This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

The Love Apple*

What is there to say about Judaism and the tomato?

For some reason, I am personally unable to eat tomatoes unless they have been stewed into a gravy or sauce. If I did eat them, however, I would know that they require the blessing over "fruit of the earth"--to be followed by the blessing "...who created many beings and their needs."

They are not mentioned in the Bible or Talmud, because they were not introduced to the West until the discovery of the New World.

And it turns out that I am not the only person in the world who has an aversion to eating them.

For quite a long time after the fruit was first imported to Europe from South America in the sixteenth century, not many people were willing to actually eat them, rather than just use them for decoration. The suspicion that they were poisonous (as are several of their botanical cousins in the Nightshade family) was eventually offset by the belief that they were an powerful aphrodisiac.

Still, it was not until the early nineteenth century that tomatoes came to be appreciated as a normal, healthy ingredient for salads and cooking.

The guarded attitude towards them is reflected in the refusal of Jews in certain parts of eastern Europe, especially Hasidic areas, to imagine that tomatoes could possibly be kosher. Convinced that because of their vivid colour, they must contain forbidden blood, those people referred to tomatoes as treif'eneh apelekh or meshugene apelekh. Residents of those regions would habitually spit when passing a grocery store that sold the defiled fruits, and took their business elsewhere.

The literature and memoirs of the period are full of tales of the domestic discord and culture shock that ensued when Jews from tomato-avoiding regions wed tomato-eating spouses.

"You say tomahto and I say tomayto…"

I sometimes wonder whether the English word tomato, in spite of the dictionary's insistence that it derives from an Aztec word, might actually be etymologically connected to the Hebrew tuma, "uncleanness."

The Zionist pioneers devoted a lot of effort to to the quest for a type of tomato that could be grown as a commercially competitive crop on the soil of the Jewish homeland. They achieved considerable success with an Algerian variety that had undergone improvements in France. So entrenched did this species become that, in the early 1960's, when Agriculture Minister Moshe Dayan tried to switch over to a more efficient breed, he was unsuccessful in his efforts. Only in recent years have the elongated "Moshe Dayan" variety of tomatoes begun to achieve widespread popularity.

The common Hebrew word for tomato, agvaniyah, has had an infamous history. It was evidently coined in 1886 by Jerusalem author and scholar Yechiel Michel Pines for his Hebrew translation of a German work on Palestinian agriculture. It was popularized by his son-in-law, the literary savant David Yellin.

Agvaniyah (in fact, the grammarians debated for years whether to prefer the form agbanit) was intended as a translation of the German word Liebesapfel, which literally means "love apple." The Hebrew root agav covers a range of sexual terms, including lust, buttocks, and some that are better imagined. It hearkens back to the Italian name pomi d'amore, a tribute to the fruit's reputed ability to kindle passion.

The unsavoury name of this savoury fruit aroused some passionate opposition in the stern Jewish society of turn-of-the-century Palestine.

Eliezer ben-Yehudah, renowned as the founder of modern spoken Hebrew, was ever in search of new words to enliven the language; and yet his monumental Thesaurus of the Hebrew Language contains not the faintest trace of the agvaniyah. Ben-Yehudah's children later reported that their parents had systematically banished the word from their house because of its vulgar associations. Following suit, the word was for many years kept out of the Hebrew newspapers, whose editors were careful to sunstitute the Arabic bandora, which was derived from the other Italian name for the fruit: pomodoro [golden apple].

Among the Hebrew authors during the early decades of the twentieth century the notorious word shows up only rarely, and is usually cast in the role of an offensive epithet that proves deeply disturbing to everyone who hears it, particularly those prim and earnest young ladies who populate the romantic novels of the time.

All in all, there appears to be something positively subversive about biting into one of those luscious, crimson tomatoes.

It is enough to make even a person like myself, an avowed foe of the fiery red fruit, reconsider my aversion, and think longingly back to my "salad days."

This article and many others are now included in the book

Ask Now of the Days that Are PastAsk Now of the Days that Are Past


University of Calgary Press

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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free PressDecember 16 1999, p. 8.

  • Bibliography:
    • Sivan, Reuven. "Ha'agvaniyah umah she-'olelu lah shemoteha." Lehsonenu La'am 22, no. 3 (1971): 105-46.