Gardening: A royal arbor

What is the essence of happiness? According to the Talmud, it's doing something that will bring happiness to others

gardening 88 (photo credit: )
gardening 88
(photo credit: )
What is the essence of happiness? According to the Talmud, it's doing something that will bring happiness to others. No less a figure than Rebbi, known also as Yehuda Hanassi or Judah the Prince, celebrated Purim, the holiday of quintessential happiness, by planting a tree (Megila 5b). Rebbi, whom we don't normally think of as a gardener, edited the Mishna during the second century. He was one of the greatest scholars, as well as one of the wealthiest men, of his era. The Gemara continues (Megila 6a) with a description of the horticultural paradise of Tiberias, where Rebbi lived, and its surroundings. Tosafot, the medieval commentary on the Gemara, explains that Tveriya (Hebrew for Tiberias) consists of the words tova and re'eya, meaning "good appearance," and refers to the gardens and orchards that were planted there. We also learn that the Kinneret was named for the fruits grown in that locale which were "as sweet as the sounds of a harp (kinor)." You cannot help but wonder why Rebbi, even if he did reside in the garden capital of ancient Israel, was planting a tree on Purim. He could have been learning Torah. He was rich and had many servants. He could easily have given orders to one of them to plant a tree instead of doing the work himself. He also had many students, any one of whom would have considered it a great honor to plant a tree for the most esteemed scholar of that generation. Indeed, as the Gemara relates, astonishment was expressed at the sight of Rebbi planting a tree, but not because a person of his stature was engaged in manual labor. During Rebbi's time, in many cities it was a custom to abstain from work on Purim. Thus, someone who thought Tiberias was such a non-working city was shocked to see Rebbi planting there. Ultimately, the Gemara provides the following explanation for Rebbi's activity: "He was planting for a simha (joyful occasion)." Here, it is useful to remember that Purim, the holiday of supreme happiness, is celebrated by bringing happiness to others. The two major mitzvot of Purim - celebrated last week - involve giving. One, mishloah manot, prescribes sending gifts of food and drink to friends and acquaintances, and the second, matanot l'evyonim, demands providing financial or other assistance to the poor. Unlike any other holiday. we are also instructed to have a feast, which presents an additional opportunity for giving joy to others by providing them with a lavish repast. Perhaps now we can understand why Rebbi himself was planting a tree on Purim, instead of delegating the job to someone else. He wanted to do something that embodied the essence of the holiday. Planting a tree, by definition, is an act that eventually brings happiness to others. If you plant a tree for its fruit, you will invariably share the harvest with your neighbors. An apricot, plum or fig tree produces so much ripe fruit at once that, if you don't give most of it away, it will spoil before you have a chance to consume it. If you plant a slow-growing tree - an oak or a carob, let's say - for its shade, you may not live long enough to see it get large and may not personally derive benefit from it. Yet generations that come after you will sit below its massive canopy and appreciate its cooling presence. The Gemara specifies "planting a royal arbor" as one type of labor that was permissible on Purim, even where local custom forbade other forms of work. A royal arbor, Rashi explains, consisted of a fruit tree trained on an arching frame that provided shade and sweet refreshment on hot days. In horticulture, bending fruit tree branches over arbors or gazebos or upon trellises is known as espalier. It is an art that originated in ancient Egypt and first appeared in Europe in monasteries during the Middle Ages. Espalier is especially suitable for small areas such as courtyards, side yards or narrow garden beds. Aside from taking up less space, espalier trees produce fruit earlier and have heavier crops, per meter of branches, than free-standing trees. The reason for this is a change in hormonal balance, in favor of fruitfulness, that occurs when branches are bent to the horizontal. Anyone who has observed the large number of fruits on the lower, more horizontal branches of certain fruit trees can appreciate this effect. Espalier trees, since they seldom exceed two to three meters in height, have the advantage of being easier to harvest and prune than conventional trees. When training an espalier tree next to a wall, allow 20 centimeters of space between tree and wall for air to circulate. South-facing walls provide an extra measure of heat to plants espaliered in front of them, an advantage if your winter is occasionally frosty but you still want to grow tropical trees. Three types of espalier structure or design are generally seen. Branches are bent into the palmette or menora configuration, the horizontal cordon or multitiered system or the diagonal cordon or diamond-patterned Belgian lattice. Fruit trees with flexible stems are recommended as espalier subjects. Fig, apple, pear and quince trees are most suitable, but citrus, persimmon and guava trees are also amenable to espalier planting as, of course, are grapevines. Dwarf or semi-dwarf trees are preferable to standard types. Many ornamental shrubs and trees are also readily trained up arbors or along trellises. The list includes camellia, hibiscus, pyracantha, cotoneaster, forsythia, magnolia, ginkgo and Japanese maple.