Rabbi Zushe Silberstein stood there, excited beyond words, facing 150 students who came for Rosh Hashana 1976 to the Beis Chabad in Montreal and led the meal. Back then, there were no courses for shluchim and nobody had guided him in how to run an evening for students. “Go with the flow,” said the shliach Rabbi Berel Mochkin, and he tried.
“One of the traditional Rosh Hashana foods is a pomegranate which symbolizes the mitzvos of the Torah. The 613 seeds correspond to the 613 mitzvos,” he said, repeating what he had learned from his teachers. He couldn’t have known what a furor this would cause.
“You don’t really believe what you just said, right?” challenged one of the students.
Rabbi Silberstein was nonplussed. He had never thought of checking whether a pomegranate actually has 613 seeds, but in the face of the student’s challenge he replied, “If our sages say so, then of course it’s true!”
“Can we count them?” asked the student, not backing down.
“Sure! Take a pomegranate and begin count-ing,” said Rabbi Silberstein trying to infuse his statement with confidence, although he wasn’t that sure himself. He looked at his wife and she returned the look. They knew that if the seeds numbered anything but 613, they would lose the students’ trust in anything they would say in the future. In his heart, he thought of the Rebbe and sent a silent request: Rebbe, please save this situation! The student began to count, one aril after another as Rabbi Silberstein’s heart beat at the same pace. “611, 612, and... 613!” The pomegranate had exactly 613 seeds!
The students reacted with exclamations of “Wow,” and Rabbi Silberstein thought, “Rebbe, you saved me!”
That was Rabbi and Mrs. Silberstein’s first program with students in Montreal and they crossed the first hurdle as well as could have been hoped for.
Some students wanted to check other pomegranates and those did not have 613 seeds. Rabbi Silberstein explained that the sages referred to the average pomegranate but since there had been a challenge to the sages, G-d had made an open miracle and they all saw the truth of the sages with the first pomegranate.
Interestingly, in research conducted recently on pomegranates from different strains around the world they contained varying numbers of seeds and the average was 613!
There is a footnote on a sicha of the Rebbe from 15 Shevat 5750 which quotes the Malbim about 613 seeds and adds, “Perhaps one can say (which is closer to the reality with most pomegranates) that it’s referring to the 248 positive mitzvos — 248 seeds.”