A tree that helps animals prepare for Purim?

(Elephants and the marula fruit; March 2008)


The festival of Purim, celebrating the averted near-massacre described in the Book of Esther, begins this year on the night of Thursday, March 20 and continues through the following day. The holiday continues for a second day in cities that were sufficiently developed to have a protective city wall in the days of Joshua. Several customs and commandments are associated with Purim, some better known than others. Regrettably, but perhaps predictably, one of the best-known of these is probably the tradition of celebrating this escape from calamity by drinking alcohol “ad lo yadah,” literally, “until one does not know” the difference between ‘Praised be Mordechai’ (a hero of the story) and ‘Cursed be Haman’ (the villain) [Megillah 7b].

The popular medieval Hebrew composition known as Perek Shira (‘Chapter of Song’) encourages the reader to view the natural world as participating in the celebration and praise of God by ascribing various laudatory biblical verses to various animals, plants, and other natural phenomena. As we will see, the African elephant is thought to play a role here that makes it a worthy symbol to lead Purim revelers in praising God.

A bit of southern African botany and folklore suggests how elephants might participate in the celebration of Purim. In the dry savannahs and parklands of Botswana and South Africa, one can find the marula tree (Sclerocarya birrea). This tree is related to several better-known tropical fruit trees, including the mango and cashew, as well as the poison ivy of the north temperate zone. The marula fruit looks like a large cherry or small plum that changes from yellow to brown as it ripens. The fruit is sweet and tangy, and contains four times as much vitamin C as an orange. The seeds within the large, hard pit are also edible, and rich in protein. The fruit must be eaten fresh or frozen for processing into beverages or sale as frozen pulp, because it tends to fall from the tree when ripe and ferment on the ground. Intentional fermentation of marula fruit is the basis of several traditional local alcoholic drinks, as well as industrial-scale production of several liqueurs, including Amarula, claimed as the world’s most popular liqueur by its manufacturer. Amarula may be unfamiliar to American readers because it has only recently become available here.

Elephants are reported to be very fond of marula fruit, and have been known to damage or destroy the trees while trying to retrieve the fruit from the higher branches. Local folklore maintains that elephants fill their bellies with marula fruit and then lie in the sun, where the heat is said to accelerate the fermentation of the undigested fruit pulp, making the animals drunk. When observing an elephant or other wild animal that appears sluggish, confused, or unsteady, South Africans will often comment that the animal has been eating fermented marula fruit. The repetition of this belief by marketers of marula liqueurs has encouraged its spread to other continents. A film was also made in 1974 that claimed to show elephants and other animals that had become intoxicated by consuming marula fruit. However, the authenticity of the film has been challenged by skeptics who concluded that it was staged. More importantly, a study published in 2006 in the scientific journal Physiological and Biochemical Zoology calculated that the quantity of alcohol needed to intoxicate an elephant is simply not available in the amount of fruit that an elephant could realistically be expected to eat. Furthermore, elephants eat the fruit off the trees, not from the ground, where overripe fruits ferment and rot. The article also challenged the popular idea that the fruit ferments in the elephants’ stomachs as they lie in the sun after eating. Whether or not elephants or other wildlife really do get drunk on marula fruit, the story continues to appeal to consumers of marula liqueurs. You can read more about this study on National Geographic News: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/12/1219_051219_drunk_elephant.html

Attempts to domesticate the marula tree began in the 1980s in Botswana and Israel. However, both humans and wildlife continue to consume the fruit almost exclusively from wild, uncultivated trees. Experimental plantings and a modest commercial orchard have been established in the Negev, and a selective breeding program is ongoing. In Israel, the fruits ripen and can be fermented around September. Perhaps soon Israelis will be able to celebrate Purim with their own domestic marula liqueur. While we are waiting for this new product, even if the legend of the drunken elephants is not true, we can still take inspiration from the marula tree and the elephant as we offer praise and thanks on Purim for our rescue from annihilation at the hands of Haman. As the relevant verses of Perek Shira proclaim:

The wild trees say, ‘Then shall the trees of the forest sing out at the presence of God, because he comes to judge the Earth.’ (I Chronicles 16:33)
The elephant says, ‘How great are your works, God. Your thoughts are very deep.’” (Psalm 92:6)

August 20th, 2008 - Posted in Purim | 2 Comments

2 Responses to 'A tree that helps animals prepare for Purim?'

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  1. Jon said, on August 20th, 2008 at 2:49 pm:

    Three South African readers commented on this essay. All three described the widely held belief in that country that animals become intoxicated by eating marula fruit. Apparently, the scientific debunking of this folk belief has had little effect on its survival.

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