Gershon Hepner

Roots, Midrash and Tu B’Shvat

Although regarding boksers I don’t give two hoots,

about the carob trees on which they grow my mind’s not shut,

appreciating what helps them grow like me, their roots.

My roots: not just midrashic explanations of me, but peshat,

a process which midrashic explanations hardly moots,

both tastier than boksers I don’t eat on Tu B’Shvat,

enjoying both midrashic explanations and peshat as fruits

that aren’t dependent on a kashrut label such as glatt.

In “Why Jews Used to Eat Dried Carob on Tu b’Shvat: Bokser smells like Limburger cheese. It’s also an embodiment of Jewish vitality and endurance”,, 2/4/15, Meir Soloveichik writes:

In the Talmud, the holiday of Tu b’Shvat commemorates nothing more than one in a series of halakhic deadlines related to the obligation to offer tithed portions of the year’s crops to the Levites in the Temple. For fruits in particular, the end of one fiscal year and the beginning of the next was marked by Tu b’Shvat, the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Shvat. Because these laws of tithing applied only to produce grown in the Holy Land, celebrating Tu b’Shvat became throughout the centuries a way of connecting to the land itself. For Ashkenazi Jews, that meant eating one fruit: carob, whose name derives from the Hebrew haruv and whose Yiddish name, bokser, is short for the German bokshornbaum, the tree with ram’s-horn-shaped fruit…..

In its discussion of “laws dependent on the land,” the Mishnah presents us with the following conundrum. Suppose a tree is planted on one of the land’s borders, with its roots in sacred soil but its fruit hanging over into non-native territory—into, in effect, the Diaspora. Is the fruit subject to tithing in accordance with the laws relating to Tu b’Shvat? The answer is unequivocally yes: everything depends on the roots, not the foliage.

Another talmudic ruling is also relevant here. The tractate of Bava Batra includes a lengthy discussion of the obligations we owe our neighbors. According to one ruling, we may not plant a tree near our neighbor’s well because the roots, though on our own property, will extend underground and possibly contaminate his water supply. Any tree, therefore, must be planted at a distance of 25 cubits from neighboring property. But certain trees, with exceptionally long roots, must be placed twice as far away. One such tree, the Talmud stresses, is the haruv, the carob.

So, according to Jewish law, identity is defined by roots: surely, an arresting idea. After all, we moderns often assume the opposite—that identity is not predetermined but malleable, that it can be shed and replaced like a suit of clothes, that we can be whoever we wish to be. And to a certain extent that is true enough; taken to an extreme, however, such an attitude, Judaism insists, denies human nature. “For man is akin to a tree in the field,” Deuteronomy informs us. In the view of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, this strange comparison suggests precisely that man, much like a tree, is in fact integrally connected with his roots, and indeed largely defined by them.

The carob, says the Talmud, has longer roots than most other Israelite trees; to eat its fruit was thus, for Jews in the Diaspora, to link themselves with a land and a heritage far away, and with an identity impervious to the often inimical forces of their surrounding environment. Unquestionably, sweeter and more exotic species of fruit exist abundantly in the Holy Land today, and can be almost instantly transported anywhere in the world. But even today, to connect with one’s long-ago ancestors in the land by savoring the humble carob is truly to comprehend the Psalmist’s confident exclamation: “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”

About the Author
Gershon Hepner is a poet who has written over 25,000 poems on subjects ranging from music to literature, politics to Torah. He grew up in England and moved to Los Angeles in 1976. Using his varied interests and experiences, he has authored dozens of papers in medical and academic journals, and authored "Legal Friction: Law, Narrative, and Identity Politics in Biblical Israel." He can be reached at