Carobs on Tu B’Shvat
Why is it that many people eat carobs on Tu B'Shvat? Even though it’s a native fruit to Israel, it is not one of the seven species. (Note: the Holy Land is specially praised for its “seven species” – wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates (Deuteronomy 8:8).) Is there any special significance to eating carobs on that day?
The Aish Rabbi Replies
The simple answer is that Tu B’Shvat marks the new year for all trees, not only the trees of Israel and not only the seven species. In fact, one of the earliest sources which makes mention of the customs of Tu B’Shvat simply states that many have the custom to eat fruit on this day (Magen Avraham, quoted in Mishna Berurah 131:31). There is no mention of the seven species. The day is an appropriate time to praise God for all the delicious fruits He created.
At the same time, not only are carobs native to the Land of Israel, they are often associated with great rabbis and events. In the famous story of R. Shimon bar Yochai and his son hiding in a cave for 13 years (while studying the deepest secrets of Kabbala), they subsisted on a carob tree and stream of water (Talmud Shabbat 33b). R. Chanina ben Dosa was likewise said to live on a kab of carobs every week (Brachot 17b).
In another episode (Baba Metziah 59b), the sages of the Talmud were once involved in a massive debate. R. Eliezer stood alone against all his contemporaries, but refused to yield. He invoked certainly heavenly signs to prove he was right. At one point, he cried out, “If I am right, let this carob tree prove it!” – and the tree picked itself up and moved over.
Finally, the Talmud (Ta’anit 23a) learns a powerful lesson from the carob tree. In Talmudic times, the common species did not bear fruit for 70 years. (Species today are much quicker but are still relatively slow to bear fruit. Wikipedia states that a typical tree does not produce a full yield until 20-25 years after planting.) The early Mishnaic scholar and wonderworker Choni Ha’Me’Agel once observed a man planting a carob tree. He asked him how long until it bears fruit. The man responded 70 years. He asked, “Do you think you’ll live for another 70 years?!” The man responded, “I came to a world with carob trees. Just as my ancestors planted for me, so too will I plant for my descendants.” Choni subsequently fell into a sleep for 70 years. He awoke to seeing the man’s grandson picking fruit from that same tree.
On a practical note, carobs no doubt have always been a popular Tu B’Shvat fruit because they store very well – albeit in a dried-out, very-hard-to-chew state. Thus, even in past generations they were easily available even Tu B'Shvat time, when many fruits are not. (I believe they are actually in season in fresher (but still rather hard) state in the late spring.)