15 Shevat 5762
From the Desk of: Rabbi Alan Haber
Tu B’shvat – Day of Longing for Eretz Yisrael
This month, we celebrate the joyous holiday of Tu B’shvat. To many of us, this means different things. Some may observe the custom (mentioned by Magen Avraham, Orach Chayim 131:16) of eating various types of fruits, particularly those that grew in Eretz Yisrael (perhaps accompanied by the singing of that all-time favorite song, “hashkediya porachat!”) Others may participate in some form of a “Seder Tu B’shvat” – a custom originally instituted by talmidim of the Arizal in Tzfat, some four hundred years ago. Still others will go out and celebrate by planting trees, or by raising money for trees in Eretz Yisrael. For all of us, at the very least Tu B’shvat means that when we daven on the fifteenth of Shvat (and the afternoon of the fourteenth) we must remember not to recite Tachanun (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 131:6).
Interestingly enough, however, the Gemara does not mention any of these customs, and gives us no reason to believe that Tu B’shvat was meant to be any sort of a holiday at all! The only context in which the day is even mentioned in the Gemara is in the first Mishna of Masechet Rosh Hashana, where it is in fact described as “Rosh Hashana L’Ilanot.” Contrary to popular misconception, though, this term does not connote some kind of a “birthday for trees” or even a “nature awareness day.” It is simply a date that has halachic significance regarding the laws of Orlah, Teruma and Maaser – fruits that blossom prior to Tu B’shvat are considered to belong to the previous year, and those afterwards to the following year. (So, for example, when taking Ma’aser from a pile of fruit, you can’t mix fruit from before Tu B’shvat with fruit from afterwards. This year is a little bit different because it follows the Shmitah year, but that is for another discussion.)
Therefore, Tu B’shvat is certainly a significant date as far as the halacha is concerned, but that doesn’t mean it’s a “holiday” or a time for celebration! Other than that, there is no mention in the Gemara of any other significance to the day. So where did all of these minhagim come from? Why don’t we say Tachanun?
Perhaps one answer may be found in the following question, mentioned in the Gemara (Masechet Sota 14a): “Rav Simlai asked, for what reason did Moshe Rabbenu desire to enter Eretz Yisrael? Was he interested in eating its fruit? Or being satiated with its material goodness?” Moshe Rabbenu, who went up to Har Sinai and lived without food or drink for forty days at a time, certainly was not interested merely in living in the land “flowing with milk and honey”! So, why was he so interested in going into Eretz Yisrael? Rav Simlai answered, “Moshe said, ‘there are many mitzvot which can only be fulfilled in Eretz Yisrael. Let me enter, so that I may fulfill them all!'”
For a Jew living in Chutz La’aretz, the pain felt by Moshe Rabbenu, the frustration of not being able to keep mitzvot hatluyot ba’aretz, can be felt most clearly on Tu B’shvat. For on this day, when according to the Torah’s laws one should be busy running around and dividing fruits for proper fulfillment of the various mitzvot, the Jew in Galut sits helplessly with no mitzvot to perform. As Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch wrote: “In Galut, Tu B’shvat is nothing but a day on the calendar. But how different from this is the spirit of Judaism in that place [Eretz Yisrael] where it is able to develop properly! [The Torah] places us in the midst of the expanse of nature, where a person is able to use his various kochot in partnership with nature… under the blessing and protection of HaKadosh Baruch Hu!”
So it is not surprising that, davka during the period of Galut, when Jews had been separated from their land for such a long time, they began to take special notice of the spiritual potential of Tu B’shvat. The minhag of specifically eating fruits of Eretz Yisrael (often in a dried form, so they could be transported to distant communities) expressed the same longings felt by Moshe Rabbenu, who desired to enter Eretz Yisrael, to “eat its fruit” and “be satiated with its goodness” only for the purpose of being able to fulfill its special mitzvot and exist in its unique spiritual atmosphere.
For those of us today who have been granted the privilege that Moshe was denied – to enter Eretz Yisrael, spending time here immersed in the unique holiness of Artzeinu Hakedosha, the observances of Tu B’shvat take on new meaning. (Indeed, even many secular Israelis who, unfortunately, are estranged from most aspects of Torah and Mitzvot, embrace Tu B’shvat as a day to express their appreciation for the beauty and uniqueness of Eretz Yisrael.)
And for those of you who, after experiencing the spirituality of Eretz Yisrael during an entire year of seminary, now find yourself once again in Chutz La’aretz, the observance of Tu B’shvat can serve the same purpose it did centuries ago – to remind us of our longing for Eretz Yisrael, for its unique holiness and the opportunity to perform unique mitzvot which we can only dream of in other places. These longings, taught to us by Moshe Rabbenu himself, have the singular power to stir us to Teshuva and Tefilla, to remind us of our kesher with Eretz Yisrael and encourage us to return as quickly as we can, and to ultimately help all of us do what is necessary to bring the Geula speedily. And then all of us will once again be able to observe all the mitzvot in their entirety.
Rabbi Alan Haber