Tu B'Shvat: Trees and Man
By Menachem Mendelson
What do you know? Tu B'Shvat, the fifteen of the Jewish month Sh'vat, is the New Year for trees! We actually celebrate the day by having special fruits on this day, especially fruits from Israel.
There is much that we can learn from trees. Although trees belong to the world of plants, unlike most plants that wither and die in the winter, the tree continues to grow.
What you see of a tree is not all there is to a tree. We see the trunk, the branches, the leaves and often the fruit. But what we do not see are the roots which are buried deep in the ground. The roots grow fast and spread out deep below the ground level.
The roots have two functions. One is that the roots serve as an anchor for the tree; they hold the tree upright and protect it from the strong winds. Secondly, they provide the water and minerals which they absorb from the ground so that the tree can continue to grow and provide tasty fruits.
The leaves, acting like large solar collectors, convert the water and minerals into tree food via a process known as photosynthesis. There is a harmony and interaction between the top of the tree, the leaves, and the bottom, the roots, that serve to provide the tree with the life food that it needs to continue to build itself up and grow.
The Torah (Deut. 20:19) says, "for man is like the tree of the field." Man has these same two aspects as the tree, a part which is responsible for getting its power from the above, - the soul, and a part which gets its nourishment from below, - the body. Like the roots, the lower aspect of the tree, the body is the facility that brings in the physical necessities. The soul, the higher aspect is like the leaves which draws the power from above in order that the body can utilize that material to rebuild the body.
The tree's crown of glory is its beautify leaves. Man's crown of glory is his wisdom. Wisdom, like leaves, are not a permanent fixture; leaves come and go. So also it is with wisdom; we can not depend upon our wisdom; often it is unreliable and often when we rely upon our own wisdom we fall into error.
For this reason our sages (Pirkei Avot 3:17) said:
"One whose wisdom is greater that is good deeds is like a tree with many branches but few roots. A wind will come and uproot it. But a man whose good deeds are greater than his wisdom is liken to a tree with fewer branches and many roots which no wind can uproot."
It is not the great ideas that a person may have that mark a man, but the good deeds that he does. Good deeds, actions rooted in the Torah and our traditions, are the real anchor and root for a Jew. It will protect him more that his wisdom and give his life and all around him vitality.
Below are a few rules concerning eating fruit:
Before eating fruit that is grown on a tree the blessing "borei p'ree ha-etz" is said. If one has eaten the quantity of fruit the size of a half of an egg or more, the blessing after eating, "borei n'fashot rabout" is recited. If the fruit being eaten is one of the five fruits which are from the praise of the Land of Israel: grapes, figs, olives, pomegranates, and dates, then if one eats a quantity the size of a half of an egg, the blessing afterwards, "al ha-etz v'al prei ha-etz" is recited.
If fruit is eaten during a meal when bread has been eaten, the proper blessing before eating fruit is said, but the blessing afterwards is not, since the grace after meal for the bread will include it.
On Tu B'Shvat, many try to get a new fruit to eat, one that he has not eaten since last year, thereby saying the additional blessing, "shehacheyanu" thanking G-d that he/she has arrived at this time to enjoy this new fruit. Thanking G-d is one of the pillars of a humble and pious person.
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from the January 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine