Chag Tu B’shvat
At first glance, Tu B’shvat seems to be a mere technical halachic marker for the new year of fruits (as pertaining to fruit-oriented mitzvot). Surprisingly, though, we treat Tu B’shvat as a holiday by skipping tachanun and avoiding fasting. What are we celebrating?
In addition to the holiday atmosphere, we also have the minhag to eat Israeli fruits on Tu B’shvat. What is the reason for this custom? What is the significance of eating Israeli fruit?
Yearning For Israel’s Fruit
The Al Hamichyah berachah recited after eating grain products or one of Israel’s special fruits also attributes significance to eating Israeli fruit. In the berachah, we ask Hashem to return us to Israel so we can “eat its fruit and be satiated by its goodness.” The Semag finds this language problematic. Is the goal of eating its fruits the reason we yearn for Eretz Yisrael? Is that why we pray to return?
As support for his position, the Semag quotes a gemara which explains that Moshe yearned to enter Eretz Yisrael in order to fulfill the mitzvot associated with it, not to enjoy its fruits. Should we not aim to have similar interests?
Though challenged by the Semag, the berachah’s language finds basis in the Nevi’im and Talmudic sources that emphasize the significance of eating Israel’s fruits. Yirmiyahu, who lived during Bayit Rishon, and Nechemyah, who lived during Bayit Sheini, both portray eating from the land’s fruit and “goodness” as why Hashem brought us to Eretz Yisrael. The Yerushalmi goes even further by listing eating Israeli fruit b’taharah (in a state of purity) as one of the components that earn us entry into Olam Haba: “Kol mi shekavu’ah b’Eretz Yisrael, u’midaber b’lashon hakodesh, v’ochel peroshav b’taharah, v’koreih kriyat shema baboker u’ba’arev, yehi mevusar sheben Olam Haba hu — Anyone who resides steadily in Israel, speaks the holy language (Hebrew), eats the fruit in a state of purity, and recites shema morning and night will be informed that he has a portion in the next world.”
We understand the importance of living in Israel, reciting kriyat shema, and maybe even speaking Hebrew. But why is eating Israel’s fruits so important?
The Goodness of Eretz Yisrael
The Ben Ish Chai explains that eating Eretz Yisrael’s fruit is important because it helps us appreciate the land’s “chavivut (belovedness)”. Hashem did not choose (for himself and for us) randomly. He chose the best land — physically and spiritually. Though Eretz Yisrael’s true value is (of course) on the spiritual plane, its value expresses itself on the physical plane as well. Enjoying Israel reminds us of the land’s physical and spiritual beauty and preciousness of the “good” land of Israel.
This is why Hashem presents Eretz Yisrael to Moshe and the Jewish people, both in Mitzrayim and before their entry into Eretz Yisrael, as an “eretz tovah — a good land.” Eretz Yisrael is precious not only because it is Hashem’s land and the land of our ancestors. It is also inherently good.
This helps us understand Rashi’s explanation of the meaning of Hashem’s “lech lecha” commandment to Avraham Avinu. Rashi explains that the word “lecha” emphasized that Avraham’s journey would be for his own good and pleasure. This emphasis is surprising. Why was this important to stress? Didn’t doing so reduce the level of the test Avraham was facing? Why did Hashem not emphasize the importance of heeding His command as opposed to Avraham’s self-interests?
In light of the importance of appreciating the goodness of Eretz Yisrael, we can explain that Hashem this way in order to teach Avraham (and us) that Eretz Yisrael is a good land, a land he should move to for his own benefit. Moving to Eretz Yisrael should never be viewed as a sacrifice. Though we move there in order to fulfill Hashem’s will, we should realize that we also gain from the move.
Rav Yaakov Moshe Charlop, Rav Kook’s main talmid, applied this idea to the mitzvah of yishuv Eretz Yisrael (settling Israel) as well. He explained that this mitzvah is unique in that the enjoyment one derives from it is inherent and intended. The intention to enjoy the land does not detract from the fulfillment of the mitzvah. On the contrary, it is (part of) its goal.
We can now explain why eating Israeli fruit merits entry to Olam Haba. Eating Israel’s sweet fruits helps us appreciate Hashem’s gift of Eretz Yisrael. This should inspire us to live our lives in Eretz Yisrael properly. This, in turn, earns us a place in the next world. This is why the gemara also emphasizes the importance of reciting kriyat shema. Kriyat shema is how we are mekabel ol malchut shamayim, how we recognize Hashem as our G-d and express our commitment to fulfilling His mitzvot. Eating Israel’s fruits is only important if it inspires a life of commitment to Hashem.
Rav Yechezkel Weinfeld explains that this is why the gemara asserts that Moshe yearned to enter Eretz Yisrael in order to fulfill mitzvot and not (merely) in order to eat its fruits. Eating the fruits is not, in and of itself, meaningful. The meaning lies in our appreciation of the land that produces the fruit and the mitzvah opportunities life there offers.
This is why the Yerushalmi stresses that fruit consumption must be done b’taharah. In order to merit Olam Haba, we need to associate Eretz Yisrael’s physical sweetness with its underlying purity and holiness, and live our lives accordingly.
The source for this idea is the context of the aforementioned pasuk from Sefer Yirmiyahu: “V’avi et’chem el eretz hakarmel le’echol piryah u’tuvah, vatavo’u vatitam’u et artzi, v’nachalati samtem lato’eivah — I brought you to the forest land to eat its fruits and goodness, and you came and contaminated my land and made my heritage an abomination.” Instead of appreciating Hashem’s gift to them, the Jews defiled Eretz Yisrael. Sadly. the goodness of the fruit did not inspire them to live proper lives and they were, therefore, exiled.
Fruit consumption is not mystical magic. It is significant when done b’taharah, out of respect for and appreciation of the holiness of the fruit and the land that produces it. Only eating this way sustains our place in Eretz Yisrael in this world and earns us one in the next. A lack of this perspective causes us to defile the land and eventually leads to our exile.
This is also why the Al Hamichya berachah links our prayer to return to Israel and enjoy its fruits to our intention to then thank Hashem for these fruits in a spirit of kedushah and taharah: “v’nochal mipiryah vnisba mituvah, u’nevarechicha alehah b’kedushah u’v’taharah.” We pray to return and eat Israel’s fruits in a way that helps us appreciate Eretz Yisrael’s true significance and inspires us to live holy and pure lives there.
This need to complement purity with holiness is also hinted at by the Yerushalmi, which mentions speaking “lashon hakodesh” as one of the components of the kind of Israeli life that earns one a place in the next world. Living in Eretz Yisrael merits Olam Haba when it is guided by tahara, kedushahah, and kabalat ol malchut shamayim.
Relationship and Redemption
Interestingly, our physical separation from Eretz Yisrael in exile did not distance us from it or it from us. On the contrary, it reinforced our mutual relationship. We showed our appreciation and longing for the land by continuing to eat and yearn for its fruit, and the land showed its loyalty to us by not producing (enough) fruit to sustain the other nations who occupied it.
Sefer Vayikra predicted that the land would stop producing when we were exiled from it. This prevented other nations from taking our place on the land and served as a reminder (to both us and the world) of our eternal relationship with the aptly named Land of Israel.
Understandably, the Neviim foresaw our redemption as including the land’s reflowering. The gemara quotes Rebbi Abba who labeled this occurrence as “the clearest sign of redemption.” Israel stopped producing fruit when we went into exile. It started producing again when we returned.
Based upon these sources, Rav Kook saw Israel’s fruit production in his time as proof that the redemption process had begun. In a beautiful, poetic piece, Rav Kook celebrated the return of Israel’s fruit and described its significance:
It is a mitzvah to completely enjoy the refreshed holy sweetness of Israel’s fruits…
We need to inform the whole world, to those suffering in exilic darkness, that the conduit of full life infused with the blessed light of the sweet holiness of our desirable land has begun to reopen…
(By producing fruit) the sweet land seeks its children, it extends its arms to them with love… calling out to them to return to their mother’s bosom, to return and remember their original life-form and the sweetness of Hashem’s love felt in our mother’s home and the room of our conception…’
Rav Kook saw the land’s blossoming as far more than just a reflection of our return. It is also a call for us to do so. The land’s reflowering is a way of letting us know that the time has come for us to return.
Tu B’shvat 2023
Though far from the land for two millennia, our ancestors used Tu B’shvat to reaffirm our relationship with and belief in the future potency of the Land of Israel. They celebrated by eating Israeli fruits and prayed to return to the land. Today we, of course, have much more to celebrate. The land has welcomed us back and is once again producing fruit and offering its blessings — fruit, natural gas, and iy”H more to come.
We reside in Israel today as beneficiaries of generations of Jews who maintained their faith in the Land of Israel. This faith enables us to enjoy the goodness of Israel’s fruits today as residents of a Jewish State founded in our ancient homeland.
It is critical that we appreciate Eretz Yisrael’s physical goodness as well as the spiritual significance the physical goodness reflects. May this appreciation inspire us to live lives worthy of Eretz Yisrael and Olam Haba.
 See Mishnah Rosh Hashana 1:1-2 with the commentary of Rebbi Ovadia MiBartenura.
 Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 572:3 based upon Shu”t Maharam MiRotenberg 4:5. See also the Bach, who holds that we delay a taanit even once a series of fasts has begun.
 Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 131:6. See the Mishnah Berurah (S’K 32) who notes that our custom is to skip tachanun at Minchah on Erev Tu B’shvat as well.
 See Magen Avraham (ibid) S’K 16.
 Sefer Mitzvot Gadol, Aseh 27. See Tur (Orach Chayim 208) who encourages omitting it.
 Talmud Bavli, Mesechet Sotrah 14a.
 Yirmiyah 2:7 and Nechemya 9:36.
 Shekalim 14b.
 See Shu”t Torah Lishma 418 where he uses this appreciation to explain the importance of touring Israel to eat its fruit.
 For a different approach, the Bach (Orach Chayim 208 D”H V’katav Od) explains that we yearn to eat Israel’s fruit because they are infused with the holiness of the land they grow from. See also Chatam Sofer Sukkah 36b who mentions the fruits’ holiness as the basis of the importance of producing them.
 Shemot 3:8.
 Devarim 8:7.
 Bereishit 12:1.
 See also Avnei Nezer (Yoreh Dei’ah 2:454) who explains that Chassidishe Rebbes did not make aliyah because they could not find a way to support themselves in Eretz Yisrael (without receiving donations from overseas). The mitzvah is not just to move to Israel, but to live a natural, self-sustaining, good life there.
 Mimaynei Hayeshu’a, Rav Yaakov Moshe Charlop.
 Rav Charlop’s usage of the terms “tovah” and “hana’ah” are similar to the words used by Rashi.
 Understandably, Rav Kook used to wash his hands before eating Israeli fruit (L’Shlosha B’Elul 78).
 See Tosefta Sotah (15:2) which links to taste of fruit to the degree of taharah. This explains the assertion of the Mishnah (Sotah 9:12) that the true taste of fruit was lost with the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash.
 Yirmiyahu 2:7.
 Eretz Yisrael is not like other lands. Its functionality hinges on the conduct of its residents. As opposed to Mitzrayim, which is watered by the Nile, Eretz Yisrael lacks natural rivers and depends fully upon the rain Hashem provides. When the inhabitants of Eretz Yisrael live properly, Hashem blesses the land with rain and it produces sweet fruits. When they do not, Hashem holds back the rain, the ground hardens up and the land “spits the residents out.”
 Sefer Vayikra 26:32.
 Sifra Bechukotai 6:5 and Ramban Vayikra 26:16. The desolation of the land as late as the end of the 19th century was described vividly by Mark Twain (Innocents Abroad Vol. 2) and later by Prof. Sir John William Dosson (Modern Science in Bible Lands, pg. 449) who also explained the implicit message as “it seems that they (the land and the itinerant tribes who live there) await the return of the permanent residents of the land.”
 Zecharya 8:12, Micha 4:1-4, Yeshayahu 65:21-22, and Yechezkel 36:7-36.
 Sanhedrin 98a.
 Igrot HaR’iya 3:155.
 Orot Yisrael 9:9.