JWR Outlook



Jewish World Review Jan. 17, 2003 / 14 Shevat, 5763

Fruit for the Soul

By Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Feuer





On Tu B'Shvat, the New Year for trees and celebrated this year on Jan. 18, it is a time-honored custom for Jews the world over to eat the fruits of the Holy Land. What is the significance of this tradition and what are its metaphysical roots?


http://www.jewishworldreview.com | "FOOD MAKES THE MAN." "What you eat today, walks and talks tomorrow." These are the popular slogans of nutritionists who believe that diet exerts a decisive influence over a person's physical well-being.

One need not be a health-food faddist to accept that food additives can take their toll on the consumer's health, and that many a hyperactive youngster is simply responding to high level of blood sugar in his veins, or the chocolate snack he had at recess. As we know, wine can turn man into a beast. And the right foods can make a person healthier, more alert, and more resistant to illness and disease.

Thus, it should not surprise us that the Torah teaches that foods affect people not only physically but emotionally and spiritually as well. Ramban in his commentary to Leviticus (11:13 and 17:11) takes note of the influence of matter on mind. He observes that the Torah prohibits the consumption of beasts of prey because their flesh exerts a corruptive influence overt the human personality and arouses cruel passions in the human breast.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch , the late leader of German Jewry, develops this idea further in his opus, Horeb (Chapter 68). He explains that the body is designed to serve as the instrument of the soul, to implement its goals of holiness and morality. When a Jew consumes that what the Torah forbids, the result is he's rendered insensitive to noble and lofty aspirations.

In his essay, S. R. Hirsch classifies foods according to their source, which, in turn, determines how they affect the person who eats them. It is the Jew's goal to eliminate - or at least minimize - the animalistic influences inherent in consuming meat. This depends on the type of meat he is eating.

This theme of the interfacing of the dietetics of the body with the dietetics of the soul is developed further by Dr. I. Grunfeld in his classic work, The Jewish Dietary Laws. He cites the words of the 13th-Century Kabbalist, Rabbi Menachem Recanati (Taamei Hamitzvos) who explains: The body is the intermediary between the inner soul and the outside world. It matters greatly whether this intermediary is a willing and pliable servant or not. Just as the craftsman must have the finest tools in order to produce precision work, so must the human soul be housed in a pure body to succeed in its task. Forbidden foods contaminate the soul so that holiness will not flow within the body.

NOT BY BREAD ALONE
The foods that the Torah permits can actually heighten man's capacity for awareness of G-d's presence and enhance his ability to serve his Creator. The Arizal explained that every physical object or being owes its existence to a holy spark buried within it. When a man eats, his body extracts the vitamins and minerals in the food, but it is not these that keep him alive, for if a person's soul were to leave him he would be no more animate than rocks and sand. The human soul extracts the spark of holiness within the food and it is these that maintain life by nourishing his soul. "The Creator fed you Manna that He might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but that man lives by that which emanates from the mouth of Hashem" (Deut. 8:3) the Divine sparks that stem from the spoken word of the Creator are part of all creation, and thus are found within every slice of bread and morsel of meat that man eats; and it is these sparks that keep man alive.

On Tu B'Shvat we rejoice over the fruits of The Holy Land, which are filled with these Divine sparks.

After eating any of the Seven Species for which the Holy Land is praised - foods made from the five types of grain, wine, grapes, figs, pomegrantes, olives or dates - we recite a special blessing in which we thank G-d: " for the produce of the field, and for the desirable, good and spacious land that You were pleased to give to our fore-fathers, to eat of its fruit and to be satisfied with its goodness."

The Tur (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 208) cites the opinion of his father, Rabbeinu Asher (the Rosh), who deleted this last line because he felt it improper to say that G-d gave Israel the Holy Land so that they should "eat of its fruits." Did Israel yearn for the Holy Land merely to eat delicacies and fruits? Mitzvos - Divine service - that is why the Holy Land is destined for Israel!

The Bach (Bayis Chodosh, commentary on the Tur by Rabbi Yoel Sirkis) upholds the original version of the blessing and his opinion is accepted as halacha. Bach explains: G-d has a reservoir filled with holiness called The Celestial Holy Land. It is the Divine Will that this holiness flow earthward for man to absorb. Nowhere is this sanctity more concentrated than in the fruits and grains of Israel, which are so brimming with holy sparks, that tasting them with proper concentration can stir the soul with fresh yearning for the Master of the Universe. And after eating them, one thanks the Creator for having bestowed us with the Holy Land, " to eat of its fruit and to be satisfied with its goodness."

SPARKS IN THE SYRUP
One wonders why the fifteenth day of Shevat (Tu B'Shavat) is the New Year for trees. Our Rabbis explain that on this day the saraf -- sap - begins to rise inside the trees, the first step in the long process of producing a ripened fruit. Outside, freezing winds howl, for the fifteenth of Sh'vat is called "the cold of winter" (Talmud, Babba Metzia 106b); yet inside the tree, the first warm fluids of springtime begin their upward flow.

There is also a spiritual dimension in this sap, for the word saraf literally means "fire" or "burning energy", alluding to the sacred sparks contained in abundance in the fruits of the Holy Land. These sparks can ignite the responsive soul with a burning desire to rise ever higher and closer to G-d. Tu B'Shvat is the day when G-d begins to deposit the first sacred sparks into the trees from where the fruits of the coming year will emerge.

The great Chassidic master, Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov, writes in his classic work, Bnei Yissos'chor: We have a tradition from our teachers to offer special prayers on Tu B'Shvat that G-d provide us with a perfect, beautiful esrog, the citrus fruit used during the holiday of Tabernacles (Succos). On this day the saraf begins its rise, and the outcome depends (not on agricultural or botanical conditions, but) on a Jew's spiritual merits. Pray fervently on this day and your prayers will literally bear fruit.

BLESSINGS BY THE BUCKETFUL
One would expect a "New Year" to occur on the first day of a month rather than at its middle. In this case, however, the date --- the fifteenth --- is appropriate, for the number fifteen alludes to the fifteen levels of sanctity and wisdom a man must scale to reach the pinnacle of holiness. In the monthly lunar renewal, which symbolizes man's perpetual quest for spiritual rejuvenation and growth, and which the Hebrew clandar is based upon, the moon is at its fullest on the fifteenth day of its cycle.

King David composed fifteen Shir HaMa'alos, Songs of Ascent (Psalms 120-134) which correspond to the fifteen step that rose up to the inner courtyard of the Holy Temple. The Kohanim (priests) sang the Songs of Ascent on Tabernacles during the Simchas Beis HaShoeiva celebration, when they draw a bucket of water that they carried up the fifteen steps to use as a libation. The drawing of the water symbolized Israel's yearning to be drawn up and lifted closer to G-d's embrace. And our Rabbis observed: From that celebration they did indeed draw up (buckets of) Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit).

Appropriately, the mazal -- the unique celestial sign -- that influences the month of Shevat is the bucket (Mazal Dli), for in the month of Shevat the saraf and its holy sparks rise up within the fruit tree just as buckets of water are drawn up from the well.

THE REFRESHING PAUSE
We live in the "fast-food generation," where the serving and consumption of meals correspond to the maddening pace of our lives. We are constantly urged to go faster, always on the run: "Grab a bite!" "Speed it up!" "Make it in a flash!"

The whirlwind of activity leaves us breathless and senseless hollow, burnt out before our time. Life in the fast lane means an abundance of pressure and little time for reflection.

Our sages advise us to slow down --- especially before we eat. In Talmudic times people did not merely sit for meals, they actually reclined and lounged on sofas. They loosened their belts (Talmud, Shabbos 9b) and slipped off their shoes.

Food is life. Food is fuel. Food is fire --- calories for the cells, holy sparks for the soul. We must teach ourselves how to savor food's spirituality, to extract its holy energy by contemplating the Divine Source of all food, and by leading our lives in a manner that does credit to the sacred sparks that we absorb into our bodies from the foods we eat. The fruits of the Holy Land are special, of course, because they are replete with sacred power. But all food contains some measure of spiritual energy.

On Tu B'shvat we pause to celebrate the sanctity of food. If we use this pause well, it has the power to refresh our souls the whole year.

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Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Feuer, writer, author and lecturer of note, is the spiritual leader of Kehillas Beis Avrohom of Monsey, New York. To comment or pose a question, please click here.


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