Sabra in Halacha

Question #1: Colonche and cladodes

I admit not knowing a colonche from a cladode, but is either of them kosher?

Question #2: Is it a pear or a fig?

What is the difference between cactus pears, Indian figs, and sabras?

Question #3: Bal tashchis

Someone has an Opuntia ficus-indica growing in his yard, which constantly sheds leaves. Whenever a leaf lands, it begins to grow roots and a new shrub begins growing. Is it bal tashchis for him to destroy the new plant, since it is a fruit-producing tree?

Introduction

This article is about the sabra, the most commonly cultivated cactus, and a fascinating and highly beneficial pear-shaped fruit, with some very interesting halachic ramifications. Its scientific name, Opuntia ficus-indica, includes the genus Opuntia, andis based on the ancient Greek city of Opus, where an edible plant created new shrubs by growing roots, even from a fallen leaf, one of the many interesting features of the sabra that has halachic ramifications. The name of the species, ficus-indica,means “Indian fig.” We will find out why the sabra, which we identify with Israel and Israelis, is called an “Indian” fig.

The origin of the word “sabra” is Arabic, where the word simply means a “cactus,” although it also translates as “patience.” Since Arabic originated from Hebrew, the origin of this word indeed has a Hebrew shoresh, סבל, which means “being patient.” Indeed, notwithstanding the many uses and health benefits that the sabra provides, it requires a good deal of patience to consume it, since the fruit, the flat, paddle-looking “branch” called a cladode, and the “trunk,” are all covered with small thorns and prickles (ouch!). The entire plant demonstrates incredible nifla’os haBorei; Hashem gave this shrub incredible tools for surviving in the unforgiving, dry desert.

Sabras are cultivated as a healthy food and fodder crop that needs little water and grows well in harsh conditions, particularly in places where other crops do not grow. As we will soon see, it is a plant that has a wide variety of commercial uses.

Native American

Most people do not realize that the sabra has American origins. Along with the bell pepper, cocoa, tomato, potato, corn (maize), soybean and innumerable other American goodies, this Mexican and Central American native was brought by the Spaniards to the Old World. Indeed, both the flag and the coat of arms of Mexico portray the sabra cactus.

The sabra’s western hemisphere origins explain why it is called an “Indian fig.” Remember, Columbus was looking for a route to India. This error is reflected in several misnomers, including one way of referring to Native Americans, the island group called “the West Indies,” and scientifically naming this fruit ficus-indica, which is what the sabra fruit is called in many languages.

Dessert in the Desert

The sabra is a very useful fruit and plant. Both the sabra fruit and its cladodes (branches) are edible, providing welcome nutrients in the desert. In Mexico, the cladodes are eaten as a salad green. In arid parts of Brazil, Opuntia ficus-indica is grown predominantly as forage for the country’s huge cattle herds. In Peru, it is grown predominantly as feed for the carmine beetle – a topic I will discuss shortly. In Morocco, sabras are processed extensively to create very expensive cosmetic oil. And in pre-1948 Eretz Yisrael, sabras were grown primarily to be a border between properties or to keep livestock from wandering.

Since the fruit does not ripen after it is harvested and spoils fairly quickly after picking, the Aztecs, the Mayas and many later producers used it in innumerable food products that are less perishable, such as sauces, juices, jams, candies, vinegar, flour, starches, pickled products, various healthy additives, and even a variety of pareve “cheese.” In addition, since there are several different colors of edible cactus fruit, they can be used as a very healthy food colorant for products like yogurts.

Colonche

In Mexico, sabras are fermented into colonche, a mildly alcoholic, red beverage, whereas in Italy they are processed somewhat differently into a liqueur called ficodi. (Please note that the liqueur called “Sabra” is made of citrus fruit and derives its name from Israelis, not the fruit.)

Colonche and cladodes

At this point, we have enough background to address our opening question: “I admit not knowing a colonche from a cladode, but is either of them kosher?” Who or what are colonche and cladode? Are they kosher?

By now, we know that colonche is an alcoholic beverage made by fermenting sabra fruit, whereas cladode is the name for the “branch” of the tree, which looks more like a paddle than a branch. We also know that there are two alcoholic beverages fermented from the sabra, and we can ask whether they are kosher. For that matter, we can ask about all the various other processed foods that are made from sabras: sauces, juices, jams, candies, vinegar, flour, starches, pickled products, food colorants and pareve “cheese.”

The answer is that all these products might present kashrus issues and would require a hechsher, although they all can be produced with a proper hechsher, should a manufacturer be interested. So, for someone interested in setting up his son-in-law in a new business with an original market, an idea would be to manufacture genuine Mexican cuisine, using the sabra plant as its base. I even have a few suggestions for brand names and products: Prickly’s Fig Liqueur, Maya Mia, and Aztec Araque.

Medicinal, therapeutic and cosmetic uses

The sabra’s medicinal properties were discovered in antiquity, including its value as an anti-inflammatory, diuretic and antispasmodic agent. It is rich in vitamins, amino acids, fiber, pectin, flavonoids and antioxidants. The vitamin E content of prickly pear oil is the highest among all cosmetic oils. The sabra fruit is also high in vitamin C and was often packed onto ships to prevent scurvy. Medical research continues to this day, including, for example, recent clinical evidence that the sabra reduces human cholesterol levels.

The tiny seeds of the sabra have superb cosmetic value. Indeed, one of the countries that thrive on the growth of the sabra is Morocco, where the cactus arrived south of the Strait of Gibraltar as early as the sixteenth century, shortly after arriving in Spain. The Moroccans, who are almost exclusively Muslim and therefore officially do not consume alcohol, could not market the liquor produced from Opuntia ficus-indica, but developed a vast international market of natural cosmetics based on the seeds of this fruit. So, your son-in-law’s business can now expand its original offerings of authentic Mexican cuisine washed down with Maya Mia to include Israeli-grown natural vitamin C, natural medical remedies and expensive cosmetics.

Good fences make good neighbors

In some countries, Opuntia ficus-indica was used as a border-marker between neighbors. As mentioned above, left unhindered, its dropped leaves form new plants, each with thorns and spikes, thus becoming quite a nuisance to cross – far more efficient than the famous stone walls of rural New England.

Carmine red

In its natural habitat, the cactus provides a home to scale insects called Dactylopius coccus and Dactylopius opuntiae, which feed on the cladodes. These small creatures have proved invaluable as the source of a bright red dye called cochineal. A cousin of this beetle, native to Egypt, has been known since the time of Tanach for its use as a crimson dye. Indeed, the word carmil appears in Divrei Hayamim as the source of the tola’as shani red dye used in the Mishkan and for the garments of the kohanim. According to Radak, this insect is the source of the dye. This engendered much controversy in the era of the rishonim, when many held that the source of a dye in the Mishkan cannot be non-kosher (Ra’avad, Hilchos Klei Hamikdash 8:13; Rabbeinu Bachyei, Shemos 25:3).

As mentioned above, sabra is grown in Preu primarily as feed for the carmine beetle. The western cochineal provides a dye eight times stronger than its old-world version, and this pigment was worth more than its weight in gold, until the advent of artificial dyes. The use of carmine red preceded the European invasions of America by centuries, as both the Aztecs and Mayas farmed the insect and its dye. When the Spanish imported the dye to Europe, they kept its source hidden for many years, thereby assuring themselves of great profits. In 1620, King Philip III of Spain stated, “One of the most valuable fruits grown in our Western Indies is the cactus pear; it produces value equal to gold and silver.” Certainly so, since it is difficult to grow either gold or silver, minimizing their profits to a single use.

The redcoats are coming!

There is a fascinating historic twist to the cochineal saga. The British, whose uniforms were bright red (presumably to make them highly recognizable on the battlefield), felt that they were overpaying Spain for the gorgeous new-world crimson dye. But, even after their spies discovered the source for the carmine red that they were purchasing, they could not develop an industry, since cacti will not grow in wet, chilly England, and British colonies in the eastern and northeastern parts of North America were also too cold for Opuntia ficus-indica. Even Georgia, named for the British monarchs, was too cold for this undertaking. So, the British looked at the vast holdings of their empire and decided that the huge deserts in Australia would service the British armed forces by providing a ready supply of red dye, once Opuntia ficus-indica was planted and Dactylopius opuntiae imported.

Invasion!

Shortly after planting Opuntia ficus-indica all over Australia, they discovered that not every invasion is advantageous, even for the conquering party. Much of Australia’s climate is perfect for the cactus, and there are no natural enemies to hinder its advance. Opuntia formed dense infestations that hindered livestock’s access to feed. Opuntia thorns injured animals, damaged fleece and hides, and interfered with the transportation of sheep to the shearing. The cactus was also wiping out native flora, causing a mammoth economic and environmental catastrophe. The redcoats were not so concerned about the environmental impact of their actions, but the potential destruction of a different invasive species, sheep, was a major concern that required immediate addressing, since this was the main product that the colony was intended to bring to the royal crown.

The solution is interesting. They discovered that one desert environment which had been detrimental to Opuntia ficus-indica and its red-coated inhabitants was in southern Argentina. They worked to discover what made the arid parts of Argentina so uninhabitable to sabras, eventually discovering a moth, Cactoblastis cactorum, (note the cognates to the word “cactus”) that loves cactus and destroys it. Thus, they were able to save the Australian continent from their own invasion by introducing another foreign species. Fortunately for the Mexicans, Peruvians, Brazilians, Moroccans and dwellers of Eretz Yisrael, no one attempted to introduce Cactoblastis cactorum to their deserts, which could have ruined their liquor, salad greens, dye, forage, cosmetics, boundaries, and your son-in-law’s potential business, before it even got off the ground.

Scaling down

It is curious to note that in Morocco, the cochineal scale is an unwanted pest that destroys the cosmetic value of the sabra, whereas in Peru the cactus fruit is cultivated exclusively for the dye created by this scale. Cochineal use is expanding, today, as a food and lipstick colorant, with Peru its biggest exporter, as people are increasingly concerned about the safety of artificial food additives.

A pear or a fig?

At this point, we can discuss our next introductory question:

What is the difference between cactus pears, Indian figs and sabras?

Sabra fruit is called by several other names, including “prickly pear,” “cactus pear,” “Indian fig,” “Barbary fig” and “Adam’s fig.” It is called “Barbary fig” because, after the Spaniards planted it in Spain, it began spontaneously growing in arid climates of Italy and North Africa, presumably as a result of bird droppings after they ate the sabra fruit. Thus, in many places, it became associated with the coastal areas of northwestern Africa, called the Barbary Coast.

In other words, the answer to the question, “What is the difference between cactus pears, Indian figs, Barbary figs and sabras?” is how you spell it.

At this point, let us address some halachic curiosities germane to the sabra:

Orlah

“If Opuntia ficus-indica is planted as a boundary marker, may one benefit from the fruit that grows during the first three years of the cactus’s growth?”

The Mishnah (Orlah 1:1) rules that fruits growing on a tree planted as a barrier or hedge, or for lumber or firewood, are not orlah. The reason is that the Torah states that the mitzvah of orlah applies only “when you plant a tree for food”(Vayikra 19:23), and these trees are not meant for food. The Yerushalmi (Orlah 1:1) contends that this rule applies only when it is obvious that they are not planted for their fruit; for example, they are planted closer together than what is beneficial for fruit growth, or the trees are pruned in a way that their lumber will develop at the expense of the fruit. Most poskim rule like this Yerushalmi (Rosh, Hilchos Orlah 1:2; Tur Yoreh Deah 294; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 294:23).

Thus, whether sabra fruit is governed by the laws of orlah may depend on where the fruit is grown, but for an unusual reason. Those planted by the native population in Eretz Yisrael, where they were planted as boundary markers and natural fencing to keep the sheep and goats from wandering, are exempt from orlah. Those grown in Mexico for their fruit or for liquor produced from the fruit would be prohibited as orlah. And I’ll let you ask your rav whether those grown in Brazil or Peru are exempt from orlah.

Bal tashchis

At this point, let us address the last of our opening questions. As I was writing this article, a neighbor actually asked me this shaylah: He has an Opuntia ficus-indica growing in his yard, which constantly sheds leaves. Whenever a leaf lands, it begins to grow roots and a new shrub begins growing. Is it bal tashchis for him to destroy the new plant, since it is a fruit-producing tree?

It appears that there is no halachic concern to do so, since the new plant is not yet a tree, and all he is doing is preventing the tree from growing. Should the tree have begun to grow, the question becomes more serious. As I wrote in a different article, the rules governing when it is permitted to destroy a fruit-producing tree, such as a sabra, when there is benefit in doing so are complicated and controversial (Bava Kama 91b-92a; Rambam, Hilchos Melachim 6:8-9).

Tuna fish or fig?

We are all familiar with the word “tuna” as the name of a fish whose flesh is used for brown-bag lunches. The word “tuna” also carries another meaning; in Mexico, it is the name for the fruit that the Arabs call “sabra.”

Strange Coincidence

We know that there are no coincidences and that everything is part of Hashem’s plan. With that introduction, I will share with you what can be described as, perhaps, just a curiosity, or… perhaps, much more. The pasuk in Divrei Hayamim (II 3:14) describes the peroches as woven from techeiles, argaman, karmil, and butz, which is linen. This is the same peroches that the Torah describes in parshas Vayakheil (Shemos 36:35) and in parshas Terumah (Shemos 26:31) as made of techeiles, argaman, tola’as shani, and linen (Shemos 26:31). Similarly, when describing the artisans sent by King Chiram of Tzur to help Shelomoh Hamelech build the Beis Hamikdash, Divrei Hayamim (II 2:13) mentions karmil as one of the materials used in construction of the Mishkan, and omits tola’as shani. Obviously, karmil, cognate to the English words crimson and carmine, is another way of describing tola’as shani (see Radak and Ralbag ad loc.). The Radak (Divrei Hayamim II 2:6) and the Rambam explain tola’as shani to mean “wool dyed with an insect” (Hilchos Klei Hamikdash 8:13; although Rabbeinu Bachyei, Shemos 25:3, disagrees with them). Now, bear in mind that the cochineal scale insect, which is similar to the insect described by the Radak, was originally New World, but feeds, primarily, on a shrub that is now widely associated with Eretz Yisrael. How intriguing that the people of Israel are associated with a term that just “coincidentally” alludes to a dye used in the Beis Hamikdash.