Holy Bananas

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14 Aug 2008

This winter, the bananas were missing from my greengrocer’s’ shelves. It was (and for a few more weeks, still is) a Sabbatical or Shmita year, the seventh year in the Torah’ s agricultural cycle when there is no planting and the land, quite literally, rests. Having lived in Israel for close to a quarter of a century I knew that during shmita, year produce is usually somewhat scarce, so I figured that that accounted for the banana crunch.

Not that I was happy about it— I love bananas. They are one of my all time favorite fruits and could happily eat them every day. Being without, I was in banana withdrawal. I had learned that the land of Israel is acquired through suffering, with suffering, and that our sages define suffering quite loosely, including anything from chemotherapy to stubbing one’s toe. So I was suffering. On that scale, I reckoned that my banana hunger had some transcendent value.

Still I couldn’t contain my delight when one sunny February afternoon, I noticed bunches and bunches of bananas on sale at the market. They were beauties — light yellow, spotless, and well-formed, and they were also ridiculously cheap NIS 2.99 (50 cents) per kilo which is almost a giveaway price. What was going on?

As I was about to grab a bunch, I saw a white paper sign dangling from underneath the banana stall. It was a message from the supermarket’s kashrut department:

“These bananas have kedushas sheviis. The sanctity of the seventh year. They must be treated accordingly.”

I knew that Israeli fruit was special, had special rules; the bikkurim fruit offering in Temple days, the seven species indigenous to the land, but I’d never heard of any laws pertaining to bananas.

Holy bananas? How could that be. Bananas were foreigners, brought here from Latin America. But because these particular bananas were “sabras” having grown up in the land of Israel during the seventh sanctified year they were holy and ownerless, a gift to anyone who would eat them. The NIS 2.99 price tag taped above the bin, wouldn’t make it to the farmer’s pocket; it was a matter of logistics, a way of recouping the costs of bringing them to their consumers.

Hashem Himself was giving me a gift. My all time favorite fruit, at the peak of its form at a giveaway price. Did life get any better than this? Then I read the rest of the sign.

“These bananas must be treated with proper respect.”

Respect? How do you respect a banana? By curtseying when I set it in the fruit bowl, or perhaps saluting at the first bite.

No, actually the rules were quite simple. The bananas could be eaten as usual. The caveat was that the detritus, any uneaten bits had to be wrapped up, left in their own waste receptacle, and only after they had fully rotted, integrated into the household trash.

It sounded daunting, not anymore than the complicated recycling rules followed in many US cities, but with the added knowledge that a mistake was desecration.

Were we up for this? In my family, I’m ashamed to say, whole bananas have made their way onto the floor. Maybe I should just give up… but then I thought again. It had been so long since I’d bitten into a good banana. I could almost taste it. I would try to do this right. With an anxious heart, l took my treasures home, half convinced that I’d just brought home the spiritual equivalent of radioactive isotopes.

This was stressful stuff. Bananas, new halachot (laws). How could I handle it all and give it over to my kids. I stepped outside into the garden for a breather. It was a glorious day. The rays of winter sun were lightly warming me, birds were chirping; trees beginning to bud. G-d was all around me, His love. His caring. He couldn’t want to trip me up.

Then an idea flashed in my brain. Warning label—like the ones the US Surgeon General puts on cigarette cartons. I’d label each banana to remind us about the new rule.

I pulled out my stickers and in heavy black print I wrote “Kedushas Sheviis Beware” on each banana. With the stickers on, the bananas looked like they were bandaged up, wounded even, but I was pleased.

Then I took a serious looking black cellophane bag, and labeled it “Kedushas Sheviis Garbage” with instructions to “Place Peels inside.”

As soon as the kids walked in I gave them the run down. And to my delight, they got with the program. I was actually surprised to see them reminding each other to follow this rather complicated new system of rules. I was quite proud. Just as one of the kids was dispensing with his banana peel, a neighbor who I love dearly and who also tends to be stricter and more knowledgeable than me happened to drop by.

“What’s that?“ she asked pointing to the black garbage bag with the large sticker.

“Oh its for the banana peels, kedushas sheviis, you know.” I answered with no small measure of pride. It always feels good to be the frum one.

‘”Keeping elephants?” she asked. (the Hebrew word “Peel” means elephant)

Huh? …. In my overzealousness, I’d overlooked a point of Jewish law. Fruit and vegetable peels are only sanctified if they are edible—by humans that is. There was no need to segregate the banana peels from the regular trash.

As I write this, it is now mid July and the last time I bit into a good banana was back in February. After that the bananas disappeared. Now I know why.

The bananas we ate back in February were even more extraordinary than I had thought when I bought them. Not only were they Kedushat Sheviit, but they were miracle bananas.

It seem that sometime in mid November a freezing wind hit the banana plantations on the shores of the kinneret causing most of the crop to freeze, and die, inside of its peel. But like the angel of death who skipped over the homes of the Israelites in ancient Egypt, this frost skipped over a particular banana plantation, which happened to be owned by a farmer who had fallowed his fields, walked away, not planted, essentially leaving his source of livelihood for an entire year.

It was a tough move, the equivalent of quitting one’s job or selling off one’s portfolio. Not easy stuff.

Still the Bible promises that farmers who keep the Sabbatical will be rewarded. And so it was.

When the frost hit, it skipped over this farmer’s fields leaving his the only bananas in the region to grow to maturity. Now this fellow is an ordinary guy, brawny, leathery skinned dressed in jeans and a baseball cap, not your usual image of a holy man but when he saw that his crops had been spared from the frost the first word out of his mouth was: “Nes” — miracle.

I suspect that those were the yellow beauties we ate on that sunny February afternoon. Holy bananas. Miracle bananas. To nourish our bodies and souls here in the magical mysterious Holy Land.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.