My first introduction to the Jewish Holiday of Tu B’Shevat was in Yeshiva Elementary School. In the middle of class, we were treated to what the teacher referred to as Bokser (Yiddish for carob or Charuv in Hebrew).
It was an exotic fruit we had never tasted before. We were told it was in honor of Tu B’Shevat, the Rosh Hashanah for trees. Besides the usual blessing on the fruit of a tree, we were instructed to make the Shehecheyanu blessing because it was something new we hadn’t eaten before. We gladly did so and then bit into this hard textured fruit, with its somewhat sweet and unusual flavor. It was a joyous occasion. After all, it was a break from the usual routine of monotonous educational drills and lectures and there was this new food to munch on and laugh about with our friends. We thoroughly enjoyed and treasured those moments. We also had fun learning and singing the Hebrew song about Tu B’Shevat coming, the holiday of trees and were regaled with stories about planting trees in Israel. Later there were dramatic plays about young pioneers dedicating their lives to making the Land of Israel fruitful again. It was inspirational and we couldn’t wait to plant our own fruit trees.
In later years, we began to learn about the origin of Tu B’Shevat. It didn’t seem so glamorous, when we studied the prosaic rules of accounting for Tithes. As the Mishna[i] records there is a fiscal year for Tithing of fruit trees that begins on the 15th day[ii] of Shevat and, hence, the name Tu B’Shevat[iii].
The Talmud[iv] discusses how this principle is applied in practice. It records the Sages taught, generally, the fruits first formed before Tu B’Shevat are allocated to the prior year for the purpose of computing the applicable Tithes and those fruits formed thereafter are a part of the new fiscal year for Tithing. There are some exceptions to this rule[v], such as carob trees, which produce only one crop a year. Thus, even if a carob tree buds before Tu B’Shevat, the fruits formed are accounted to the new fiscal year for Tithes.
The Talmudic text goes on to discuss Rabbi Nechemya’s view that most fruit trees are Tithed according the fiscal year in which picked, since only a minority of fruit trees produce more than one crop a year. It concludes with a statement by Rabbi Yochanan that the custom of the people was to follow the opinion of Rabbi Nechemya with regard to carob trees[vi].
I can’t help but wonder if this is, perhaps, one of the sources for the custom of eating carobs on Tu B’Shevat. It’s certainly a useful device for prompting questions about the Holiday. After all, what’s so special about carobs? The topic of accounting for Tithes is an arcane and complicated subject, with limited applicability in our times. Generating interest in studying its intricacies is no mean achievement. One successful model is the Passover Seder. Novel elements are introduced to prompt inquiries from the kids, like the Four Questions about why the night is so special. It’s designed to promote interest in and excitement about the Holiday and its rituals.
The carob tree plays a prominent role in a number of Talmudic tales. There is the miraculous carob tree in the cave[vii] that sustained Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son Rabbi Elazar, when they were in hiding from the Roman oppressors.
Another is the most intriguing story of Choni HaMe’agel[viii]. The Talmud[ix] reports he witnessed a man planting a carob tree. Choni asked how many years will it be before the tree bears fruit. The individual answered upwards of seventy years[x]. Choni wondered why he was laboring so, given that it was not at all obvious he would be alive to reap the benefits of his labors? The individual responded, he found the world populated with carob trees and, in the same way his father planted them for him, he was also planting them for his children. Choni then sat, ate and fell asleep for seventy years. When he awoke he saw what appeared to be the same man harvesting the fruit of the carob tree he had witnessed being planted. As it turns out, it was the grandson of that man. He was now benefiting from his grandfather’s original efforts, which Choni had witnessed seventy years before.
Rav Nachman of Breslov[xi] provides a compelling insight into the meaning of this midrashic exposition in the Talmud. He notes the carob tree signifies charity, because it is planted primarily for others to reap the benefit.
It is also suggested it reinforces the view of the Talmud[xii], generally, that farming is a manifest demonstration of pristine Emunah (faith and trust in G-d)[xiii]. Consider, when a farmer plows, plants and tends to the crops, there is no assurance the outcome will be a bountiful harvest. The land must have just the right soil conditions to nourish and foster growth of the crop. There is also a need for the appropriate amount of gentle rain that Choni had to contend with, as noted above. Protection from the elements, insects and other blighting factors is a further serious consideration. Any of these factors can ruin the prospects for a good crop. Yet, year after year, no matter the experience in prior years, a faithful farmer continues to farm the land. Indeed, the vagaries of outcomes endured from season to season are tests, which can serve to make that Emunah stronger[xiv].
The timing of Tu B’Shevat is also consistent with this ethic. It is placed in the second half of the winter season in Israel, when the trees are still usually barren and the outcome of the crop is uncertain. Why begin the process of accounting for the giving of charity in the form of Tithes, which may not ever become reality? Despite these concerns and in a quintessential act of faith, we mark the occasion and celebrate the day. The fact that eating the fruit of a carob tree often commemorates it signifies this Emunah in a most meaningful fashion. After all, planting a carob tree, which takes so many years to blossom, for the ultimate benefit of progeny, demonstrates a profound level of Emunah that is admirable and worthy of emulation.
I remember well sitting down with one of my partners and mentors to review the financials at year-end. We also talked about projected earnings for the coming new year. He then suggested we both give ten percent of that amount to charity, in advance. It was a kind of benevolent charm intended to facilitate the desired outcome; but it was also a testament to his genuine Emunah. We could only work our hardest and try our best; however, the actual results were a blessing from G-d. We thought why not tangibly demonstrate our faith and start earning merits out of the starting gate, by making charitable payments on account of what we hoped to earn in the coming year.
The parable of Choni and the carob tree planter is symbolic of life and the ethos of the Jewish people. The Jerusalem Talmud[xv] also reports a story of another Choni HaMe’agel, who lived at the end of the First Temple period and was an ancestor of the Choni in the Babylonian Talmud, noted above. He went out to the hills to supervise some work and entered a cave to shield himself from the rain. He fell asleep and didn’t wake up for seventy years. During that period the First Temple was destroyed, the Babylonian exile began and the return ensued including building the Second Temple. In essence he slept through the seventy year Babylonian exile. When he exited he saw that the world had changed. He noticed a corner of the field where there once had been a vineyard now produced olives and a former olive grove was now producing grain. He applied to himself the verse in Psalms[xvi] that when “G-d will return the captivity of Zion, we will be like dreamers”.
It is suggested that the tales of both Choni’s are linked and the symbolism of the seventy years, as well as, the carob tree are cogent. The tree is a metaphor for mankind[xvii]. The Talmud[xviii] notes a fruit-bearing tree is analogous to a worthy and sage person, who acts properly.
The period of seventy years plays a dual role, as indicated by the two stories. It is an analogy to an individual’s life[xix] and its challenges and vicissitudes, as well as, triumphs and joys, as represented by the nature of the fruit it bears. It is also a metaphor for all the exiles and suffering the Jewish people have endured through the ages and yet somehow survived and even prospered. In this regard, it is noteworthy that the carob tree is known for its longevity and resiliency. With the help of G-d, the Jewish people have survived the Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman and Ottoman empires, the Holocaust and the 1948, 1967 and Yom Kippur Wars, as well as, other attacks and still declare ‘Am Yisrael Chai’ (the people of Israel live).
The parable of the carob tree also provides a paradigm for coping with all these challenges. We are called upon to plant it, even if we don’t personally benefit from it. It represents our mission to perform good deeds in this world. However, as the Mishna[xx] notes, it’s not necessarily our job to complete the task; nor are we at liberty to neglect it. We are charged with doing our best; the outcome is up to G-d. It is like so many new endeavors, it’s ultimately a matter of faith and trust in G-d that somehow a successful result will be achieved.
The story of Tu B’Shevat is one of Emunah. The hope and faith that the trees will yield a bountiful harvest is invigorating. The integral provision for Tithes and sharing with others is ennobling. Indeed, the very object of the newly planted carob tree in the Choni tale was to benefit others.
Both my father Z”L and father-in-law Z’L were Holocaust survivors of Auschwitz. There was a common theme that emerged from the bits and pieces of their stories that they sometimes shared with us. Each, despite all the privations they suffered, somehow managed to save some of their meager food to give to others, who they thought were in greater need. They were saintly individuals; but the ethic they practiced was ingrained in them and others throughout the ages.
International Holocaust Memorial Day is commemorated on January 27th, the day when Auschwitz was liberated in 1945. The date on the Hebrew calendar was the 13th of Shevat, two days before Tu B’Shevat that year. My father Z”L was not liberated that day. He was forced to be a part of the death march and miraculously managed to escape. Could that possibly have been on Tu B’Shevat? We’ll never know for sure.
I do know that they both were men of faith, who strove mightily to build a family and new life, devoted to classic Judaism, love of the US and gratitude for the opportunities it afforded them and love and support for Israel. They had an unshakable belief and trust in G-d, the very essence of Emunah.
Join in the celebration of Emunah on Tu B’Shevat and may we merit the ultimate redemption soon and in our time.
[i] Mishna Rosh Hashanah 1:1.
[ii] This is according to the view of Beit Hillel. Beit Shamai argues it’s the 1rst day of Shevat.
[iii] Tu in Hebrew is composed of the letters Tet, representing the number 9 and Vav, representing the number 6, for a total of 15.
[iv] BT Rosh Hashanah 15b.
[v] Which produce only one crop a year, such as palm, olive and carob trees.
[vi] Maimonides notes, there are some varieties of carobs, which most people don’t eat and are only Tithed by virtue of Rabbinical enactment. See Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Second Tithes and Fourth Year’s Fruit 1:3.
[vii] BT Shabbat 33b.
[viii] Hebrew term, meaning the ‘Circle Maker’. See BT Ta’anit 19a, as well as, 23a, where it describes how Choni was a saintly individual, who was asked to pray for rain. When it didn’t come, he drew a circle around himself and declared he wasn’t leaving the spot until G-d answered the prayers and blessed them with rain. His prayers were then answered and it rained.
[ix] BT Ta’anit 23a.
[x] This may have been a specific species of Carob tree at the time. In any event, even the present traditional carob trees reportedly take upwards of 15-20 years to bear fruit and with selective cultivated varieties and grafting techniques 6-7 years to begin bearing fruit and upwards of 10 years to reach full production levels.
[xi] In his Lekutei Moharan, Part II 2:6.
[xii] See BT Shabbat 31a, as well as, Tosafot commentary thereon, s.v. Emunah.
[xiii] See Chiddushe HaRim on the Torah, Sh’lach 1.
[xv] JT Ta’anit 3:9 (page 16b on Sefaria and 18b of Artscroll Edition).
[xvi] Psalms 126:1.
[xvii] Pirke D’Rabbi Eliezer 21 and see Deuteronomy 20:19.
[xviii] BT Ta’anit 7a.
[xix] See BT Chagigah 13a, Moed Katan 28a and Pesachim 94b, as well as, Psalms 90:10.
[xx] Avot 2:16.