Thoughts for Tu B’Shvat

Rabbi Gideon Shloush
Executive Vice President, RZA
February 10, 2017

This Shabbat we will be celebrating the beautiful holiday of Tu B’Shvat. This is very much a Religious Zionist holiday. There is a great deal of symbolism and meaning to this holiday. Here are a few nice ideas:

Shevat is an acronym for the words S henishma B’Sorot Tovot. (“May we hear good tidings.”) Thus, as much as Adar is our month of joy, this month of Shevat which precedes Adar already eludes to happiness and good tidings.

The holiday of Tu B’Shvat encourages us to contemplate our unique connection to the Land of Israel. As Eliahu Kitov points out in his Sefer HaToda’ah:

  “Israel is chosen from among all the nations…. And the Land of Israel is chosen among all the lands.  Let the chosen ones come and inherit the chosen inheritance.”

  The story is told that 85 years ago a British politician asked Chaim Weizman:  “Why do you Jews insist on Palestine when there are so many other countries you could have more conveniently?”

  Weizman looked directly into his eyes and replied:  “That’s like me asking you – why did you drive 20 miles to visit your mother last Sunday when there are so many old ladies living on your street!”

  Tu B’Shvat is a time to revisit our commitment to Israel. Praise Israel as the Torah does. Speak warmly of the Land, its beauty and its holiness.

  Think about taking a trip to Israel – especially if you’ve never been there before. Pay tribute to people you know who have made Aliyah. Ask yourself if you would ever do the same.

  Contact the JNF and arrange to have trees planted in Israel on your behalf. Plant trees in honor of friends or in memory of loved ones.

  Many pray on this day for a beautiful, unblemished Etrog. Many etrogim come from the Land of Israel.

It is customary to eat fruit that comes from the Land of Israel. (Especially to eat from the 7 fruits with which the Torah praises this Land. – Wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates.)

  It is also traditional to try to eat a “new” fruit – one which you have not eaten in the past year. This enables you to say the blessing “Shehecheyanu” on this new fruit.

  The Talmud teaches us that there is an order to the blessings that we make on foods. Study this order and try to be mindful of this when making blessings.

  The Siftei Kohen was a student of the ARI. He asked: How are we praising the Land of Israel with these seven species when in fact these seven species can be found elsewhere in the world as well?

  He explains that Divine inspiration and energy (kedusha) is absorbed into these seven species that come from the Land of Israel. When eating these fruits from the Land of Israel we are infusing our bodies with the holiness of Eretz Yisrael.

The Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin informs us that among the signs of the Redemption is that the trees will blossom and the remnants of Israel shall return to the Land.
  This is hinted in the order of the blessings of the Shmoneh Esreh. As we first say the blessing Barech Aleinu… v’et kol minei tevua’ta L’Tova (bless the crops). And then right afterwards we say the blessing Teka B’Shofar… Baruch Mekabetz Nidchei Amo Yisrael.

Tu B’Shvat is certainly an appropriate time to think about being more careful with making B’rachot (blessings)….before we put food into our mouths. There’s a beautiful Gemara in Tractate B’rachot which is bothered by two seemingly conflicting verses. In one verse in Psalms we find the Pasuk “LaHashem Ha’aretz U’Meloah.” (To G-d belongs the Land and all there within.) And yet in another verse in Psalms we find the words “ Hashamayim Shamayim LaHashem V’Haaretz Natan Livnei Adam” (The Heavens belong to G-d but the earth He has given to man)?

The Talmud thus asks:  “To whom does the land really belong?  One verse implies it belongs to G-d and the other verse conveys that it was given to man.

To which the Gemara answers so beautifully:  “ Kan Kodem B’racha Kan L’Achar B’racha.” One verse is referring to before you made a blessing on food and the other food is referring to after you make the blessing on food. In other words, before we make a blessing on food, the food belongs to G-d. The Gemara even goes on to say that one who puts food in their mouth without reciting a blessing – is stealing from G-d. The other verse is referring to after one has made the blessing. At this point, it now belongs to man and one may enjoy the food heartily.

Tu B’Shvat is about contemplating the Source of the blessing in our lives. It’s a time to see beyond the trees. Peek behind nature. Acknowledge G-d who is orchestrating all that goes on around us. Providing, sustaining and protecting us.

Tu B’Shvat is a time to think about the future.

The Talmud in Tractate Ta’anit shares the story of Choni HaMe’agel, who lived some 2,000 years ago. One day, Choni was walking down a road. He came upon a man who was planting a carob tree. Choni asked:  “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?” “70 years” said the man. Choni asked: “Do you think that you will live 70 years?” To which the man answered:  “I found the world with carob trees in it. In the same way that my fathers planted for me, I will plant for my sons.

The Talmud continues: Choni fell into a deep sleep lasting 70 years. When he awoke he saw a man picking some of the carobs off the tree. Choni asked:  “Are you the one who planted the tree?” The man answered:  “I am his grandson.”

In the Torah G-d instructs the Jewish People: "When you come to the Land, and you plant." In saying this G-d is teaching us: Even though you will find the Land full of all good, do not say, 'We will sit and not plant,' but rather be careful to plant.

A person should not say, 'I am old. How many [more] years will I live? Why should I toil for others? Just as you entered and you found trees that others planted – you, also should plant for the next generation.

Be concerned with how the world will look in 70 years from now! What kind of State of Israel will we leave for our children? What kind of world will we leave for the next generation? Let us act now so that our children may eat & enjoy from the fruits of our labor.

Tu B’Shvat is a time to think about conservation and personal growth. In Parshat Shoftim the Torah instructs the Jewish soldier… “When you go to war do not destroy the trees” “ Ki Ha’Adam Etz HaSadeh.” (Man is compared to the trees of the field.)

This is a powerful analogy.

  • Just as trees grow branches, flowers and fruit, so man is put on this earth to be productive. This is why our good deeds are called “fruit” for they are the product of our efforts.
  • Strive upward but be deeply rooted. Create for yourself a solid foundation. The deeper the roots the taller the tree.
  • A tree gives but loses nothing by giving. It continues to produce fruit year after year. Much like a candle that loses nothing by lighting the next candle.
  • A tree offers shade and care for others. (Talmud Story: Ilan Ilan Bamah Avarechecha)

Finally, Tu B’Shvat speaks to the theme of “renewal.”

On Tu B'Shevat, the fruit is yet to be seen. Still, we rejoice, faithful that in a few weeks’ time, Spring will be here and the tree will bear fruit.

In our own lives as well, there are times when we may feel as though we are sliding downwards, either physically or spiritually. We experience an "autumn" and an even colder "winter." But the lesson of Tu B’Shvat teaches us that Man should never despair!  Even though right now the weather appears, cold, and lifeless, we know that Spring is around the corner and the sunshine will soon return.

This is why Tu B’Shvat can also be compared to the anticipation of the arrival of the Mashiach. There are times when all looks bleak and there seems to be no sign of life. Assimilation, anti-Semitism, isolation of Israel and the Jewish People is all around us. But even at this moment the sap is rising – the fruit will soon blossom and return anew.

Shabbat Shalom & Happy Tu B’Shvat!

Rabbi Gideon Shloush
Executive Vice President, RZA-Mizrachi