by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – December 10, 2013

On the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shvat, known as Tu B’Shvat, Jews worldwide mark the New Year of Trees (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 2a).  This day is considered the start of the new year for tithing fruits that grow from the tree.  Fruits blossoming from this day forward are considered to belong to another year for the levying of tithes, trumot and ma’asrot, and for the prohibition of orlah, and not related to tithes prior to this day.  According to Rashi (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 14a), this day’s significance stems from the fact that “the majority of the rainy season has passed, that is the fructifying rain, and the sap has risen in the trees; consequently, the fruit now begins to form.”

This day is marked by a festive mood and even considered a semi-holiday among Jews of Ashkenazic and Sephardic descent alike, in which penitential prayers and fasting are prohibited and special customs are performed, especially that of eating various kinds of fruits (see Mishna Brura 131:6).

Most may simply see the festive nature of this New Year of Fruits as an expression of the joy and contentment in knowing that G-d has seen it fitting to bring us another year of fruit and nourishment whereby we can successfully proceed with our endeavors.  Indeed, such sentiments are warranted and quite commendable.  Nevertheless, further contemplation of the matter would appear to reveal a deeper relationship to and significance of this time of year and the cultivation of trees bearing fruit for our enjoyment and consumption.

The process of cultivating trees for the purpose of bearing fruit actually reflects strikingly upon mankind and the life process of its individual members, especially those adhering to G-d’s Torah, its precepts and prohibitions, and, if thought about carefully, can help shed light on and guide us in the correct path to follow for success in our human endeavors.

In recent generations, a tendency has developed among younger generations to shy away from the advice of those who are older, to pay less attention to rules, and to exert less energy in attempting to achieve their goals.  Younger people often think they “know it all” and do not need to ask those older for advice.  The younger generation often thinks they can “get around” different rules and regulations.  And young people, more and more, prefer to “take it easy,” avoiding hard work.  Adults are less disciplined and less discipline is provided to their children.  And more and more people are “into” themselves, showing less regard for others in society and for the role of G-d.  In contradistinction to this trend, stands the process of planting and cultivation of trees and their consequent bearing of fruit, which, if analyzed properly, can serve as a paradigm for the proper approach to life, one that has been propounded by Torah law and lore for centuries.

In the process of planting trees, specific rules must be abided by and no wavering from these rules can be tolerated.  “Cutting corners,” so to speak, nor “winging it,” as some say, will produce the desired results.  If someone wants to plant a tree and wishes to have a reasonable chance at its growing properly and bearing fruit, he has no choice but to study the pertinent rules of agriculture, without which his efforts are doomed to failure.  Without studying the rules, one cannot know the proper techniques to employ and the dangers of acting otherwise.  So does G-d prescribe in the Torah (Devarim 11:13-15), “And it will be that if you hearken to My commandments that I command you today…  Then I shall provide rain for your land in its proper time…I shall provide grass in your field for your cattle and you will eat and you will be satisfied.”  We must adhere to the rules, and, to do so, we must gather the requisite knowledge.  This is the foundation of any chance at success in our endeavors.

In addition to studying the rules, one who attempts to plant a tree and wants to see it grow to its fullest potential will find it most valuable to consult with those who have more experience and more accumulated wisdom.  The difference between just following the rules and additionally consulting with others older and wiser can often be quite significant.  Similarly, the Torah teaches us, “Honor your father and your mother,” (Sh’mot 20:12) and “In the presence of an old person shall you rise and you shall honor the presence of a sage” (Vayikra 19:32).  Age and experience are to be respected and valued, whereas ignoring the advice and opinion of those older and more experienced is nothing but folly, as is evident from the story of King Rechavam, son of the wise King Solomon, whose turning away from the counsel of those older and wiser led to the tragic splitting of the kingdom of David into two (I Melakhim 12).

Gathering knowledge and seeking advice from others more experienced, however, is not all there is to the process leading to trees’ bearing fruit.  Planting and growing entail hard work and discipline.  To produce trees that have a significant chance at bearing fruit, laziness or lackadaisical behavior is the wrong recipe, which any good farmer can attest to.  Similarly, our forefather Yaakov related that, in tending to his uncle Lavan’s property (Bereshit 31:40), “By day, scorching heat consumed me, and frost by night; my sleep drifted from my eyes.”  And it is this pattern of hard work combined with discipline that was followed by Jewish leaders through the centuries and which, along with their knowledge and consulting their elders, formed them into the great people that they were.

But here does not end the process of bearing fruit.  One’s field can often be damaged by problems that arise in other surrounding fields.  To avoid this, farmers often work together to prevent general issues that can affect all of them.  Consequently, by caring about the fields of his neighbors, one can ensure the proper agricultural environment for the betterment of one’s own property, while being fixated on oneself and one’s own property can lead to disaster.  It is a similar concept that is taught in Judaism by encouraging acts of kindness and caring for other individuals and the community at large.  “And you shall love your fellow as yourself,” the Torah tells us (Vayikra 19:18).  By caring about others, we can cultivate a proper environment that will benefit all of us.

Last but by no means least is the role of G-d.  After all has been done, knowledge and advice accumulated, hard work and discipline exercised and cooperation employed, there are always factors beyond the farmer’s control.  It is with this realization in mind that the wise farmer often raises his eyes to the heavens beseeching the One in full control, the Al-Mighty G-d, to please assist in his endeavors.  And it is with this realization in mind that Jewish law prescribes us to pray regularly to G-d with true devotion and feeling, honestly recognizing that all is in His Hands and the consequent need to turn to Him with full sincerity.  It is with this realization that we say to G-d several times a day in the Sh’mone Esre prayer: “Bless on our behalf, O L-rd our G-d, this year and all its kinds of crops for the best … and satisfy us from Your bounty.”

It is with the above in mind that the first budding fruits of the new season can bring on a special meaning.  We can see that the apparently arduous process that the farmer engages in – accumulation of knowledge, consulting with those of greater experience, hard work, discipline, cooperation with others and turning to G-d – has once again proven to bear fruit, which can encourage us to follow a similar process in our general lives’ endeavors and see similar success.  And with full joy, we can declare, as found in our grace after meals, “We thank You, L-rd our G-d, for having given our forefathers as a heritage a desirable, good and spacious land … for Your Torah which You taught us and for Your statutes which You made known to us; for life, grace and loving kindness which You granted us; and for the provision of food with which You nourish and sustain us constantly, in every day, in every season and in every hour.”

May we take a lesson from the farmer and take his example in bearing fruit of our individual and communal endeavors as human beings and servants of the One and Only Creator and Ruler of the World and may this bring us New Year after New Year of growth, progress and enrichment in our lives and all our endeavors for many years to come.

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