Delectable, delicious, delightful – and available to us in a smorgasbord of flavors and consistencies.
Even the most finicky eater is bound to find a fruit to tickle his or her palate – juicy or velvety smooth, creamy or crunchy, sweet or tangy.
No, this is not a plug for the fruit growing industry or the latest in ice-cream concoctions. It is a birthday celebration of the sturdy and hardy tree. Why, then, wax poetic about fruit?
Anyone who has attended a birthday or anniversary bash for a respected senior figure will have noted that the accolades extended and the accomplishments cited nearly always center on the fruits of one’s labor of love. The achievement that inspires the most lavish praise is inevitably the legacy one leaves behind for future generations.
“He shall be like a tree replanted by streams of water that yields its fruit in due season, and whose leaf never withers. And everything he does will succeed” (Tehillim 1:3). The Torah-abiding man will flourish just like the tree that receives its nourishment from the water by the stream, and he will garner success in all his works.
Tu B’Shevat, literally the fifteenth of the month of Aquarius, which is symbolized by the water bearer, is the New Year of the fruit-bearing tree and is celebrated by the festive partaking of its bounty.
Traditionally, the assortment will consist of three groups of ten: one is of the fruits that are eaten in their entirety, such as grapes and figs; the second is of the pitted variety, such as olives and dates; and the third group consists of the kind that have an outer layer in the form of a peel or shell, such as pomegranates and nuts.
In Song of Songs (6:11) Hashem says, “I descended to the garden of nuts.” According to Rashi’s commentary, Israel is likened to the nut, which has an unpretentious exterior but is moist, meaty and nutritious on the inside.
The verse continues, “to see whether the vine has blossomed and the pomegranates have ripened.” The vineyard is an allegorical
reference to the flowering talmidei chachamim, the pomegranate’s numerous seeds alluding to the many merits accrued by those who adhere to God’s commandments.
In the Holy Land, nature awakens during the month of Shevat, and the month’s symbol, the d’li (water pouring bucket) generously nurtures the earth’s new growth. The sign of Aquarius is associated with the Jewish people, whose immersion in the waters of Torah occurred on the first of this month when Moshe Rabbeinu began to review the oral Torah with the Children of Israel during the last year of their sojourn in the desert.
Those born under the sign of Aquarius are personable, refined and caring individuals yet are able to be emotionally detached. With a penchant for the sciences, they tend to be educators and researchers.
Moshe drew water from the well for Yisro’s daughters to water their flock of sheep, and he would later draw the life-sustaining waters of Torah to sustain his own flock, the B’nei Yisrael. Well versed in astrology, Yisro assessed his future son-in-law by his water-drawing prowess that marked him as one of the Children of Israel.
The water-carrying maiden Rivkah married our patriarch Yitzchak, their union perpetuating the nation symbolized by the water carrier.
The month of Shevat shares its element of air with the months of Sivan and Tishrei. All three months are associated with the Torah. During Sivan, the light of the Torah was revealed to us on Har Sinai, in Shevat Moshe expounded the Torah to us in the wilderness, and in Tishrei we celebrate Simchas Torah, having completed another year-long cycle of weekly Torah portions. The “air” we breathe is vital to our existence.
While Tu B’Shevat may be viewed as a relatively minor holiday event when compared to our more prominent festivals of the year, fruit figures quite significantly in just about every one of our holidays.
On Rosh Hashanah we herald a sweet new year with the fragrant apple dipped in honey. On Sukkos we are commanded to take the pri eitz hadar (the beautiful fruit of the tree), the esrog. (After Sukkos, many prepare the esrog as a preserve to be tasted on Tu B’Shevat – an ideal time to pray to acquire a beautiful esrog for the next Sukkos holiday.)
Pure olive oil is at the core of the festival of Chanukah and grapes produce the wine that gladdens our hearts on Purim. And while we pay homage to the tree by partaking of its fruit on Tu B’Shevat, we conversely celebrate the fruit’s New Year on Shavuos by adorning our homes and places of worship with the tree’s leafy branches.
” You shall eat from them and not cut them down for man is the tree of the field ” (Devarim20:19). The human being has much in common with the tree. A properly and lovingly nurtured growing environment, whether in the home or in the field, is the most inclined to produce the choicest fruit. One reaps what one sows.
The city of Nadvorna suffered an epidemic outbreak and various ordinances were enacted to prevent its spread. With the approach of Sukkos, Reb Mordechai of Nadvorna busied himself with the task of building his sukkah.
It wasn’t long before a town official called on the tzaddik and ordered him to dismantle his hand labor for lack of a work permit. When the rebbe ignored the officer and likewise paid no heed to follow-up directives, the infuriated official issued a summons for Reb Mordechai to appear before him – but that, too, was duly disregarded.
Utterly exasperated, the official was left no recourse but to confront Reb Mordechai in person, whereupon the rebbe remarked that Reb Meir of Premishlan was his great-uncle. As the unimpressed official seethed, an even-tempered Reb Mordechai began to recount the following:
There once was a Ukrainian Orthodox priest who had ten sons, all young, strong and healthy. Their father was also the owner of a magnificent garden that was bordered by majestic trees that was a sight to behold, their fragrant fruit a delight to the palate.
Overcome one day by an impulsive desire to own a field of flowers, the priest had his whim catered to by ordering the destruction of his trees. No sooner did his newly planted flowers begin to blossom than his eldest son fell ill. Bed-ridden, the young man’s condition deteriorated quickly until he died.
Precisely at that point, the next son in line became sick and similarly succumbed. The pattern repeated itself with the rest of his offspring, until only one was left alive. He too, however, soon became ill.
The priest was beside himself with grief; even the most acclaimed physicians were mystified. One of the priest’s advisers suggested that the renowned tzaddik the Rabbi of Premishlan, acclaimed for his medical miracles, be consulted.
Coming face to face with the rebbe, a bent and sorrowful figure poured out his heart and wept over the tragedies that had befallen his handsome young sons. His tenth, confined to bed, was now in imminent danger of meeting the fate of his late brothers.
“You had a spectacular orchard,” said Reb Meir of Premishlan, “but you were not content with the fruit or with their scent. Instead, a hankering for a profusion of blooms overtook your senses and you had those wondrous trees uprooted.
“You were perhaps unaware that a tree is a living entity, much like the human being. And that severing the life of a tree can exact severe penalty. You felled the living trees belonging to God, and He in turn struck down your trees.
“But I will take upon myself to pray for your youngest, and he will, God willing, survive.”
Concluding his story, Reb Mordechai of Nadvorna made a startling disclosure.
“You are that tenth son,” he told the official, “and your life was spared through the prayers of my great-uncle. Is this your way of expressing your gratitude and appreciation?”
“You speak the truth,” replied the shaken official. “The great Rabbi Meir of Premishlan saved my life. You may have your sukkah. Moreover, you may erect an additional ten if you wish.”
The Aquarian, an original thinker, is infinitely creative and far-sighted. Opinionated and outspoken, this native is yet sensitive, tolerant and logical.
The Torah extols the virtuousness of the land of Israel, which is blessed with the shivas haminim, the seven species. “A land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive and honey [dates] .” (Devarim 8:8). These take precedence in the varied selection of fruit which graces our Tu B’Shevat table (the sequence being: olive, dates, grapes, figs and pomegranates, with some people also including wheat samples).
The verdict is still out as to which species of fruit caused the downfall of Adam and Eve and their subsequent ouster from the Garden. When the first man and woman first discovered their nakedness and in their shame sought desperately to cover up, it was the fig tree that yielded its leaves for the purpose – which is why the fig is considered by some to have been the fruit coveted by Eve.
Others are fixated on the traditional apple, but most Torah scholars believe the exalted tree, the Eitz Hadaas, that graced the center of Gan Eden grew esrogim. An esrog, after all, is high ranking in the world of fruit, its tree is said to have the same taste as its fruit, and the citron, contrary to the nature of other fruit, blooms on the tree year round.
Being that Tu B’Shevat is in essence the trees’ Rosh Hashanah, it behooves us to revisit the third day of Creation when the tree, by Divine command, made its first appearance.
Close scrutiny reveals that Hashem called into existence the fruit tree, not a tree that bears fruit. “Fruit tree” would indicate the entire tree’s edibility, the bark as well as its fruit. Indeed, Rashi attributes the tree’s mutation from its original design to be earth’s punishment for Adam’s sin of defying God’s command and consuming the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.
How apropos then that on Tu B’Shevat – as we enjoy the bounty of fruit we are blessed with – we are to reflect on the sin of Adam and Eve and have in mind to rectify their transgression of eating of the forbidden fruit.
“And when you enter this land, you shall plant fruit-bearing trees. ” (Vayikra19:23).
A well-known Talmudic story teaches us about the purpose of our existence, of long-term investments, and more. The famous tale revolves around Choni the circle drawer who acquired his claim to fame when, during an agonizing and lengthy dry spell in the Holy Land, he drew a circle in the dusty earth, stood in its center and called on God to bless His people with a desperately needed rainfall. Claiming he would not move until God hearkened to his plea, he stood his ground until his prayer was answered.
Choni, the Gemara states, had long been troubled by the verse “When Hashem returned [the captives of Zion] we were like dreamers” (referring to the 70-year Babylonian exile). How, Choni wondered, could anyone actually sleep for a 70-year stretch?
Now, Choni was no mindless fool. As a tzaddik and learned man, he could surely grasp the meaning of “like dreamers.”
The Chidushei Ha’Geonim offers a cogent interpretation: Choni, troubled by his generation’s laxity in Torah study and in the performance of mitzvos, was vexed at how people could squander a (seventy-year) lifespan in a preoccupation with meaningless objectives – “dreaming,” as it were.
God took the edge off Choni’s persistent frustration by leading him to a scene where a man was hard at work in planting a carob tree. Since it would be decades before the tree would blossom to fruitfulness, Choni questioned the man’s motivation. The patient gardener explained that he was setting down roots for his children and grandchildren, just as his father and grandfather had done before him.
This encounter lent Choni a measure of clarity: In contrast to the man planting the carob tree who understood that by toiling in this world he would realize a return in the next world, those who had so baffled him indulged only in the self-satisfaction of the here and now as they allowed themselves to be seduced by the lure of instant gratification with nary a thought to investing their energies for future, meaningful gains.
When this realization dawned on him, Choni “sat down to eat” and “fell asleep” – a metaphoric allusion to material pursuits, symbolized by the act of eating, that induces “slumber.” He “awoke” after seventy years and found that his donkey had reproduced new herds of donkeys – an analogy to being rooted in materialism (chumriyus), which is symbolized by the “donkey” (chamor).
The endless pursuit of physical comforts versus spiritual values can lead to toxic entrenchment.
The Aquarian is at once engaging and unreachable; idealistic and romantic yet practical; intelligent, devoted and warm, yet in need of solitude and quiet time.
In all our ways, in all our days, we thrive to strengthen our emunah, our faith, in our Father above. Saying a blessing over the food we eat elevates the mundane to a spiritual plane and infuses our world with holiness. On Tu B’Shevat we are further mindful of making amends, of being instrumental in bringing about the rectification of man’s first rebellion against God.
As we pronounce the blessing and savor the fruit’s heavenly taste, we fete the tree and pray for a successful harvest. The numerical value of ilan (fruit tree) is 91, the same as that of amen – a root derivative of emunah.
“It is a Tree of Life for those who grasp it” (Mishlei 3:18).
Rachel Weiss is a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press.