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The Relevance of Tu B’Shvat: Towards a More Fruity Existence

January 28, 2018 | by Rabbi Binyamin Feldman

Waking up to an awe-inspiring world.

Here’s some really exciting news for you:

The 15th of the Jewish month of Shevat, otherwise known by its Hebrew acronym of Tu B’Shvat, is the birthday of fruit trees, at least as far as Jewish agricultural law goes. So, if your jaboticaba tree was 83 years old on the 14th of Shevat, you can add a year to that figure.

Excited? Probably not, and it’s hard to blame you. After all, this dry tidbit of Jewish law doesn’t make much of a difference to you and your life.

Jewish law and custom, apparently, think otherwise. They have turned the day into one of celebration. As recorded in the code of Jewish Law, one of the most somber prayers in the daily liturgy – Tachanun – is omitted on Tu B’Shvat, and a centuries-old tradition has many people sampling a variety of fruits on this day. What gives?

First of all, let’s understand the thinking behind designating this day as a cut-off point for fruit trees. As explained in the Talmud, around this time of year, the rainy-season in Israel has generally passed its half-way mark, and the sap is assumed to begin ascending into the trees, causing fruit to start blossoming. A new year’s worth of fruit is on its way.

Nice, but still, how is this relevant?

New Years for trees is fertile ground for homiletic, Kabbalistic and Hasidic thinking, but let’s not overlook some more down-to-Earth messages.

It may be easy to forget but we live in a world whose complexity, diversity and sophistication are breathtaking. The simple phenomenon of life – which is of course anything but simple – is itself an awe-inspiring mystery.

Familiarity can lead to boredom, and we may come to take these things for granted. Taking life for granted is the antithesis of everything Judaism stands for. As Bachye Ibn Pakuda, an 11th century ethicist, taught in his Duties of The Heart, one of the primary ways we connect to God is through taking notice of the marvels of His creation. What can we do to extricate ourselves from the catatonic state of ennui we may find ourselves in?

The world of botany can help us remain awake and alert to the ongoing wonders of creation. Plant life, along with the agricultural cycle, remind us that behind the scenes, right under our noses, the forces of nature are hard at work, not stopping for a second. With their perceptible growth, living things alert us to the marvel and wonder of the force of life running through our universe, and the Force of Life making it all happen.

Remember that “experiment” back in nursery school when we planted some grass seeds and then waited impatiently for them to sprout? It seemed like a miracle when those tender sprouts pushed their way out of the soil. Something of that childlike awe remains within each of us, even if we sometimes have to dig deep to find it.

Among all plant life, there is something especially unique about trees and their fruit. Trees themselves fascinate us, with their regal, upright bearing, their soaring heights, their seemingly magical ability to produce from relatively dull branches an astonishing variety of dazzling and succulent produce. And fruits themselves are refreshing in a way that other natural foods may not be. A new season of fruit can help us step out of the monotony of life, pierce the cocoon of indifference that we allow to grow around ourselves, and take note of the wonders of creation going on around us.

But it goes further than simple wonder.

In early spring, usually during the Jewish month of Nisan, fruits reach a more mature stage of their growth. A special blessing is recited upon seeing the first fruit blossoms: “Blessed are you, God, Who has created goodly trees and goodly creations for human beings to enjoy.” Our sense of wonder is intensified by our recognition that the awesome, mysterious Divine force behind all of this had someone in mind when producing all of this bounty – us!

Upon that realization, our wonderment fuses with a powerful feeling of gratitude to the Mind that engineered this incredible variety of fruits. Each sample of the almost endless diversity of tastes, textures, colors and appearances in the world of fruits serves as a living, dynamic token of God’s beneficence and care.

Of course, it might seem more appropriate to celebrate these things when the new fruits actually become ready. Why celebrate before we can even benefit from the new fruit?

That’s just the point. Celebrating only when fruits actually present themselves would mean that we have eyes only for the actual fruits.

We are literally watching the secret of life in action.

The discerning observer, however, sees not only the final product but the actual process behind it. That’s important, because focusing only on the final product cheats us out of a sense of awe at the intricacy and complexity of the actual process.

More: it robs us of the opportunity to actually experience and be a part of the sheer vibrancy of that process. More wondrous than anything else in nature is the secret of life itself. When we know the way for creation of fruit is being prepared, we are literally watching the secret of life in action.

The celebratory atmosphere we attempt to create at Tu B’Shvat is one of capturing the surge of life and vibrancy we sense in the world at that time. It is a time to take note of a fact we can, amazingly, forget: We are alive! Even more importantly, we are alive not by coincidence but because Someone has willed it, and has willed us to be active participants in His symphony of life. We are alive and surrounded by vibrant, ubiquitous life.

Sampling fruits on Tu B’Shvat is an experience fusing together wonder, joie de vivre and gratitude to God, allowing us to tune in to the wonders of creation and to participate in the silent drama constantly and consistently unfolding around us.

Happy Birthday!

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