Is That A Huge Bunch of Grapes You’re Carrying…?

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Or are you just excited to be in the land of Israel?

This week’s parashah is all about the spies that Moses sends into Israel to check out the land that the Israelites are supposed to conquer. There’s a similar spying theme in this week’s haftarah. And this week at MJL we featured an article about badass Israeli spy Eli Cohen on the homepage. Good times.

But I want to focus on one funny section from this week’s parashah: the huge bunch of grapes.


In Numbers 13:23 we read, “They reached the wadi Eshcol, and there they cut down a branch with a single cluster of grapes—it had to be borne on a carrying frame by two of them—and some pomegranates and figs.” This is an image you’re probably familiar with from various wine bottles and Sunday school posters. But first of all, do you ever remember seeing any pictures of the pomegranates and figs? Whatever happened to them? All anyone every talks about is the big grapes.

Also, it turns out that the whole “it had to be borne on a carrying frame by two of them” is not as simple as it sounds. A more accurate translation may be that it had “to be borne on two poles and carried by them.” In fact, there are quite a few opinions on how the whole carrying apparatus worked. There’s a Talmudic discussion about this issue in Sotah 34a:

And they bare it upon a staff between two. From the fact that it is stated upon a staff do I not know that it [was carried] between two? Why, then, is there a text to state ‘between two’? [It means] on two staffs. R. Isaac said: [It means] a series of balancing poles. How was it? Eight [spies] carried the grape-cluster, one carried a pomegranate, one carried a fig, and Joshua and Caleb did not carry anything. If you wish I can say [that they did not carry anything] because they were the most distinguished of them, or alternatively that they did not have a share in the plan.

If you’re like the kind of guys I used to date in high school, you probably just thought to yourself, “Hey, I should try to make a diagram of that.” I’ve got news for you: it’s been done. Apparently the guys I dated in high school were a lot like medieval Bible commentators.


Hat tip to Dr. Hazoniel Touitou of Bar Ilan University.

I have another question: If the grapes were so huge they needed to be carried on a frame or poles, how could they be eaten? I mean, if you’re dealing with a grape the size of a bowling ball, how do you eat it? And for that matter, what happened to the grapes? Did the Israelites ever eat them? Did they go bad after the Israelites started whining? Did Joshua and Caleb get to have them for themselves?

Another possibility: the enormous grapes were used to make some really delicious Manischewitz wine…

Posted on June 17, 2009

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3 thoughts on “Is That A Huge Bunch of Grapes You’re Carrying…?

  1. benjaminfleischer

    Actually, what happened is: They just found a grape vine and cut off a branch with a lot of grapes on it.

    ×›×’ וַיָּבֹאוּ עַד-נַחַל אֶשְׁכֹּל, וַיִּכְרְתוּ מִשָּׁם זְמוֹרָה וְאֶשְׁכּוֹל עֲנָבִים אֶחָד, וַיִּשָּׂאֻהוּ בַמּוֹט, בִּשְׁנָיִם; וּמִן-הָרִמֹּנִים, וּמִן-הַתְּאֵנִים. 23 And they came unto the valley of Eshcol, and cut down from thence a branch with one cluster of grapes, and they bore it upon a pole between two; they took also of the pomegranates, and of the figs.–

    — Also, Eshcol means bunch of grapes in Hebrew.

  2. Tamar Fox Post author

    Well, if the bunch is big enough to require it’s own frame, I think it’s safe to assume that the grapes were big, too.

    BF: How does your response answer my question? They cut off a branch, but then וַיִּשָּׂאֻהוּ בַמּוֹט, בִּשְׁנָיִם. They put it on poles or a frame of some kind. And I know what Eshcol means–I like to use the JPS translation when possible.

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