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Thoughts on Trees and their Fruits and their Blessings

I think that I shall never seeA poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prestAgainst the earth's sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wearA nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,But only God can make a tree.


We’re all familiar with Joyce Kilmer’s famous poem about trees.  It is indeed true that “only God can make a tree,” (Though who knows what is going on in botanical labs these days,) However, only our rabbis can define what constitutes a tree halachically in terms of the laws of brachot, the blessings we recite over fruit, as well asvarious other laws.  I’m thinking particularly of the law of orlah, which prohibits eating the fruit of trees for the first three years after they are planted, taking the fourth year’s fruit to the Temple, and only in the fifth year permitting the eating of the fruit.  If a particular kind of tree doesn’t last five years, one wonders, may one ever eat its fruit?  Is it to be defined as a tree?  It takes a Talmudic mind to sort this all out.

I thought I knew what a tree was and even knew that a couple of so-called “trees” like banana trees and pineapple trees were not so categorized by the sages, but thanks to one of my readers in Israel, who had grown up at Temple B’nai Israel, but had studied the laws of blessings in greater detail than I have, I was sent back to the sources.I’ve come to learn a bit more about what makes a particular variety of vegetation a “tree” (halachically) and what is not included in that category.  I also found out that my guess a couple of weeks ago about the blessing overkiwis, after learning they grow on vines not on trees, was wrong.  It seems, like grapes that grow on vines, kiwis too require the blessing of borei p’ri ha-etz, praising God who creates the fruit of the tree.  I had suggested borei p’ri ha-adamah for this fruit, which is acceptable when one doesn’t know for sure whether a variety of fruit grows on a tree or elsewhere.  Live and learn, kiwis apparently are due a bit more respect in halachah, and thus according to all the authorities I consulted, they get the blessing of boreip’ri ha-etz.

It is really not clear to me why grape vines are categorized as trees and thus also kiwi vines as such.  It seems that we say borei p’ri ha-etz over fruit from vines that have some ofthe characteristics of trees which apparently includes grapes and kiwis, but not necessarily all berries.  Because of a custom not to say borei p’ri ha-etz over fruits that grow on vines lower than 9 inches or so, there are some varying rulings regarding the blessing for certain berries. Strawberries take the borei p’ri ha-adamah blessing, while blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, and others seem totake the blessing of borei p’ri ha-etz, though not everyone agrees on that, I find. As for papayas, I see that some authorities consider the papaya plant to be a tree and other not, thus some say ha-adamah and other say ha-etzover the papaya. When we discussed grape vines in my Monday night class, our resident botanist informed me that grape vines are very hard and tree-like which may account for the borei p’ri ha-etz blessing.  He didn’t know much about kiwis, though.

So, what kind of vegetation constitutes a tree?  It seems that there are several attempts to define “tree,” ilan or etzin Hebrew, in traditional sources.  Looking at the laws of b’rachot is not always helpful in this matter.  Our tradition has a whole treasury of agricultural laws and the tractate Kilayim, which deals with mixed seeds and other forbidden mixtures, is more “fruitful” in this quest. According to one source, “Whatever puts out leaves from its source is an herb, and what does not put out leaves from its source is a tree.”  In a different formulation, “If the leaves (or fruit) come forth from its branches it is a tree, but if they come up from beneath the ground, then they are an herb.”  Yet another attempt at definition has it, “Whatever commences its growth by putting out leaves is a species of herb, while whatever produces a trunk first is a tree.”

More specifically, with regard to the proper blessings, we find this principle stated, “If the g-v-v-z-a remains when the fruit is picked and it produces new fruit, it is a tree and its fruit takes the blessing of borei p’ri ha-etz.  But if it does not remain after the fruit is picked, to produce new fruit, then the blessing is borei p’ri ha-adamah.  While this principle is generally accepted, it seems that there are multiple interpretations of the term spelled gimel-vav-vav-zayin-alef, and also, I’ve discovered, at least three different attempts at vocalizing the word so it can be pronounced either gavza, gavaza, or gavavza.  I’ll stick with gavza and ask what that term means.

According to Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel, (1250 -1327)popularly known as the Rosh, the term gavza refers to the roots, so that even if the entire plant withers away after it bears fruit and nothing remains above the ground, if the roots remain and the following year the plant grows up again and bears fruit, it is to be considered a tree.  Thus,the Rosh holds that any perennial plant can be viewed as a tree and the blessing for its fruit would be borei pr’I ha-etz.

According to the view of the Geonim, the post-Talmudic sages, cited by the Rosh’s son, Rabbenu Yakov ben Asher(1269 – 1343), the author of the Tur, it is not a tree if nothing remains above the soil. Gavza refers, according to the Geonim, to the stem or trunk.  So if the stem or trunk remains, it is considered to be a tree, but if it dies out, and only the roots remain, even if they produce a new trunk or stem the following year, the blessing for its fruit is boreip’ri ha-adamah.  This is a clear difference of opinion on what makes a plant considered a tree.

But wait, there is a third opinion as well held by some other prominent sages that  it is not sufficient for the trunk of the plant to remain, but gavza refers to the branches as well.  If the branches fall off, even if they grow back in the following year, the blessing according to these sages is borei p’ri ha-adamah.  Of the three opinions, it seems that the vast majority of rabbis hold the second view that gavzarefers to the trunk of the tree and if the trunk remains after we’ve harvested the fruit, we may consider this vegetation to be a tree and recite borei p’ri ha-etz over its fruit.

As we saw with the papaya, there can be other considerations as well.  Some trees have hollow stems or trunks that are soft and they are only considered trees when they turn hard, otherwise they count as herbs for certain agricultural laws.  The papaya apparently has a hollow stem and thus some do not consider it to be a tree and say ha-adama over its fruit while others differ and say ha-etz. Some would say that any fruit that grows on a bush takes ha-adama and thus they would differ over the blessing for blackberries and raspberries and such from those who consider them in the category of trees and say ha-etz.

As mentioned initially, when in doubt you may wish to say borei p’ri ha-adamah over a questionable fruit or berrysince generally they all grow from the ground whether or not they are growing on a tree or some other variety of vegetation. As I write this, however, I’m thinking, what about hydroponically produced fruits and vegetables, that don’t grow from the ground, but grow in water, what blessing should one say over them?  Since, they do not grow from the ground or on a tree, others have raised the question and halachic authorities have ruled that the general blessing of shehakol should be used instead for such fruit.

This week, we will be marking the annual observance of Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Tree, on the 15th of the month of Shvat.  Though this date is established in accordance with the ruling of the School of Hillel, in the Mishnah, as a cutoff point for certain laws about trees, it is hard to call it an actual holiday. That hasn’t stopped Jewish tradition from building a festive structure around that date.  Liturgically, as far as I can see, the only change in our daily prayers for Tu BiShvat is the omission of the Tachanun supplications said after the Amidah, in the weekday service.  It has become customary over the centuries to eat fruits that grow on trees on this day, particularly, if available, fruit from Israel or fruits for which the land of Israel is praised in the Torah (pomegranates, figs, dates, olives, and grapes).  I know that as a young student in Hebrew school, our teacherssometimes provided us with “bokser,” dried carob pods, which tasted horrible back then.  Only when I got a taste of the fresh variety in Israel, did I learn that they can have a wonderful, sweet taste and they remain a Tu BiShvattradition, though they are not always easily available here.

Over the centuries, Tu BiShvat has been an occasion to reaffirm our ties with Israel and in the last century or so, to participate in the Jewish National Fund’s projects of acquiring land, planting trees, and building infrastructurein the land of our ancestors.  Going back to Hebrew School days again, I remember receiving a little folder in which to place quarters.  Once it was filled, I believe it was with $2.50 or $3,00 in quarters, we could turn it in and purchase a tree in Israel in honor of or in memory of someone.  The charges have increased over the years, but one still can purchase trees from the Temple office or JNF’s website or go to Israel and plant your own.  I’ve read that Tu BiShvat may not be the best time of year to plant trees in Israel though, but one can always purchase them for planting when the weather improves.

More recently, Tu BiShvat has become an opportunity to reinforce our connection with the environment and Jewish values relating to it.  Also, adding to the festive nature of this now holiday, in the past several decades, the mystical tradition, dating to the early 18th century work, “Pri Etz Hadar,” describing a Tu BiShvat seder, has been revived and revised for modern congregations.  These gatherings include tasting of a variety of fruits and several kinds of wine, along with appropriate readings about fruits and trees.  While the original text is rather esoteric, many contemporary versions have appeared and one can find some of them on the Sefaria website and other placesonline or in printed editions.  Personally, I created a pamphlet myself in the early ‘80s and have revised it over time and every year we have held a Tu BiShvat celebration with a seder generally on the Shabbat nearest Tu BiShvatin the congregations I’ve served. I plan one this year on Sunday morning, the eve of Tu BiShvat.

In our tradition, trees have always had great symbolic meaning going back to the Garden of Eden with the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil as well as the Tree of Life.  The people of Israel have been compared to trees of various kinds.  We sing of the Torah as a Tree of Life for all who hold fast to it and the rollers for a Sefer Torah are known as trees of life, atzei Chayim, which we hold onto when called for an Aliyah.  God’s attributes and powers, the sefirot, described in the Kabbalistic system, are often arranged as a tree with its roots in the heavens and its branches extending into the world, hence the name “Rosh Hashanah LaIlan” the New Year of the Tree.  On Tu BiShvat, we celebrate that Tree and the forces of nature flowing into our world, both physically and spiritually.  

However one chooses to define a tree, we take this opportunity  to express our gratitude to the Almighty for the gifts of nature, for the trees and all forms of vegetation which sustain life on this planet. It is a time to recognize our role as partners in creation who have been placed in God’s garden, “l’ovdah ul’shomrah, to work it and to safeguard it.” (Genesis 2:15) At this season and in all seasons, we praise God who creates the fruit of trees and of the earth and, indeed, shehakol nihyeh bidvaro, all that came into being at God’s word.



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