Where Should You Plant a Tree This Tu B’Shvat?
Illustration: Israeli Apricot Tree by Yair Aronshtam [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Wikimedia
The Gemara relates: One day, in the early days of the mishna in Eretz Yisrael, Choni ha-Me’agle was walking along the road. He saw a man planting a carob tree and asked him in how many years it would bear fruit. The man replied, “In seventy years.” Choni asked him, “Do you think you will live another seventy years?” The man answered, “I found this world with carob trees. Just as my forefathers planted them for me, I am planting them for my descendants,” (Talmud Ta’anit 23a).
In the same light, the following matters may not be understood immediately by many of our brothers and sisters in the Diaspora, who may not have studied the essentials of Religious Zionism in all of their exquisite depth. Thus, I will merely attempt to plant the seeds here, with the faith that they will bear fruit in the future, after readers have the opportunity to study the incomparable Torah of Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel).
Not that there are two Torahs, Heaven forbid! There is only one Torah, the Torah that G-d bequeathed to the Jewish People at Mount Sinai. Rather, there are two different understandings of Torah — the Torah of the Exile and the Torat of Eretz Yisrael, which is the foundation of Religious Zionism. Allow me to use the holiday of Tu B’Shvat to point out some of the differences.
The holiday of Tu B’Shvat is mentioned in the Mishna as the New Year of the Trees (Rosh HaShanah, 1:1). The date is important in regard to the tithing of fruit in the Land of Israel, whereby portions of the harvest were distributed to the Kohanim, Levi’im, and to the poor. Tithes from the past year are not allowed to be included in tithes for the present year, so a date is needed to mark the difference, called the New Year of Trees.
The custom of enjoying a festive meal on Tu B’Shvat, a feast of thanksgiving, with a cornucopia of fruits on the table highlighting the seven species of fruits indigenous to Eretz Yisrael, began 400 years ago, as a way of paying tribute to — and expressing our yearning for — the Land of Israel, the only place where commandment of tithes is performed. Today’s joyous practice of going out to the hills and valleys of the Holy Land, to plant saplings on Tu B’Shvat, is a more recent custom, a festive outing which has been almost universally adopted by families and the school system in Israel, once again to show our love for the Land, and to actually perform the Torah commandment to settle Eretz Yisrael and not leave it in a state of desolation, which we do simply by planting a tree (Ramban, “Supplement to the Sefer HaMitzvot of the Rambam,” Positive Commandment 4).
There are two types of commandments in the Torah: the commandments that are dependent upon the Land of Israel and those commandments which are not. Every commandment which depends upon the Land of Israel may only be performed in the Land. The other mitzvot can be performed anywhere (Kiddushin 36b). However, the Ramban teaches that the true place of performance for all of the commandments is only in the Land of Israel (Ramban, Commentary on the Torah Gen. 26:5; Deut. 11:18). Everywhere else, when a Jew performs a commandment, he is merely going through the motions so that he won’t forget how to do them during his exile in foreign lands (Sifre Deut. 44 on 11:18; Rashi, Deut. 11:18; also Ramban there).
Perhaps this statement seems unduly harsh, but I am not the one who coined it, but rather the famous Torah commentator, Rashi, who is diligently studied in every Talmud Torah and yeshiva in the Jewish world, as well as by adults throughout the week as part of their Torah Portion reading.
Rashi quotes the Midrash: “Even though I am exiling you from Eretz Yisrael to outside of the Land, distinguish yourself with the commandments, so that when you return, they will not seem new in your eyes” (Sifre Deut. 43.34 on 11:18). Rashi comments: “This is like a king who became angry at his wife and sent her away. He said to her, ‘Wear your jewelry so it won’t seem new to you when you return to the palace.’ Thus HaKadosh Baruch Hu (G-d) says to Israel, ‘My sons, distinguish yourselves with precepts so that when you return, they won’t be new to you.”
We learn from this that the true, G-d given place for the commandments is in Eretz Yisrael. Their purpose in the Exile is to keep us attached to the Torah, so that when we return, the commandments of the Torah won’t seem unfamiliar and new. But the main place for their performance is in Israel.
The Land of Israel is not just our geographical homeland, it is the foundation of all of the Torah and Jewish observance. Without our Land, we are like fish out of water — a subject we will, G-d willing, examine in depth in a different essay. In fact, two-thirds of the mishna applies only to Jewish life in the Land of Israel, such as the commandments and laws of the Jerusalem Temple, the Sanhedrin, the Israelite king and army, and the agricultural laws which apply only in Eretz Yisrael.
Indeed, it is almost like there were two Torahs: the complete National Torah of Eretz Yisrael, where all the mitzvot can be observed on a National level; and the truncated Torah of the Exile which focuses on the individual precepts that we are still beholden to perform in Galut even though they lack their true meaning and value. Thus, to illustrate this all-important Torah perspective in a simple, readily comprehensible manner, if you try to do the mitzvah of tithes from an orange grove in Florida, or to separate ma’aser from a date palm in Brooklyn (if you can find a date palm there), or to observe the precept of orlah in Moscow or Berlin, you will be committing a transgression by taking the name of G-d in vain when reciting the blessing over the precept. In the same light, you cannot build an altar in Boca Raton and sacrifice a cow or a goat, or assemble the Israel Defense Forces in Monsey or Lakewood. In America, a Jew can have a rifle in his home, but I doubt the local police would agree to a division of tanks, missile launchers, and a squadron of jet bombers.
The point is that in the Exile, a Jew can perform individual precepts such as tefillin, shabbat, and kashrut, but all of the National precepts are missing. The Torah of the Exile is not the same Torah as the Torat Eretz Yisrael. For the Torah is much more than a list of commandments for private individuals — the Torah is the Constitution of the Israelite Nation. And that, my friends, is an enormous difference. And the thing which makes the difference possible is Eretz Yisrael.
During our festive Tu B’Shvat meal, we eat the seven species of fruits of the Land in a special order based on the Torah verse, “A Land of wheat, and barley, and grapevines, and fig trees, and pomegranates; a Land of olive oil, and date honey….” (Deut. 8:8). For instance, after partaking bread (wheat and barley) and wine (grapevines) because of their importance, we first eat the species of fruit that is closest to the word Land in the passage — which is olives. In a similar light, Rabbi Kook writes that the person who is more engaged in the mitzvah of settling the Land of Israel is closer to perfection and first in receiving a Divine blessing. Similarly, our Sages have taught us, “The mitzvah of living in Israel is equal in weight to all of the commandments in the Torah,” (Sifre Deut. 80 on 12:29).
We mentioned that planting a sapling in Israel is a part of the Torah commandment to dwell in the Land of Israel and to not leave it to lay in desolation (nor abandon any part of it to foreign rule.) In addition to this, because of the exaltedness of Eretz Yisrael, simply by planting a tree in the Holy Land, a Jew follows after the ways of G-d and cleaves to Him, as the Torah commands (Deut. 13:5). This startling concept is explained in a Midrash a follows:
Rabbi Yehuda Ben Rabbi Simon asks how is it possible to cleave to G-d who is likened to an all-consuming fire? The answer is that from the beginning of Creation, G-d busied Himself with planting, as the Torah relates: ‘And the L-rd G-d planted a garden eastward in Eden.’ Therefore, when you enter Eretz Yisrael, first busy yourselves with planting, as it says: ‘And when you will enter the Land, and shall have planted all manner of trees for food...’ (Vayikra, 19:23). Thus we learn that planting a sapling in Eretz Yisrael is an exalted act of cleaving to Hashem.” (Vayikra Rabbah 25 on 12:5).
Planting a tree in England or America is a nice thing to do, but it won’t bring you closer to G-d.