The Rema writes (Ohr Hachaim, 494:4), “It is customary to spread branches of trees in our synagogues and homes [on Shavuos] in order to commemorate that which the sages say [Rosh Hashanah 16a] that on Shavuos the world is judged concerning [how many] fruits the trees will produce [that year].”
The Satmar Rebbe, Rav Yoel Teitelbaum zt’l, questions this custom. The Mishna (Rosh Hashanah 2a) says that Tu B’Shvat, is the “New Year for trees.” That is why it is customary to eat a variety of different fruits that day.
It would seem that the custom on Shavuos and the custom on Tu B’Shvat are inverted. Would it not be more logical to partake of various fruits on Shavuos, the day when the world’s fruit supply is judged, and to spread tree branches around our shuls and homes on Tu B’Shvat, the New Year for trees? Why do we do the opposite?
The Rebbe explained that the customs are indeed appropriate. On the day when trees are “judged,” we are interested in determining the success of the tree during the previous year. That is done by assessing what it has produced. On the other hand, when our focus is on the fruit and we want to assess the delectability of the yet unripe ones, we look at the vitality and vibrancy of the tree. If the tree is strong and healthy, we can assume the fruits will be as well.
The lesson that emerges from this custom is far more encompassing than mere fruits and trees. On Shavuos “we are judged for the fruit of the trees.” How luscious and palatable fruit is depends on its source. If the tree is firmly rooted in the ground, exposed to an adequate amount of sunlight, and has the necessary amount of water and nutrients it will be able to properly affect the process of photosynthesis to produce quality fruits.
In a similar vein, if we attach ourselves to our roots and connect ourselves with the chain of our ancient tradition transmitted from father to son, than we, “the fruits of their labor” will be able to produce another vital link in the eternal chain of our mesorah. If we have an appreciation of who we are and the greatness we possess, than it is clear that the “tree of life” is still robust and vivacious and will continue to produce many more generations of fruits.
On Tu B’Shvat however, the trees themselves are judged and the quality of the tree is determined by analyzing its fruits. If the color of the fruit is bright and luminous and the taste is juicy and fresh, we can be certain that the tree which it grew on is healthy and vigorous. Similarly, if we want to evaluate if a person has a love for Torah, mitzvos, and prayer, an appreciation for his heritage, and is passionate about being a Torah Jew, we need look no further than his children. If a man exudes a sense of joy and love for Torah and mitzvos it is indicative of the fact that there was an appreciation for those values in the home he was raised in.
Someone once asked Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt’l when the process of educating one’s children actually begins. Rabbi Hutner asked the man how old he was. When the man replied that he was thirty-two years old, Rav Hutner said, “My friend, the chinuch of your children began thirty-two years ago.”
The pasuk states, “The crown of elders is their children’s children; and the pride of sons is their fathers.” When the Dubner Maggid was a child his house burned down. When he asked his mother why she was weeping so bitterly she said that in the house were irretrievable documented records of the family’s esteemed and prominent lineage dating back many generations. The Maggid sought to console his mother and replied that he would initiate a new line of lineage and their progeny would be proud to trace themselves to him.
This idea is inextricably bound to Shavuos. Our pedigree is a vital component of our greatness. We have endured despite the travails of exile because the tree which produced us, as it were, is still vibrant and strong. Our enemies sought to chop it down. Beyond that, even many of our own people, based on erroneous thinking sought to “redirect” the “source” of the tree’s nutrition and sustenance. But we – those who have upheld the Torah in its pristine form – are the sole beneficiaries of the longevity and eternity of the tree. “It is a living tree for those who grasp hold of it and those who support it will be enriched. Its ways are ways of sweetness and all of its pathways are peaceful.”