Recently some well-known desserts from the Far East have popped up in our culinary world - Banana Roti and Banoffee Pie - putting the simple banana on center stage. Many of us love bananas in cakes, ice cream, or eaten fresh or dried; and others really can’t stomach the taste or smell of it. Recently (in honor of Tu b’Shvat - the New Year for trees) the Israel Plants Production and Marketing Board designated the banana as the most popular fruit in Israel. When did the banana travel from the Far East to the Middle East? And what is the connection between the banana and the Dome of the Rock and with Jerusalem in general?
The banana (Musa in Arabic; موز) originates in the tropical regions of Southeast Asia. It was domesticated during the 5th millennium BCE in the region today known as New Guinea. During the 1st millennium BCE, many cultivated varieties of the plant were distributed along trade routes to West Africa. Archaeological research undertaken to understand ancient agricultural techniques, trade and the consumption of bananas is especially difficult because it is a perishable fruit, domesticated bananas don’t have seeds, and their propagation is through cuttings.
According to written historical sources the spread of banana cultivation in the Middle East dates to the Arab conquest (7th century CE). A recently published study, conducted in conjunction with researchers from Israel, Germany and the United States (Ashley Scott et al., Exotic Foods, PNAS, Nov 2020) used innovative research methods, and found evidence of a protein found in bananas - specifically the types of bananas which have their origin in Asia - in a 3000-year old human tooth in Tel Erani next to Kiryat Gat. It seems, therefore, that the banana arrived in the land of Israel over 1000 years before the Arab conquest.
Written accounts from Arabic literature relay that in the 10th century CE, banana cultivation was very common in the area of Jericho and the Jordan Valley; and in general, bananas were among the most common crops in the Land of Israel. Bananas were found in the markets of Jerusalem, reasonable because of the city’s proximity to the banana fields which were in the area of Jericho. The Arab geographer al-Muqaddasi, born in Jerusalem in the 10th century CE, wrote about the many benefits of Jerusalem and among them: “Allah gathered to it fruits from the valley and the plain and the mountains, and of every sort that its possible to conceive such as citrons, almonds, dates, walnuts, figs and bananas.” (Uriel Tal, Eretz Israel in Medieval Arabic Sources, p. 47)
About 500 years after al-Muqaddasi, Rabbi Ovadia of Bartinoro, the well-known commentator on the Mishnah from Italy, moved to Israel and settled in Jerusalem. Rabbi Ovadia wrote about the new fruit that he discovered in the markets of Jerusalem: “Now, after the harvest of the wheat, hunger ends and satiation comes to the world, thank God. I saw here in Jerusalem many types of fruit that are not native to this area. There is a type of tree whose leaves are long and larger than the height of a man. It produces fruit only once and then shrivels. From its roots grows another plant just like it, making fruit in the next year, and thus it continues forever.” (Abraham Yaari, Iggerot Erez Yisra’el, p. 132) Even though according to the words of Rabbi Ovadia, the banana is not explicitly identified, the plant is accurately - as we will see below - identified as a banana, one type of fruit found in Jerusalem marketplaces.
The banana is known in Hebrew and Arabic sources from the Middle Ages under the name ‘moz’, and among the Christian pilgrims it merited the nickname “apple of paradise”. Testimony to these names is found in the book of medicine written by the Rambam (b. 1204), Sefer Pirkei Moshe, where he writes the fruit “called moz, is the ‘poma paradisi’ (apple of paradise in Latin).” Therefore, among the Christians there are those who consider the banana itself to be the forbidden fruit from the Garden of Eden and refer to the banana tree as “Garden of Eden tree”. The monk Felix Fabri (15th century) in his description of the banana in Egypt brings useful testimony of the shared culture and art among the residents of the region: “In relation to this tree, all the Eastern Christians, pagans (the Moslems), and the Jews believe that this fruit was the one that Adam and Eve were commanded not to eat in the Garden of Eden (the Tree of Knowledge).”
The name “apple of paradise” is found in the writings of Christian pilgrims, including Burchard from Mt. Zion, a Dominican monk born in Germany in the 13th century who journeyed to the Land of Israel in 1232. Burchard lived for 10 years in the Franciscan monastery on Mt. Zion and described the banana in his chapter dedicated to the flora of the land of Israel.
“There is another fruit which is called the apple of paradise (poma paradisi), a high-quality fruit which grows in bunches like grapes. Sometimes, the size of the bunch is as big as a large basket and contains 60 or more fruits. These fruits are elongated in shape, at times the length of 6 fingers, and their girth is like a chicken egg. They have a thick skin like the coating of fava beans, but the color of turmeric (light yellow). The peel must be discarded, but when you bite into the fruit itself, its taste is very sweet like fine butter, like honeydew. The fruits mentioned above do not have seeds, but the entire innards are edible. This fruit takes more than a year to grow. The trunk is also short-lived, 2 years at most, and then it withers; another trunk immediately springs from the root and grows in place of its predecessor. The leaves of the tree are long, as long as a person, and they are so wide that two leaves can cover a person’s entire body.” (Kardom: Bimonthly for the Geography of Israel, 13-14 (January 1981), p. 68)
The European travelers’ detailed descriptions were intended for the residents of cold, northern countries who, like Rabbi Ovadia from Bartinoro, were not familiar with the banana. There is no question that from the travelers’ words, the sweet taste of honey and butter was music to their ears. Added to that description, Zohar Amar in his book, Agricultural Products in the Land of Israel in the Middle Ages (2000), writes that the banana is mentioned in early Moslem mystical literature in connection to Jerusalem, and that Tzamara Abu Rabia, in the 9th century, said that “to eat a banana with honey in the shadow of the Dome of the Rock” is one of the few pleasures of life in this world. For the Arab mystics, eating a banana in the shadow of the Dome of the Rock was so enjoyable, that it led to spiritual transcendence.
And what about for Jews? The legal, halachic classification of the plant’s status - and the determination of the blessing pronounced on it - has occupied many legal authorities. Similar to difficulties in archaeological research tracing the banana through history, so too in books of halachic law spanning the last 1,000 years, the classification of the plant was questionable as it has both characteristics of a tree and a vegetable. The question of the appropriate blessing for the banana was recurrent and asked until the 20th century, when the science of the “New World” met the “new” plant, and rabbis returned to determine the applicable blessing.
The first Hebrew source which mentions the banana is Halachot Gedolot, compiled in the Geonic period, where it is written that in the case of a tree which perishes completely and then its branches return and regrow from its roots, like the banana, its fruits have the blessing “blessed is the fruit of the ground”. Ishtori HaParchi who arrived in Jerusalem in the year 1313, and after a few years, continued to Beit Shean, wrote in his book Kaftor VaFerach about plants and their blessings: “It appears because of the issue that its fruit which is commonly found in the Arava and is called al-moz, that we make the blessing of “fruit of the ground [as opposed to fruit of the tree]”, because its leaves ascend from its root, and they are very tall. Above its roots, the leaves are arranged like a leek, and it is always planted near water sources. Therefore, we can’t give it a classification of a garden plant or a field crop...and you could say that al-moz is never in the garden as it absorbs most water, and its stalks don’t dry but wither” (Ishtori HaParchi, Kaftor VeFerach, chapter 56). From the words of Ishtori you can also learn that growing this plant in gardens requires a reliable source of water, that is to say, it is a cultivated agricultural crop.
It is interesting to note that in Jewish sources focusing on unique cases dealing with determining appropriate blessings, many opinions reference the banana and the plant’s attendant blessing as a precedent for another foodstuff common in the supply and trade routes in the early Moslem Period and through the Middle Ages - sugar (for those who can’t resist, the blessing on sugar - shehakol – is that everything exists because of God’s words). As Abraham Ofir Shemesh wrote in his book, the accepted blessing on the banana is “the fruit of the ground”, but there is also a dependency on the different species and their tastes. Two main species of banana today are the sweet banana, eaten fresh, and the plantain banana, high in starch and not eaten fresh but mainly fried (like potato chips) but also cooked or baked, and popular in South America, comprising one of the dominant ingredients in the Caribbean kitchen. On the plantain, which needs to be fried, you make the blessing of “from the ground” only after its flavor has been improved.
Whether the banana arrived in Israel 1,500 years ago after the Moslem conquest as was commonly held until recently, or if it arrived 3,000 years ago, there is no doubt that the sweet fruit, which tastes like honey (especially after the banana peel has already darkened and mothers try to convince their children to eat it claiming, “It isn’t rotten - it’s sweet as honey!”), it is one of the most praised fruits in Jerusalem and in Israel and graces the taste buds of the culinary world for Moslems, Christians and Jewish alike.
translation: Leiah Jaffe