Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Good of the Land

If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land
-Isaiah 1:19

The almond tree is blooming 
A golden sun is shining
Birds from every rooftop call
To tell us of the day for all
Tu b'Shvat is coming,
A festival for trees
Tu b'Shvat is coming,
A festival for trees
-Yisrael Doshman

An almond tree in bloom is a beautiful sight. Here in Israel, it signals the beginning of the end of winter and the coming of the Tu B'Shvat—the Israeli festival of trees.

One of the highlights of the my work year is receiving our annual Tu B’Shvat gift of a box full of dried fruits and nuts. People talk about it for weeks before, discuss recipes, which fruits they like, which are the most fattening, and how quickly their kids can scarf them down. We are receiving our boxes tomorrow. People cancelled vacations to be sure to get them.

The truth is that these days, everywhere you look, there are piles and piles of dried fruits for sale.

Really. This is what it looks like
Apricots, prunes, and raisins are old news.
Old news
Today’s cool buys are dried kiwis, bananas, and papayas. How cool is that!!

Cool new fruit
Tu B’Shvat is mentioned exactly zero times in the Torah, and one time in the Mishnah. That one mention is in relation to the four new years in the Jewish calendar. The first of Tishrei is the new year for the calculation of the calendar, sabbatical (shmita) years and the Jubilee (yovel), for planting and sowing. The first of Nisan is to the new year for kings and festivals.

They all get a new year

The first of Elul is the new year for animal tithes. The fourth new year is the new year of trees: According to the House of Shamai, it was to be the first of Shvat, but according to Hillel it was to be the fifteenth of Shevat (Rosh Hashana:2a).
The rabbis of the time ruled according to Hillel, as by the 15th of the month of Shevat it was decided that the majority of the winter rains had fallen, and the new agricultural season had begun.

And that is the only time we hear of Tu B’Shvat in Jewish Law.

There are three mitzvot that are indirectly associated with Tu B’Shvat:

  • Orlah is the prohibition on eating the fruit produced during the first three years after the tree is planted. 
  • Neta Reva'i refers to the biblical commandment to bring fourth-year fruit crops to Jerusalem as a tithe. 
  • Maaser Sheni and Maaser Ani were tithes, which was eaten in Jerusalem or given to the poor.  These tithes (or taxes if you will) were calculated by the amount of fruit that ripened from oner Tu B’Shvat to the next.

In simplest terms, Tu B’Shvat was, during Temple times, the end of the tax year. 10% of whatever fruit was grown (or the monetary value of it) was required to be given to the poor or to the Beit HaMikdash.
The only mitzvah of those three that is still relevant to us today is the mitzvah of Orla; to count three Tu B’Shvats before we are allowed to eat the fruit from a young tree. And even this mitzvah is relevant only here in Israel.

How then, did all these other customs - planting trees, eating dried fruit, having a ‘seder’ Tu B’Shvat - come about?

Well, I’ll tell you.

They were all made up.

Which isn't to say that it’s a bad thing.

After the destruction of our Holy Temple, and the exile and dispersal of our people, Tu B’Shvat ceased to have any meaning because the mitzvot associated with the date were  kept only in the Land.

Once the Jews were dispersed, all the festivals of the year took on different meanings, and all acquired new customs to take the place of the mitzvot that were kept in the Temple.

The festivals, which were originally agricultural in nature, took on more of a historical and religious nature in exile. Therefore, Pesach became the festival of freedom and celebrates our peoplehood; Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah; Succot is when we remember the miracles of G-d, and the hardships we suffered in the desert until we reached our Land.

Because the Land of Israel is an integral part of Judaism, and, while for the 2000 years of exile we remembered the Land in a myriad of ways, Tu B’Shvat slowly became THE day to remember the glory and the goodness of the Land.

It was in the Middle Ages that Tu B’Shvat began to be celebrated by eating the fruits of Eretz Yisrael. In the 16th century, the Kabbalists of Tsfat (who themselves were exiles from Spain) initiated the ‘Seder’ Tu B’Shvat where one eats several specific fruits and drinks four cups of wine. It was thought that this would bring the world closer to perfection.

(drinking four cups of wine can make anything seem pretty close to perfect).
The custom of eating dried fruits began only about 100-150 years ago, with the beginning of the return of the Jews to their Land. The Jews of Europe wished to partake of the bounty of the Land also, and asked the Jews who had returned to please send them fruit of the Land. Because it took so long to arrive by boat, the fruit was first dried and then sent. The Jews of Europe could eat the dried dates and figs and carobs of Israel.

I, myself, do not care for carobs.
As more Jews returned to the Land, they brought their old country customs with them, and the custom of eating dried fruits on Tu B’Shvat was one of those. But, here in Israel, most fruits are eaten fresh. Therefore, to meet demand, the National Importers Guild[1] decided to import dried fruit from abroad. Money is money.
As a consequence, today, to celebrate Tu B’Shvat, which is a celebration of the bounty of the Land, we import apricots from Belgium, pistachios from Greece, pecans from China, and raisins from California. In the Old Country, we ate dried fruit to remember the Land of Israel, and here in the Land of Israel we eat dried fruit to remember the Old Country. [2]

A bit of a slap in the face, if you ask me.

On the other hand, if you are going to make up customs, the custom of planting trees in Eretz Yisrael is certainly an excellent one. It is a great mitzva to plant trees (especially fruit trees) in the Land, any day. Setting aside Tu B’Shvat as a special day to plant is a lovely idea, and because of it, Israel was the only country in the world to end the 20th century with more trees than it had at the start of the century.

But this year is a shmittah year, when we do not plant and the Land lies fallow. So what should we do on Tu B’Shvat this year?

We should glory in the beauty and the bounty of the Land.

These flowers are Anemones, and grow in fields in the late winter 25 minutes from my house.

This is just a fun picture

dried fruit

the bounty of the Land!

Cool fruit


Baby tomatoes

An arial view of even more food

This is also the bounty of the Land!

[1] I don’t think that the National Importers Guild is actually a thing. I made it up, but you get the point.

[2] And yes, you can get Israeli produced dried fruit. I know. But two things: a) you have to look hard for it – about 90% of the dried fruits in the supermarkets are imported, and b) what’s wrong with fresh fruit??

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