Word of the Day / Rimon: Fruit of the Boom

It is a symbol of Rosh Hashanah and new beginnings, but in a military context it can turn deadly.

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At the Jewish elementary school I attended in New Jersey, we learned a popular children's song for Rosh Hashanah that began "Dip the apple in the honey," and ended: "Have a happy, sweet new year."

I would guess that when asked to name the fruit most closely associated with Rosh Hashanah (literally "head of the year"), most American Jews would say "apple." In Israel, though, there's another fruit that has at least as prominent a place at the New Year table: rimon (ree-MOHN), the Hebrew for both "pomegranate" and "grenade."

Given that the word is used in the Bible to describe one of the seven species of Israel and one of the fruits the 12 spies brought back from their surveillance mission, rimon has been in use long before the advent of modern warfare. But though rimonim (to use the plural) can be found in ancient Jewish texts, Hebrew is hardly the only language to make the association between the red, crown-topped fruit that has reputed healing properties and symbolizes abundance and fertility – that is, new life – and the similar-sized handheld fragmenting bomb that delivers death.

That etymological link is evident in the Latin-based words for the fruit and the weapon, both of which are called "grenade" in French. The word "pomegranate" dates to circa 1300 and comes from the Old French pome grenate and the Medieval Latin pomum granatum, or "apple with many seeds," according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. It notes that the pomegranate-derived word "grenade," which came to denote a small explosive shell in the 1590s, was so named because "the many-seeded fruit suggested the powder-filled, fragmenting bomb, or from similarities of shape."

In Jewish tradition, the rimon (armannu in Acadian, rimona or rumana in Aramaic, and rumana in Arabic) represents not just abundance but also the divine commandments, since there are a lot of commandments (613, to be exact) and a lot of seeds in a pomegranate. Many Jewish families have a custom of eating a variety of symbolic foods at the Rosh Hashanah table, including not just that apples-and-honey standby but also leeks, beets, black-eyed peas, a head of a sheep or fish, and of course, pomegranates. In the blessing over the pomegranate recited at the holiday meal, we express the hope that the number of our good deeds will resemble the number of seeds in a pomegranate.

The Talmud's Tractate Brachot refers to people being as full of mitzvot ("commandments" or, as in this case, "good deeds") as a pomegranate, but the phrase maleh kerimon ("as full as a pomegranate") has also come to refer to people who "are very knowledgeable about many subjects, who have a fruitful mind that keeps coming up with new ideas," according to the glossary of Hebrew phrases Nivonakhon.

In addition to their dual role as pomegranates and grenades, rimonim are also spherical Torah scroll ornaments. The contemporary practice of using pomegranates as images in Jewish art and ritual objects has roots that go back to the time of the Bible, which incorporates decorative pomegranates in its design for the robes of the high priest ("And upon the skirts of it thou shalt make pomegranates of blue, and of purple, and of scarlet, round about the skirts thereof; and bells of gold between them round about," Exodus 28:33). Pomegranate-shaped decorations – 200 of them, according to I Kings – could also be found at the top of two columns of the Holy Temple built by King Solomon.

So how do you know if someone's talking about the kind of rimon that tastes good or the kind that goes boom? It's all about context. Conversation about how to open it without staining your clothes? The fruit would be a safe bet. News report about an exploding rimon? Probably the grenade.

My husband and I worried about the military connotation of rimon before we named our oldest daughter Rimonit, a feminized form of the word; we concluded that its botanical meaning was so prominent that it would not be overshadowed by the whole grenade thing. There are many words that evolve to the point where the contemporary meaning overlays the almost-forgotten older one, but the two very different primary meanings of rimon, as with its Latin-based counterpart, continue to coexist peacefully. And that's a state of being worth aspiring to as we begin a new year.

To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at shoshanakordova@gmail.com. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.