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2,000-year-old dates: Delicious! Yum!

By Shlomo Maital


Credit: Dan Ballity, The New York Times

  My story today begins nearly 2,000 years ago – around 73 CE — as Roman legions put a small group of die-hard 960 Jewish rebels under siege, in Masada, a mountaintop near the Dead Sea. The rebels commit suicide, every single one, rather than be taken prisoner by the Romans.

   Archaeologist Prof. Ehud Netzer, excavating at Masada, is reported (according to the San Francisco Chronicle, in 2005) to discover data palm seeds, genus Phoenix dactylifera, discarded in a corner.

     The ancient 2,000-year-old seeds are given to a botanist, Dr. Elaine Solowey, at the Arava Institute, located at Kibbutz Ketura, founded in 1973, in the Arava Valley north of Eilat.  Solowey is the author of Supping at God’s Table: A Handbook for the Domestication of Wild Trees for Food and Fodder. Solowey and her colleagues embark on a Don Quixote mission: To germinate the seeds, grow them into a date palm tree – and harvest the fruit.

     Really??? After two millenia?

     Solowey treats the seeds with a growth hormone, gibberellic acid, researched at Yale in the 1960’s. The seeds are planted on Jan. 26, 2005. Amazingly, within five weeks, a seed sprouts to form a small tree! It is given a name: Methuselah Palm, after Methuselah, the son of Enoch, the father of Lamech, and the grandfather of Noah, in the Bible. Methuselah lived 969 years, the longest-lived person in the Bible. A good name!

     Fast forward: New York Times correspondent Isabel Kershner reports in the Times, Sept. 8, p. 3, this:

“The plump golden-brown dates hanging in a bunch just above the sandy soil were ready to pick…..’They are beautiful!’ exclaimed Dr. Sarah Sallon [a medical doctor, from Hadassah Hospital, genetics expert, natural medicine researcher and part of the team], with the elation of a new mother, as each date, its skin slightly wrinkled, was plucked gently off its stem at a sunbaked kibbutz in southern Israel. ..They were tasty, too, with a fresh flavor that gave no hint of their two-millenium incubation period. The honey-blond, semi-dry flesh had a fibrous, chewy texture and a subtle sweetness.     …These were the much-extolled, but long-lost Judean dates, and the harvest this month was hailed as a modern miracle of science.”

For Jews, it is possible one day to eat the same dates that the Masada rebels ate. For Christians, perhaps one day they will eat the same dates, the same flavor, texture, color, appearance, Judean dates, that Jesus ate.

And for the world — when the pandemic has made human civilization seem fragile, bumbling, and in great danger, we learn from the 2,000 year old dates how durable, adaptable and resilient Nature is, in its quest to endure and to prevail.   And, as a footnote, how scientists can also prevail in quixotic quests that literally bear fruit.

For those who want to learn about the science see this article:

Sallon, S., Cherif, E., Chabrillange, N., Solowey, E., Gros-Balthazard, M., Ivorra, S., … & Aberlenc, F. (2020). Origins and insights into the historic Judean date palm based on genetic analysis of germinated ancient seeds and morphometric studies. Science advances, 6(6), eaax0384.


Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital