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Growing Like a Tree

Shavuot (Exodus 19:1 - 20:23 )

by Rabbi Abba Wagensberg

Greetings from the holy city of Jerusalem!

The Tiferet Shmuel (vol. 1) begs forgiveness for disagreeing with the Vilna Gaon, but points out that, according to the Talmud (Shabbat 67a), even Jewish customs that resemble idolatrous practices are permitted if they are performed for the sake of healing. One example of this is a tree whose fruits drop off the branches before they are ripe. According to the Talmud, the trunk of such a tree is to be painted red, and huge stones are to be leaned against it.

Rashi explains that the cause of unripe fruits falling off the branches is the excessive strength of the tree. In other words, the speed at which the fruit grows exceeds the speed at which it ripens, causing the fruit to drop off prematurely. The remedy for this situation is to weaken the tree in order to slow down the fruit's growth. Even though ancient idolatrous practices might have involved placing stones around the trunk of a tree, in this case questionable appearances are irrelevant, because the goal of the action is to heal the tree.

The Talmud points out that painting the tree trunk red also has idolatrous overtones. Again, however, this action is permitted because it is for the sake of healing. The trunk is painted red in order to make the tree visible from a distance, so that people will notice it and pray for its health. Similarly, the Torah teaches that when a person is stricken with tzara'at (a spiritual skin disease), he must call out that he is afflicted (Leviticus 13:45) so that people will know of his ailment and pray for his recovery.

Based on this idea, the Tiferet Shmuel (citing Magen Abraham OC 494:5) explains one reason for bringing trees into our synagogues and homes on Shavuot. The Mishnah (Rosh Hashana 1:2) teaches that the fruits of the trees are judged on Shavuot. We thus bring them indoors in order to remind us to pray for them. Since the custom of bringing them inside is for the sake of their "healing," it is irrelevant that doing so resembles certain idolatrous practices, and there is no need to abolish the tradition.

(See also Piskei Teshuvot 494:10, in which we learn that the prohibition of "Do not perform the practices of [the nations]" in Leviticus 18:3 does not apply whenever there is a reason behind a Jewish custom.)

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In spirituality, there is a three-step process of hit'batlut (self-nullification), diveikut (cleaving to God), and nitz'chiut (acquiring eternity). This three-step process precisely describes the progression of a tree's growth. Since the Torah explicitly compares people to trees (Deut. 20:19), we could understand the Mishnah regarding the judgment on fruits as a judgment on us, as well - an assessment of whether or not we have lived up to the potential of a tree.

In the first stage of a tree's growth, a seed is placed in the ground, where it begins to disintegrate. This is literally hit'batlut (self-nullification). As the seed falls apart, it becomes part of the ground (diveikut), attaching itself so completely to the earth that it becomes one with it. From this attachment with the earth, a tree grows. Since the earth is eternal, and the tree is growing out of it, in theory it could continue growing forever (nitz'chiut).

This is powerful symbolism for us, as well. The word makom (literally, "place") can refer to the earth, but it is also a reference to God (Bereishit Raba 68:9). Thus, in the same way that a seed in the makom slowly dissolves its own essence, becomes one with the earth, and potentially lives forever, we, too, must learn to place ourselves within the makom and nullify our own ego in order to cling to God and achieve eternal life. Bringing trees indoors on Shavuot should therefore encourage us to pray - perhaps not so much for the trees, but for ourselves, who are compared to trees. We are judged on Shavuot regarding the degree to which we have succeeded in living a tree lifestyle.

I humbly bless us saplings to take ourselves out of the center in order to do God's will unconditionally. In this way, may we and all the sick of Israel become like strong trees, inseparable from the Source of good, forever.

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