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Thoughts on Tu BiShvat and Etrogs

Thoughts on Tu BiShvat and Etrogs

 

This week we celebrate Tu BiShvat, the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Shvat, designated by our sages in the Mishnah as the New Year of the Tree.  Though it was not initially an actual holiday, but rather a convenient date for determining certain laws that applied to the fruit of trees in the Land of Israel, over the centuries various customs have developed making it into a festive celebration.

 

In modern times, it has provided an opportunity to connect with the land of Israel through the purchase and planting of trees through the Jewish National Fund, obtaining fruit either from Israel or associated with Israel in the Bible or Rabbinic literature, and by creating a variety of rituals.  Modern rabbis have pointed to traditional texts that urge us to preserve the environment.  Mystics a couple of centuries ago had created an elaborate Tu BiShvat Seder which in our time has been simplified and put in modern terms, but still features the eating of a variety of fruits and nuts and the drinking of four cups of wine, not unlike the Passover seder.

 

One interesting tradition related to Tu BiShvat may not be as well-known as it connects this celebration of trees with the Etrog fruit, the citron, which is one of the four species of plant life used during the rituals of Sukkot in the fall.  Actually, there is a dual connection between the etrog and this holiday. One connection that is known to many people is related to etrogim that have served their purpose on Sukkot last fall.  Our sages objected to simply tossing out this fruit which has been used for fulfilling a mitzvah.  While discarding an etrog is not actually forbidden, its use on Sukkot gives it an aspect of sanctity and one is encouraged to find another use for it that might fulfill another mitzvah or, at least, be part of a customary observance. Some people save the other three species, the lulav, myrtle, and willow and use them to sweep up crumbs of chametz before Passover and then burn them along with those leavened products.

 

That does not work so well with an etrog. Thus, some people have gathered etrogim after the holiday and made preserves out of them with the intention of serving them on Tu Bishvat, perhaps at a Tu BiShvat seder.  I’m told, however, that the heavy use of pesticides on etrogim in Israel and elsewhere, may prevent this from being a healthy practice.  I also have heard though that there are growers out in California who are now raising etrogim without the use of these deadly chemicals so that people can safely use the fruit once again for preserves or some other product.

 

The other association of the etrog with Tu BiShvat is less well-known. According to the B’nai Yisaschar, a classic Hasidic text, we need to explain why Tu BiShvat is known in the Mishnah as the “New Year of the Tree” and not of the “Trees.”  The author of this work speaks of a long-standing tradition that on Tu BiShvat one should pray for a beautiful, splendid kosher etrog (etrog kasher,yafeh umehudar) that God may provide for one next fall for Sukkot.  Using the singular for tree, the Mishnaic teacher, the Tanna, was referring, he says, to a particular tree singled out by the Torah for the fulfilment of a mitzvah, namely the etrog.

 

What is so special about this tree and its fruit?  Going back to the Creation story, the rabbis point to God’s original plans to create “etz pri oseh p’ri l’mino,” “fruit trees producing fruit of every kind.” A close reading of the text leads to a question: what else should a fruit tree produce but fruit?  The repetition of the word “fruit” “p’ri” seems redundant.  However, the rabbis claim that God’s intention was to create trees and fruit that were both edible, so that etz p’ri would be not just a fruit tree, but a tree which was itself fruit or, at least, its bark was edible. They claim, and I cannot verify this, that only the etrog tree fulfilled God’s command. When the trees appear in the Creation story they are described simply as “etz oseh p’ri” “trees that produce fruit,” and apparently are not themselves edible.

 

Some rabbis claim that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden was an etrog tree and when Adam and Eve and the snake were all punished for their sins in violation of God’s command, God also uses this opportunity to curse the earth for insubordination, as it were, because the trees it produced did not follow His instructions and, except for the etrog tree, were inedible.

 

In an article by the students of Yeshivat Har Etzion, a number of qualities are attributed to the etrog which makes it unique.  They see the etrog as uniting various qualities within it.  If you think of the well-known associations of the four species with various kinds of Jews, it is the etrog which combines within it both fragrance and taste, symbolizing knowledge and good deeds.  The date-palm has only taste = knowledge, the myrtle only fragrance = good deeds, and the willow neither.  The etrog thus brings together wisdom and its application, Torah and mitzvot.  One may note that the Hebrew word “etrog,” alef-tav-reish-vav-gimel has the numerical value of 610.  If we add to it the three other species, we get the number of commandments in the Torah, 613.  The etrog represents Torah and its fragrance reminds us not to keep it within, but to follow its precepts in all that we do in the world.

 

The etrog, according to our sages grows on “Kol mayim” as opposed to other trees which use “rov mayim.”  The term “rov mayim” most water, means they are sustained by rainfall alone.  “Kol mayim” all water, implies that not only does the etrog tree require rainfall, but also needs to be watered by the farmer, like a vegetable garden.  Thus etrogim are tithed in the same way as vegetables.  In using both water from the heavens, Divinely provided moisture, as well as water provided by human effort, the etrog again serves a unifying role in bringing God and humankind together in a joint effort.  Since it is in need of water, it leads to our prayers for rain.

 

The authors of this article from Yeshivat Har Etzion also point to a nationalistic connection with the etrog. Though it is associated with the land of Israel and some of the special mitzvot which can be observed only in Israel, it also partakes of the status of those mitzvot which can be observed by Jews wherever they live mitzvot haguf, thus uniting world Jewry with their brothers and sisters in Israel. They also point to a special link uniting the practice in the ancient Temple to the rituals outside the Temple.  While the Temple stood, the four species including the etrog were used for seven days in the Temple and only one day outside.  Once the Temple was destroyed, the rabbis extended our practice to using the etrog throughout the week of Sukkot even outside of Jerusalem.

 

The authors go on to establish similar links of Tu BiShvat to the land of Israel, to the Torah, the Temple, and to God and thus conclude that it is most appropriate on Tu BiShvat to offer special prayers for a good, beautiful, and kosher etrog next fall.  Such prayers appear in various collections of writings on Tu BiShvat. 

 

All this is very nice, but what struck me in particular in this discussion and in material found in a work on Tu BiShvat entitled “Tehillah L’David”, is the joining together of etrogim of the past year with those yet to be harvested for the new year, the connection of past and future prayers.  The name Yehudah, Judah, given to Leah’s fourth son, is linked to the word for thanksgiving, hodaah, and we have often noted that calling us Yehudim, Jews, reflects on this concept of perpetual thanksgiving.  However, it has been noted that after the birth of Judah and Leah’s prayer of thanksgiving, she stopped bearing children for a time. Why was this the case?  The commentators suggest it is because she offered thanks only for the past, what had already occurred, but did not offer thanks for future blessings.  By linking the continued use of last year’s etrog to our prayers for next year’s etrog on Tu BiShvat, we are offering thanks for both what has occurred and what may yet occur, for past blessings and for those yet to come.

 

The rabbis link the qualities of the etrog to those of its owner.  In other words, a righteous and godly individual will merit a particularly beautiful etrog.  In this way of thinking, each Jew gets the etrog he deserves.  Hence there are Hasidic stories of their rebbes sensing whether or not an etrog presented to them is actually intended for them.  One story has a Hasid purchasing etrogim for two different rebbes and when he gave one to his own rebbe, the tzaddik began to reflect on his deeds, for this etrog seemed to indicate a deficiency somewhere within him. Not finding any particular sin, he inquired further. The Hasid who had brought the etrog to him then told him what he had done.  The rebbe then asked for the other etrog and immediately realized it was that second etrog which was designated for him.

 

In offering our prayers for next year’s etrog on Tu BiShvat, we are demonstrating our faith in the future, linking last year to the next, connecting ourselves to the Torah and good deeds, to Israel and the world Jewish community, to the sanctity of the Temple and the holiness we can create outside of the Temple, and above all, linking ourselves with our Heavenly Father, the Creator of the fruit of the tree, and the author of all life.

 

Happy Tu BiShvat!

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