A blessed day, a day of blessing

The very act of blessing is like a tree whose saplings give more and more fruit and shade. The more blessing we bring into the world, the more blessed the world will be.

Recent immigrants celebrate Tu Bishvat by planting trees in Yatir Forest near Arad in the 1990s (photo credit: JOE MALCOLM)
Recent immigrants celebrate Tu Bishvat by planting trees in Yatir Forest near Arad in the 1990s
(photo credit: JOE MALCOLM)
As Tu Bishvat approaches and we search classical Jewish sources for the roots and meaning of this much-loved (though minor) holiday, one particular Talmudic parable stands out:
“When they were taking leave of one another, [Rav Nahman] said [to Rabbi Yitzhak]: ‘Master, give me a blessing.’ [Rabbi Yitzhak] said to him: ‘I will tell you a parable: A man was walking through a desert – hungry, tired, and thirsty – and he found a tree whose fruits were sweet and whose shade was pleasant and a stream of water flowed beneath it. He ate from the fruits of the tree, drank from the water in the stream and sat in the shade of the tree. And when the time came to take his leave, he said: Tree, tree, with what blessing shall I bless you? If I say may your fruits be sweet – your fruits are (already) sweet; [if I bless you] that your shade should be pleasant – your shade is already pleasant; that a stream of water should flow beneath you – a stream of water already flows beneath you. Rather, [I will bless you]: May it be God’s will that all saplings which they plant from you, be like you’ (Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 5b-6a).
As is always the case with talmudic parables, this lovely vignette encapsulates much larger and important Jewish concepts. In this case, as with Tu Bishvat itself, the story goes far beyond wishing the trees a happy, successful New Year.
Tu Bishvat falls in the middle of winter and serves as the cutoff point for many agricultural laws. Tithes and other Torah mandates consider Tu Bishvat to be the first day of a new agricultural cycle. While in the early Middle Ages, Jewish poets composed special piyyutim (liturgical poems) to honor the day, there is no record of celebration of any kind until modern times. In fact, the Mishna describes Tu Bishvat as the “New Year for the [fruits] of the trees” much in the same way accountants refers to a new tax year, or academic institutions refer to a new school year. This rather dry, technical approach remained unchanged until the appearance in 1731 of Hemdat Yamim, a book of unknown authorship that was published and publicized by Rabbi Yisrael Ya’acov Algazi.
From the first, Hemdat Yamim was both highly influential and highly controversial. Its impact stems solely from its content, an explanation of laws and Kabbalistic ideas related to Jewish holidays. Readers were enthralled and uplifted by the book’s insights and felt the anonymous author had given them a deeper insight into the festivals. On the other hand, Hemdat Yamim sparked quite a controversy, with rabbis and scholars long accusing it of having been influenced by ideas of the false messiah Shabtai Zvi and his followers.
Many of the Kabbalistic concepts in Hemdat Yamim are also attributed to Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, “the Arizal.” But Hemdat Yamim explicitly states that the Tu Bishvat Seder is the author’s own invention, not a teaching of the Arizal, as many Jews in communities around the world have come to believe.
Long before Hemdat Yamim was printed, Rabbi Yissachar ibn Susan (born 1510) wrote in Tikun Yissachar (first published in 1564) that it was a custom of the “Ashkenazim” to eat fruit on Tu Bishvat. Rabbi Yissachar, who lived in Israel at that time, was most likely referring to the Ashkenazi community in Israel, most probably in Safed. The custom he refers to is specific to fruits, without mention of any kabbalistic rite or seder. Tikun Yissachar is cited in the influential and authoritative halachic work Magen Avraham (131:16) – the most probable source for the widespread custom of eating fruit on Tu Bishvat – but not of the seder mandated by the anonymous author of Hemdat Yamim.
Let’s step back from questions of authorship and the source of the ideas, and consider what Hemdat Yamim offers as the rationale offered for the Tu Bishvat Seder. At its basic level, the ritual expresses thanks and appreciation. The very basic Jewish concept of hakarat hatov (literally “recognizing the good”), is conveyed through brachot (“blessings.”) To illustrate the centrality of brachot in Jewish thought, Hemdat Yamim cites a teaching found in the Jerusalem Talmud:
“Rabbi Yosi son of R’ Bun said, ‘It is prohibited to live in a city which does not have a vegetable garden.’ Rabbi Hizkia, [in the name of] Rabbi Kohen, said in the name of Rav: ‘A person is destined to be judged and will have to account for anything his eye saw that he did not eat.’ Rabbi Elazar was careful regarding this teaching and saved up coins [with which to purchase] and eat each type of produce once a year. (Jerusalem Talmud, Kiddushin 4:12)
The purpose of the newly created Tu Bishvat Seder – which formalized the types of fruit and wine to be used at the celebration and the proper sequence of their consumption – was to bring more blessing into the world. Participants are meant to partake of the bountiful produce God has given us and to recite a blessing expressing appreciation and thanks. At this very basic level, Hemdat Yamim and Tikun Yissachar are in full agreement – the point of eating the fruit and drinking wine is to make brachot.
The centrality of blessings and gratitude in Jewish thought may be seen in other Talmudic passages:
“Rabbi Hanina bar Pappa said: ‘Anyone who derives benefit from this world without a blessing, it is as if he stole from God and the community of Israel.’” (BT, Brachot 35b) Rashi explains “stole from God” with the comment “His blessing.”
The focus is on the blessing, not the purloined produce. God does not miss fruit that is eaten without permission, without the blessing that would allow its consumption. What has been lost is the blessing itself, which the world those of us living in it sorely need. When we recite a blessing, we connect with God and at the same time cultivate the trait of appreciation, hakarat hatov. Additionally, as the Arizal and his followers point out, mankind’s very first sin in the Garden of Eden was eating a fruit without permission – and presumably, without a bracha. On Tu Bishvat, the New Year for trees and their fruits, we have the opportunity to remedy this failing, even though, as the Jerusalem Talmud taught, throughout the year, it is a meritorious act to search the markets for new fruits in order to recite a bracha and express our thanks to God for the wonderful world He has provided for us.
This brings us full circle, to the talmudic parable with which we began. Here too the lesson is one of hakarat hatov, of expressing appreciation and of the human capacity to articulate our appreciation in the form of a blessing. The very act of blessing is like a tree whose saplings give more and more fruit and shade. The more blessing we bring into the world, the more blessed the world will be.