Latest update: January 17th, 2014
Judaism is a religion of growth. Hashem wants each individual to perfect himself in as many ways as possible. However, it is impossible to focus on everything at one time. Therefore, the Torah provides us with a calendar, which compartmentalizes different areas of growth into separate months. Each month, with a holiday as its focal point, is ordained as the time for us to work on a particular aspect of our service to Hashem.
The month of Shevat is no exception. But what do you suppose is the growth of Shevat? Tu B’Shevat – the New Year for the Tree – is scarcely even a holiday; the only observance of the day is found in a comment of the Magen Avraham that “It is the custom to eat many types of fruits on Tu B’Shevat.” What type of holiness can be found in eating fruits? Is there anything more mundane than eating? Even if the requisite bracha is recited, is there anything special about eating fruit with a bracha on Tu B’Shevat, or any other day in Shevat, more so than during the other months of the year?
Before attempting to answer this question, let’s add another to the mix. In Jewish thought, each month has a mazal (constellation) which embodies the essence of the month. The mazal of Shevat is D’li, which literally translates as “the Bucket,” but is more commonly known as Aquarius or the Water Bearer. Interestingly, not only is D’li the mazal of Shevat, it is also the mazal of Am Yisrael – the Jewish People. How can we understand these enigmatic ideas? What does Shevat have to do with buckets? Why is the kingly and precious nation of Israel compared to a bucket whose value is only defined through its function as a tool to contain something of greater value?
Let’s see if we can gain the understanding needed to answer these questions. Why did Hashem create us with a need to eat? Wouldn’t life have been simpler if we didn’t need food? So much time and money could be saved, and we would be freer to serve Hashem. Why then, did the omnipotent Creator make us deficient?
The answer can be found in Chovos Halevovos (Duties of the Heart; Gate of Bitachon, Chapter 3). “Hashem’s wisdom decreed the testing of the soul if it will serve Hashem or rebel against Him. The manner in which it is tested is in regard to the soul’s deficiency and need for externals such as food and drink. Hashem commanded the soul to seek out the externals in order to see how they will be sought…”
What this means is that Hashem only created us with a need to eat because eating is part and parcel of serving Him. Eating is not an unfortunate prerequisite to serving Hashem; eating is actually part of serving Hashem!
However, this is something that requires explanation. How can the self-serving act of eating be considered a mitzvah? I think the answer lies in understanding what exactly a mitzvah is. The Ramban writes at the end of Parshas Bo, “All mitzvos are extremely precious, for through them a person comes to acknowledge his Creator. Indeed, the objective of all mitzvos is that we will come to acknowledge our Creator, that He created us.” It seems from the Ramban, that everything in the world can be used for a mitzvah if only it is used to turn our hearts and minds toward Hashem. This calls to mind a story of a chassid who was traveling with his rebbe. By chance, they both took out an apple at the same time. The chassid jokingly commented that he and the rebbe were equal. The rebbe gently rebuked him. “You think we are the same? You make a bracha because you want to eat. I eat because I want to make a bracha.” Food can be eaten to fill your stomach. But food can also be eaten with the intent to recognize Creation and acknowledge the Creator. A bracha is not just a thank you. It’s an acknowledgement of where the food came from. The bracha is supposed to remind us to see Hashem in every bite. Look what Hashem created; the apple is so delicious. The orange is delectable. Where did it come from? Who made it? Hashem wants us to enjoy our food; that’s why He made it taste good in the first place. But He wants us to use these delicious creations as a mitzvah – to acknowledge Him as the Melech Ha’olam, the Master of the world.
Perhaps now we can understand why we eat many different types of fruit on Tu B’Shevat. If the only growth in eating fruit is in the making of the bracha, it would suffice to eat only one fruit. Why the need to sample a variety? By now, the answer should be clear. Exploring a great variety of Hashem’s creations multiplies our recognition of His handiwork exponentially. Hashem not only created the apple and the orange, He also made the grapefruit and kiwi. He made grapes, olives, pomegranates, peaches, walnuts, hazelnuts, coconuts, avocados, papayas, almonds, dates, figs, apricots, lemons, mangos, pears, cherries, and a few hundred other species of fruit. And not one fruit has the same taste as the other! They are all so different; it would almost be logical to make a different bracha on each one, just as we make a different bracha on fruit than on vegetables. Yet, it is the same Melech Ha’olam who created each one of these completely different fruits. The Chovos Halevovos (Gate of Reflection, Chapter 1) says “If something always does one thing, that indicates that it is forced by its nature to do only that. Fire can only burn; water can only cool. But Hashem is omnipotent and is not forced by any nature. Therefore one can see great variety in the creation….” Tu B’Shevat is the day for recognizing that variety. By sampling a great variety of creations we naturally come to see their Creator.
Thus armed, I believe we can understand how D’li came to be the mazal of Shevat. As mentioned, a bucket has no intrinsic value. Its only value is as a tool. Similarly, fruits serve no inherent function. Hashem could’ve made us without the need for food. However, fruits are very valuable and precious because they can be used as a tool to help us focus on the Creator. Fruits are the vessels (or buckets, if you will) made to contain holiness. When we make a bracha and eat each one of them, we acknowledge Hashem as the Master of the world. This is also why D’li is the mazal of the Jewish People. Judaism is not about rituals. Nor is it about the synagogue. Judaism is about seeing Hashem in every aspect of our lives and acknowledging Him there. We take acts as mundane as eating and transform them into tools, into buckets overflowing with holiness. This is the growth of Shevat. If we can grow in this area, it will be an accomplishing month.
Have a meaningful Tu B’Shevat.
About the Author: Shaya Winiarz is a student of the Rabbinical Seminary of America (a.k.a. Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim). He is also a columnist, lecturer, and freelance writer. He can be reached for public speaking or freelance writing at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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