Sheltering under the sycamore tree (Daf Yomi Pesachim 53)

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“Both this time and that time are one period.”

We are faced with the serious consequences of climate change as evidenced by extreme weather patterns that include spring-like temperatures in the US Northeast followed by severe snowstorms. Australia and California experienced devastating fires over the past year that surpassed anything they have experienced in the past. There are linkages between deforestation and pandemics – as wild animals lose their natural habitats they become more readily in contact with human beings and transmit disease. And there are new diseases that are being carried by wild animals that could potentially contribute to the next pandemic.

The last days’ discussion in the Daf Yomi readings of the Sabbatical Year is a demonstration of how our ancestors respected the earth and a reminder that we must do the same. The extension of a year of rest for the land so that it can rejuvenate and rediscover its quiet soul mirrors the weekly Sabbath that provides a day of rest for religious Jews. It is an opportunity to re-envision one’s own life and that of the land. It is also a time of generosity because any fruit or produce that grows on its own without the intervention of human farming techniques are “ownerless” and can be picked by anyone.

The image that has resonated with me during today’s reading is of the strong, sturdy sycamore tree. The thick bark of the tree is used for lumber and paneling and the crafting of butcher blocks. We are told that the sycamore cannot be chopped down during the Sabbatical Year once its cluster of flowers fall to the ground. This holds tree for all trees during the quiet year.

Rules are established once the Sabbatical Year commences regarding the eating of fruits from the land. Grapes may be eaten during this time until “none are left in the fields of Tzoar,” which coincides with the onset of the holiday of Purim. Olives may be eaten until Shavout and pressed figs may be eaten until Hanukkah. We are told that Rabbi Gamliel used dates as a measure of time but added that fruits “elsewhere later then those” may be also consumed. We are told not to set our clocks to Gamliel’s dates because “the times mentioned are merely indicators.”

 We learned in yesterday’s reading that there are three lands that should be considered in regard to removal of produce that grow during the Sabbatical Year: Judea, Transjordan, and the Galilee. These lands embody mountains, valleys and plains. As long as a certain species remains in one field in a particular land, one may continue to eat it. Today we are told that gallnut oaks, palm trees and the sycamore tree represent each of these three lands. The gallnut is of the mountains, the palm tree of the valleys and the sycamore of the plains. A verse is quoted in support of this construct: “And the king made silver to be in Jerusalem like stones, and he made cedars to be as the sycamore trees in the plain.” 

The grand and glorious sycamore tree is one of the largest and sturdiest that is commonly found in the eastern United States. It is believed to have been on earth for 100 million years and is much older in its heritage than we are. It can grow to be 130 feet high. It represents strength, resiliency and life. It is a tree that can shelter one wholly and completely from the elements.

The image of a sycamore tree is one that lives in my imagination and dreams. I imagine walking in a park on a brisk fall day when the skies open up with a thrashing rain. I take shelter under the large branches of a sycamore tree. I lean against its trunk and look up and see the sun peeking out from the dark sky. I hear a soulful note emanating from above. It is the sound of a bow pressing against the strings of a cello or perhaps an owl in a branch above me. And at that moment, I know I have found my tree of life.

And speaking of the cello, I have been following Yo Yo Ma’s at-home concerts since the start of the pandemic. He has posted small snippets of concerts online from his home. Here is a link to a love letter to a tree from his Songs of Comfort series:


About the Author
Penny Cagan was born in New Jersey and has lived in New York City since 1980. She has published two books of poems called “City Poems “ and “And Today I am Happy." She is employed as a risk manager and continues to write poetry. More information on Penny can be found at
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