The Lesson of the ‘Bokser’

Nov 24, 2014

by Rebbetzin Ruthie Karlinsky

It’s cold outside, raining, maybe even snowing…. It’s the middle of the winter for most of us; Chanukah is long gone and Purim and Pesach are still a few months away. It’s the month of Shvat and on the fifteenth day we celebrate Tu B’Shvat. But what celebration are we actually talking about? What’s so special about this day?

Most of us associate Tu B’Shvat with trees and the beautiful minhag of eating fruits from Eretz Yisrael, especially fruits from the seven species.

When we were kids, we received a special treat in school on Tu B’Shvat: A piece of a carob pod from Israel called “bokser”. It looked like a brown stone from the petrified forest, but if you sucked all of it during recess, it began to give off a faint sweet taste and with a little imagination, you could picture that carob pod growing in Israel. (Today one needs no imagination to conjure up what grows in Israel. A short walk through the ‘shuk’ will reveal an impressive array of produce, much of which is shipped abroad.)

But there has to be more to Tu B’Shvat than “bokser”. Halachically Tu B’Shvat is a Rosh Hashana for the tree. According to the Rabbis (Masechet Rosh Hashana), this is the day of the year that separates the previous year from the upcoming year with respect to fruit grown on trees, since most of the rains have already fallen in Israel by then and the sap is beginning to rise. As a result, fruit already formed on the trees by that time is a product of that year’s rainfall. This is the day that determines the fruits of the previous year’s crop for the purpose of tithing – a kind of end and beginning of the “fiscal year” for trees. As a Rosh Hashana, Tu B’Shvat is also a day of judgement for the trees. What kind of year will it be for the trees and for the fruit they produce? There is actually religious significance to this day, insofar as we do not say Tachanun in Shacharit or in the previous Mincha prayer; neither do we fast or eulogize the deceased. Does this day of Tu B’Shvat have significance to us as well as to the trees?

In Devarim 20:19 we read of the injunction against cutting down fruit trees even in times of war, “…You shall not destroy its tree by striking an axe against it, for you shall eat of it and not cut it down; for man is a tree of the field…” For Man is a tree of the field! Trees are often used as a metaphor for a human being. Just like a tree, man puts down roots, extends his ‘branches’ and produces fruit/offspring. (A projective technique developed by a clinical psychologist utilizes an individual’s drawing of a tree as a means to assess his basic personality.) If we are likened to trees, then Tu B’Shvat is to some degree a Rosh Hashana or a new year for us, too. Perhaps this should be a day to contemplate and see how our ‘tree’ is doing. Are we putting down the proper roots in the proper place? Are we letting them sink deep enough before we put energy into other parts of the ‘tree’? Are we grounded? Are we strong enough but flexible enough to withstand strong winds?

A tree that bends can withstand a storm, but one that doesn’t, snaps. Are our branches reaching out to help others? Are they producing leaves that can shade others from harsh conditions? What are we doing now to ensure that we produce sweet, healthy fruit in the future? The sage Choni HaM’agel once saw a man planting a carob tree and asked him: How long does it take for this tree to bear fruit? The man replied: Seventy years. He further asked him: Are you sure that you will live another seventy years? The man replied: I found fully grown carob trees in the world because my forefathers planted them for me; so too, I plant these trees for my children. Perhaps that was the lesson of the “bokser”.

According to tradition, Moshe read the Book of Devarim (Mishneh Torah) to Bnei Yisrael starting on the first of Shvat, and finishing on the seventh of Adar. The average person listening to Moshe speak about rebuke and encouragement, and hearing his explanations of the various mitzvot, began to feel spiritual growth on the 15th of Shvat – Tu B’Shvat. We may assume that this day of Tu B’Shvat is a propitious time for spiritual growth. So, by all means, celebrate Tu B’Shvat with the eating of the fruits of Eretz Yisrael, but don’t forget to take advantage of the spiritual nature of this new year as well.

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