Hearts of palm come from the center (or heart) of the palm tree. Palm trees can grow for 50-75 years and produce a variety of fruit, such as dates and coconuts, and other less widely used varietals. The fruit usually begin to grow after the tree is three to five years old. Hearts of palm actually comes from the core of the trunk of the tree and can be harvested in addition to the fruit produced by the tree.
Hearts of palm have been used in Brazilian and Costa Rican cuisine for many years. Since 1970, this interesting food gained fame and became a popular Central and South American export. Accordingly, various varieties of palm trees have been cultivated in order to maximize yield and harvest efficiency.
Currently the most popular palm trees for hearts of palm are Palmitos and Peach Palms. These palm trees reach a height of about 9 feet in 12 months. When the tree reaches this stage, the center stem is cut and the top half of the trunk and the leaves are discarded. The remainder of the trunk is peeled, leaving about a 30-inch long heart. Due to concerns about deforestation, mature trees are not harvested; rather, they plant new trees specifically to harvest the heart. After the center stem is cut, another stem will take over and become a center stem, regenerating the trunk and leaves. This process can repeat about ten times before the tree can no longer regrow.
Now that we understand the makeup of the tree, what brocha would be appropriate to make on the hearts? We know that when we eat the fruit of a tree, we say borei pri ha’eitz. The palm tree surely is a tree, but would we consider the heart a fruit of the tree? (Note: This discussion will also shed light on bamboo shoots.)
In order to gain some insight, let us study a piece of Gemara, Masechta Brachos 36a. The Gemara discusses the appropriate brocha for “koireh” (interpreted in the Artscroll Talmud as “palm shoots”). Rashi explains that each year, as the branches of the tree grow, a soft layer is added. This layer is soft during the first year and later on it hardens. Accordingly, this is what is referred to in the Gemara as the edible part of the tree. (Note: Rabbi Iliowitz, the Rov in San Paolo writes, from personal experience, that this part is not edible. He, therefore, concludes that surely Rashi meant the heart of the palm.)
Rav Hai Gaon, in his commentary on a Mishna in Masechta Uktzin 3:7, says that “koireh” (or “koir”) refers to a tree that does not produce fruit. When you cut down the tree (as they do in Arabic countries), the top of the tree is soft (on the inside). The Rambam (Hilchos Brachos, Perek 8, Halacha 6) adds that it is white, and is (somewhat) similar to dried cheese. It would seem that they are all referring to hearts of palm.
In the Gemara, there are two opinions. Rabbi Yehudah says you would make the brocha “borei pri ha’adamah”. Rabbi Shmuel argues and says that you would make the brocha “shehakol ni’yoh bidvaro” because the “koireh” will eventually harden and become inedible; therefore, it is considered a minor quality food today. The Gemara then explains that Rabbi Shmuel’s opinion (shehakol) is valid only when the tree was not planted specifically for this food. If the tree was planted specifically for the harvested food (like radishes), then even though it will eventually harden, one makes the brocha “borei pri ha’adamah”.
Today, the palm trees are planted specifically for their hearts, so most rabbonim agree that one would not make the brocha “shehakol ni’yoh bidvaro”, as this is their designated use. (Though some may argue that since it was shehakol during the times of the Gemara and beyond, it should remain so today. For a longer discussion, see Even HaOizer, Siman 204, as well as V’Zois Habracha pg. 309.)
Yet, if the brocha is not “shehakol ni’yoh bidvaro”, should we not say “borei pri ha’eitz” on the hearts? After all, it does come from a tree, and we do say “borei pri ha’eitz” on dates and coconuts.
The Gemara (Brachos 36a) discusses the proper brocha for “tzlaf” (translated by Artscroll as a caper bush). The beraisa says, “On the caper leaves and its dates (those that grow on the leaves), you should say “borei pri ha’adamah”. On the berries and the husks you should say “borei pri ha’eitz”. The reason for this distinction is because the main purpose of the tree is to bear fruit. For the main fruit, you would say “borei pri ha’eitz”. Eating the leaves and their berries is secondary, so one says “ ” on those.
When it comes to hearts of palm, we have a dilemma. Originally, the palm trees were planted for their fruit. The usage of the hearts was only a side benefit of the tree (to be harvested when the tree had to be cut down or was no longer fertile). Today, the trees are planted specifically for the hearts (especially the peach palm, which does not produce edible fruit), so what is the appropriate brocha?
Rabbi Moshe Heineman paskens that you should say Borei Pri Ha-Eitz, since the hearts of palm are the primary fruit. Most of todays Poskim would say that you make a Borei Pri Ha-Adamah. Some of their reasons are:
- The Gemara (Brachos 40a,b) says that you only make the brocha “borei pri ha’eitz” when the branch remains after you pick the fruit (and will be able to produce fruit again later on). If the branch does not endure after the fruit is picked, you say “borei pri ha’adamah”. This is also the reason that we say “borei pri ha’adamah” on bananas. When harvesting hearts of palm, there is no remaining branch.
- The Bahag (see Biur Halacha, Siman 202, se’if 15) says that you do not make a “borei pri ha’eitz” on sugar cane because you are eating the branch itself, not the fruit of the branch. With hearts of palm, even though the palm is a tree, when we eat the center of the tree, it is not considered the fruit of the tree.
- There are two opinions as to how we determine the purpose of planting the palm tree:
a) One opinion is that we look at all of the palm trees in the world. Accordingly, palm trees are planted mainly for their dates and coconuts; the hearts are a secondary or a tertiary use (and may even require “shehakol”, as mentioned above).
b) The second opinion is that we look at the main reason that these particular trees were grown. If so, clearly the main purpose of these palm trees is to produce hearts. Yet, it would seem from the Teshuvas HaRashba, Chelek 1, Siman 400 that since most palm trees are planted for their fruit, the hearts are considered secondary and would require a “borei pri ha’adamah”. (Please see V’Zos Habracha page 308-9 for this discussion.)
- In addition, when one is not sure whether to make the brocha “ha’eitz” or “ha’adamah” we make the latter brocha, since all trees grow from the ground.
- There are some who make a distinction between cultivated palms (“ha’adamah”) or wild-grown palms (“shehakol”).
- A few years ago, one of the periodicals had a discussion which focused on the laws of orlah (the prohibition of eating fruit of a tree during the first three years). In the article, the author wrote that “sugar cane and hearts of palm are good examples of edible stalks, which are not usually prohibited since they are not fruits (otherwise they would be subject to the prohibition of orlah).”
Though the article does not explain why they decided that “they are not fruit”, the author may be relying on a sentence later on in the article. “The Shulchan Oruch and horticulturists consider the fruit of an annual (a plant that dies or degenerates after one year or season), to be a vegetable. Later on they discuss eggplant and come to the conclusion that it is not bound by “orlah” because the quality of the eggplant diminishes dramatically after its first harvest.
Furthermore, the Gemara (Brachos 36a) seems to say that if a “fruit” is not halachically considered a fruit for “orlah” purposes, it would also not be considered a fruit when determining the brocha. (I was told that those who hold that you say “borei pri ha’eitz” opine that the criteria for brochos are not the same as the criteria for “orlah”. This surely can use further clarification.)
All of this supports the opinion of most of today’s poskim, which is that the brocha for hearts of palm is “borei pri ha’adamah”.
In addition, in Otzar Habrachos, the author mentions the issue of Bishul Yisroel. As we know, any foods that cannot be eaten raw, and are served at fancy dinners (oleh al shulchan melochim) cannot be cooked by a non-Jew. In order to assure that you are eating Bishul Yisroel, please check your labels for proper supervision.
Lastly, we all know that when Hashem created the tree, the original intent was that the tree itself should be edible, as it says “eitz pri”. Today (possibly as we are getting closer to the days of Moshiach), we are finding more and more usages for different parts of the trees. This is especially evident when we are able to eat part of the tree stem itself! May Hashem grant that we merit the coming of Moshiach speedily in our days. Surely then we will be able to see the fulfillment of “eitz pri”, as well.