What You See is Not What You Get

“Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday dear Figgy, happy birthday to you!”

Tu B’Shevat is perhaps one of the most enigmatic days on the Jewish calendar. While in many circles, marketing and commercialism have definitely played a part in making the day far more celebrated than in recent past, there are many communities that have celebrated Tu B’Shevat with various minhagim going back many generations. More importantly, in halacha, Jewish law itself, Tu B’Shevat is definitely a celebratory day, established as a day on which we do not recite Tachanun. (See Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 131:6, and Mishnah Berurah, 31, ad loc.)

The simple explanation given for why we do not recite Tachanun on this day is that it is “Rosh Hashanah la’ilanos,” or the New Year for Trees.

What are we to make of such an idea? Lest one think that because fruit is so important to humanity, we take this day – their New Year or birthday so to speak – to thank Hashem for His past bounty and pray for its continuity, the Mishnah in Rosh Hashanah (1:2) tells us that it is on Shavuos that judgment is passed on the fruit of trees. Surely, then, Shavuos would be a more ideal day to praise Hashem and pray to Him for fruit.

What sort of birthday, then, or New Year, are our figs – and dates, grapes, pomegranates, apples, oranges etc. – celebrating on Tu B’Shevat?

An examination of the first Mishnah in Rosh Hashanah seems to indicate that Tu B’Shevat is more of a technical cut-off date relating to giving ma’aseros from fruit. As one may not give ma’aser from one year’s produce to fulfill his obligation on the produce of a different year, we must know which produce is considered this year’s fruit and on what day it becomes the fruit of the next year.

Tu B’Shevat, the Mishnah tells us, is that day. Fruit that grew before Tu B’Shevat belongs to the previous year’s accounting, and fruit that grows afterward goes into the next year’s account.

Why, then, the big birthday bash? Why is it a special day on which no Tachanun is recited? Why did certain communities make it a point to eat a certain number of varieties or special types of fruit on this day? If it’s merely a technical cut-off day, why the celebration?

Spring in the Winter?

Clearly, there is more to Tu B’Shevat than meets the eye. In fact, according to various commentators, the point of Tu B’Shevat is just that: that it is beyond – or underneath – what meets the eye.

Why is the middle of Shevat, which is pretty much in middle of the winter, the day of demarcation between fruit of one year and the next? Shouldn’t the first day of spring, or the day when we see the first buds growing, be a sign that the tree is now beginning a new year of production? In mid-winter the tree looks almost dead. Bare branches, perhaps even covered in ice or snow. What could possibly make now the beginning of its crop for the next year?

To understand this, we’d need to look beneath the surface. True, the tree may look dead – on the outside. Inside, however, things are just beginning to warm up. Down under the ground where the roots lay, the tree is beginning to absorb water and mineral nutrients from the soil. Beyond the bare branches, the tree’s network of wood cells is beginning to carry this nutrition, through the trunk, to the most far-reaching branches and twigs.

True, nothing is yet happening on the outside. Inside, though, things are humming. The new dawn, for the trees, begins much before we see the first signs of buds and growth. It has already begun in middle of the winter when everything looked cold and frozen, but the tree was in fact already gearing up for the next season.

This is why the cut-off date between the fruit of one year and the next, for trees, is on Tu B’Shevat, smack in middle of the winter. It’s not merely an arbitrary date, but rather defines its purpose exactly. Fruit whose growth is after Tu B’Shevat is indeed the product of a tree’s new growth cycle.

Vegging Out

So Tu B’Shevat indeed is the birthday, so to speak, or the new year, for trees. Still, why the celebration?

When comparing, in a practical sense, apples to cucumbers (apples and oranges are now on the same team…), we find two major differences. Apples, or any fruit for that matter, take a long time to grow from seed to fruit. One plants a seed one year, but is lucky if he gets much of a tree at all that year. If he wants apples, he must go to a store and buy them. It can take years for a tree to grow and then to bear fruit.

Cucumbers or other vegetables, on the other hand, can go from seed to ripe produce in months or even weeks. One plants and picks in the same season; no need to go out and buy any.

On the surface, it would seem that vegetables are thus a far better investment. Why plant and wait for years if you can plant and pick in short order?

We’ve overlooked, however, the second major difference between fruits and vegetables. A fruit seed planted this year will indeed take many years to bear fruit. Once it does so, however, it will continue bearing fruit for many years to come. Vegetables, though, give their produce shortly, true, but that’s the end of them. One has to repeat the entire process all over again next year if he wants to see those vegetables again.

From this perspective, it is no longer so simple that pumpkins beat pomegranates. For instant gratification – or at least short-term – vegetables may indeed be the champs. When it comes to long-term satisfaction though, fruit would be the far wiser investment. It takes work, time and patience, but once properly established, it’s the gift that keeps giving.

Tu B’Shevat is Our Party

Ki ha’adom eitz hasodeh” (Shoftim 20:19). Man is compared to a tree. How so? It’s because man, just like a tree, is a long-term investment.

Animals are born with most of their potential nearly at completion. It takes mere days from birth – sometimes even less – for most animals to begin doing whatever it is they do. There’s not much unfulfilled potential. In Lashon Hakodesh, an animal is a beheimah, which is spelled by putting two words together, boh mah, that’s what it is, or what you see is what you get.

Man, however, is born with virtually none of his potential anywhere near apparent. To bring out man’s potential, he must be tended to, sheltered, nourished, protected, guided and sometimes cut down a bit. Much as a tree that must be watched, watered, sheltered, pruned and takes quite a number of years to reach its potential, but once grown will give fruit for many generations, so is it with man.

Man’s potential is inside, beneath the surface, but with care and dedication it can be brought out and made to shine.

There are many lessons to be learned from this, especially given today’s culture of instant gratification. We can learn that pleasures that come to us easily and quickly usually leave us just as easily and just as quickly. The good stuff may need more patience and investment of time and effort, but the gratification will be far more lasting and meaningful.

We can learn, as well, that when it comes to child-rearing, we should focus on the child’s long-term growth and emotional strength of character rather than on our own short-term peace and quiet.

Most of all, though, perhaps this year as we celebrate Tu B’Shevat and our kids ask us, or we ask ourselves, what this party is all about, we’ll look at ourselves and rather than see ourselves for what we are, we’ll see ourselves for what we can be. Each of us has so much untapped potential. Take a look outside and see the trees whose bare branches seem to proclaim emptiness and lack. Then think about how this tree will yet bloom – not now, not next week or even next month.

It will bloom, though. It will bud, perhaps grow flowers, leaves or various luscious fruit. There is so much in that “dead” and empty tree. What you see is not what you get, not with that tree and not with ourselves either.

Our potential is limitless, and that awareness is something definitely worth celebrating.

(Note: This article is based on a Tu B’Shevat exposition by Rabbi Binyomin Fishman in the Ohr Somayach Newsletter of 11 Shevat 5778.)