The bitter cold winds are howling, with Jack Frost mockingly nipping away at the “global warming” faction. Hard to believe that Chodesh Shevat is almost upon us, the month that sees the almond trees come to life in the Holy Land.
This Shabbos, Parshas Shemos, we bentch Rosh Chodesh Shevat, which falls on the following Shabbos, Parshas Vaerah. The eleventh month of our lunar year is symbolized by the d’li, the water pitcher, which comes to nurture the earth’s new growth.
The sign of Aquarius is metaphorically associated with the Jewish people, whose immersion in the waters of Torah occurred on the first of Shevat when Moshe Rabbeinu began to review the Torah with the Jews during the last year of their sojourn in the desert. Moshe drew water from the well for Yisro’s daughters to water their flock of sheep, and he would later draw the life-giving waters of Torah to sustain his own flock, Bnei 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. Similarly, the water-carrying maiden Rivka married our patriarch Yitzchok, 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. 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 yearlong cycle of weekly Torah portions. The “air” we breathe is vital to our existence.
By the full moon on the fifteenth of Shevat, we celebrate the new year of the fruit-bearing tree, festively partaking of its bounty. Traditionally, we do so by way of an assortment consisting of three groups of ten: One group is the fruits that are eaten in their entirety, such as grapes and figs; the second is 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.
“El ginas egoz yoradeti – I descended to the garden of nuts,” says Hashem in Shir HaShirim, likening Israel to the nut, which has an unpretentious exterior but is moist, meaty and nutritious on the inside. Although we might appear unassuming, we are full of good deeds. 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, and the pomegranate’s numerous seeds allude to the many merits accrued by those who adhere to Hashem’s commandments. (Our Sages teach that the average pomegranate contains 613 seeds.)
The body organ linked to Shevat is the stomach, its Hebrew letter the tzadi. The righteous person eats to better serve His Creator, whereas the glutton eats to satisfy his corporeal cravings. The shape of the letter tzadi actually resembles a tree. In the Torah, man is likened to “a tree in the field – eitz hassadeh” whose gematria (474) is equal to that of daas – knowledge.
Asher, who was blessed by Yaakov Avinu with the fat of the land and who will “provide delicacies befitting the king,” is the tribe of Shevat. The fat alludes to the olive oil produced by the prolific olive trees in Asher’s portion of the land.
Fruit figures prominently in some form or another in our holidays year round. Pure olive oil, for instance, 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. 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 likely to produce the choicest fruit. One reaps what one sows.
The Torah extols the virtuousness of the land of Israel blessed with the shivas haminim, the seven species. “A land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive and [date] honey” (Devarim 8:8). These take precedence in the varied selection of fruit which graces our Tu B’Shevat table.
Some of the tzaddikim whose yahrzeits are observed during Shevat are: R’ Meshulam Zusha of Anipoli ben R’ Eliezer Lipa (2); Asher ben Yaakov Avinu, R’ Moshe Leib of Sassov, R’ Yisrael Abuchatzeira – Baba Sali (4); R’ Aryeh Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger – Sfas Emes (5); R’ Dovid Lelover (7); Rebbetzin Rivka Schneerson, R’ Sholom ben R’ Moshe Feivel Klass (10); R’ Yechezkel M’Kuzmir (17); R’ Yosef ben Maimon – Rambam (20); Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson (22); R’ Yehoshua Rokeach of Belz (23); R’ Dovid HaLevi Segal – Turei Zahav (26); R’ Nosson Tzvi Finkel – Alter of Slabodka, R’ Chananya Yom Tov Teitelbaum – Kedushas Yom Tov (29).
Reb Zusha of Anipoli was a disciple of the Maggid of Mezeritch, as was his older brother, the famed rebbe Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk. Both were outstanding Torah scholars and tzaddikim who in their lifetime would frequently travel incognito to areas where Jewish souls were in need of fortification in Yiddishkeit.
Reb Zusha once visited a city in Germany where the Jewish inhabitants had been gradually abandoning their faith, and carelessly flaunting the laws of Kashrus. Aside from the prohibition factor, the act of consuming non-kosher is known to block a person’s intellect and obstruct his capacity for learning. This is especially detrimental to children, which is why heedful parents practice extra vigilance regarding the intake of their precious young charges.
Disguised as a pauper, Reb Zusha headed into the Bais Medrash, where he was treated with derision and disdain. Intrigued by the odd-looking stranger in their midst, the children contributed to the mirth. In response, Reb Zusha, having completed his prayers, addressed them gently and asked them to line up in a neat semi-circle before him.
“Open your eyes and look at me,” he instructed. They did as he asked, while the tzaddik concentrated his intent gaze on each of their faces with his penetrating holy eyes.
Upon returning home, the hungry children refused the food placed in front of them. “Is this kosher?” they queried. When two mothers compared notes later in the day, they were astonished to learn that their children had behaved in like fashion.
The town was soon abuzz about the mystifying development that had repeated itself in many a Jewish household, and before long a common denominator was detected: the incident in the Bais Medrash that morning. The children described their encounter with the stranger and realization dawned on the fathers that they had been denigrating a holy man.
In fact, the more they observed Reb Zusha in prayer, the more awe-stricken they became. Those who had openly belittled him now begged his forgiveness – which he graciously granted. In turn, they confessed their transgressions and wrongdoing, beseeching the tzaddik to guide them along the path of teshuvah. Reb Zusha stayed on to set the community back on track, until they possessed the wherewithal to continue blossoming as Torah Jews.