami bar Ezekiel’s experience problematic. In such an obvious instance of flowing milk and honey, why did the Talmud trouble itself to record Rami’s associating it with the biblical image? Rabbi Reischer suggested therefore that there were some novel features in Rami’s declaration. Because the honey referred to in the Torah in connection with blessings, first fruits and other precepts is usually understood to be date nectar, there was something novel in his observation that the prospect of a land “flowing with milk and honey” also applies to fig honey. Alternatively, Rami might have been teaching us that when scripture speaks of milk and honey it does not refer merely to the individual items, but specifically to the mixing of the two fluids. These insights into the Torah’s meaning were disclosed to Rami only by virtue of his experience in Bnei Brak.
Rabbi Joseph tayyim of Baghdad (the “Ben Ish Hai”) raised similar objections to the talmudic anecdote, and proposed a similar solution about the significance of mentioning fig honey. He noted further that goats are unlikely to graze around palm trees whose leaves and fruits are too high for them to reach. The animals did however congregate to nibble on the lower-hanging fig leaves, and in this way Rami bar Ezekiel could behold the blend of goat milk with fig honey.
Ever receptive to symbolic expositions, Rabbi Joseph Hayyim pointed out that according to a rabbinic tradition figs had been the forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden, so it is fitting that they should signify the divine forgiveness that allowed Israel to enjoy the bounty of the promised land. It is even more appropriate that the phenomenon should be concentrated in Sepphoris whose fierce and windy mountainous climate inspires contrition in the hearts of its residents. The sixteen-square-mile area symbolized this idea numerologically: the Hebrew word for heart—lev—has the value of thirty-two, so that sixteen aptly represents a broken or remorseful heart.
While much exegetical activity was directed towards identifying the milk and the honey, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch of Frankfurt focused his attention on the Hebrew root for “flowing” —ZWB—noting that it always refers to unnatural physiological discharges or to miracles. Only when speaking of the holy land does it denote agricultural bounty. Rabbi Hirsch inferred from this fact that the expression was not intended so much to praise the land’s natural fruitfulness as to remind the Israelites that their agricultural prosperity is conditional on fulfilling their religious and moral duties.
From this he concluded that “the only real guarantee of liberty and independence is submission to the yoke of the Torah. The seal of the Torah’s authority is imprinted on the agriculture of the land of Israel.