Beit Midrash

  • Shabbat and Holidays
  • Tu Bishvat
To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicated in the memory of

Yaakov ben Bechora

Tu B'Shvat, Soul-Searching and Science

In my humble opinion, we have merited an opportunity to widen the parameters of sanctity by allowing the sciences to enter the confines of the Torah. This, of course, must be carried out with the appropriate caution and zeal for the Torah.


Rabbi Uri Cohen

1) Song in Heart, Shovel in Hand
2) Man - a Tree of the Field
3) Between Sacred and Sacred
Song in Heart, Shovel in Hand
Tu B'Shvat is a determining date for many of the land-related precepts: fruits that ripen from this date onward are regarded as belonging to the following year (e.g., the sabbatical year in the seven year cycle); it is the date by which we calculate "orla" (forbidden fruit yielded in the first three years after a tree has been planted); it divides between the tithes of one year and another, etc.

With return of the Jewish people the Holy Land, our fellow Jews who are not so mindful of the above obligations have given this date another name - ''Chag Haneti'ot" (the festival of tree planting). Really, the obligation to plant trees in the Land of Israel does not hinge on any particular date. It is subsumed in the commandment to settle the Land of Israel, ''that it not be left barren'' (Ramban's Additions to Rambam's Sefer Hamitzvot, positive commandments 4). All the same, there is a natural propensity to want to fulfill the commandment to plant trees on this day.

The sages offer the following allegory:

"The hen, when its young are tiny, gathers them together and places them beneath its wings, warming them and grubbing for them. But when they are grown up, if one of them wants to get near her she pecks it on the head and says to it: 'Go and grub in your own dunghill!' So, during the forty years that Israel were in the wilderness the manna fell, the well came up for them, the quails were at hand for them, the clouds of glory encircled them, and the pillar of cloud led the way before them. When Israel were about to enter the Land, Moses said to them: ‘Let every one of you take up his spade and go out and plant trees.' Hence it is written, 'when ye shall come into the land, ye shall plant.' "

From here we learn that though wilderness life appeared quite ideal - a virtual World to Come - it was really no more than a preparatory stage for entering the land. Israel's desert trek may be likened to the stages of infancy and childhood which prepare a person for maturity. Such an understanding is supported by our sages' interpretation of the Sin of the Spies. The sages explain that the spies wished to remain in the desert because the life there appeared ideal in comparison to life in the land. Settling the land would involve plowing, sowing, planting, toil and struggle; in the desert, all they had to do was gather manna, a dish which called for no preparation and could take on any flavor a person desired.

Man - a Tree of the Field
Tu B'Shvat, as "New Year for trees," resembles Rosh Hashanah, the New Year for human beings. On Rosh Hashanah, God judges each and every human being. This is a day for personal reckoning and rectification. Similarly, on the New Year for trees, each of us must make an annual accounting of the state of our maturity. Am I, and to what degree am I, rooted like a tree? Do I "plant trees"? Do I work with God on behalf of the nation and the land?

In the benediction over the Torah we bless God for "giving us a Torah of truth and implanting within us eternal life." Our beloved mentor, the late R' Tzvi Yehudah Kook, would explain that "Torah of truth" refers to the Written Torah and "eternal life" connotes the Oral Torah, and it is like a growing sapling, yielding buds, blossoms, flowers and fruit. The New Year for trees is a time to reflect upon our "planting" over the past year, to prepare for the coming "tree year."

Tu B'Shvat falls between our two rabbinic holidays: Chanukah and Purim. The Talmud (Yoma 29a) tells us that Purim is "the end of all miracles," The sages raise the difficulty that on Chanukah, which took place about two hundred years after Purim, our forefathers experienced miracles, and today we light the Chanukah candles in commemoration of these miracles. They resolve this problem by explaining that Purim was the last miracle dedicated to writing and included in the Holy Scriptures.

It follows that Purim is the last of the "Torah of truth" and Chanukah is the first of "eternal life." Their common denominator is the fact that each was wrought through human effort: Mordecai and Ester on Purim; the Hasmoneans on Chanukah. The older our nation grows, the more that miracles become dependent upon our prayers, our enterprise, and our actions, as it is written (Deuteronomy 8:18) "Remember the Lord your God, for it is He Who gives you the strength to prosper." You prosper, and God gives you the strength to do so. This is what makes our holy land preeminent. It allows us to act as partners with the Almighty in the scheme of world direction. The more the world is refined, the more our portion improves.

Between Sacred and Sacred
In our generation, further improvements have been made. Advances in science and the employment of these advances in our daily life create a relationship between the Torah study hall and matters which tend to be considered mundane. Rabbis generally see scientific advances as tools that aid in applying Jewish law to our ever-changing reality. Yet, in my humble opinion, the time has come to create a bond between these disunited elements.

It is time to view scientific disciplines as sacred, not only in the sense voiced by the Vilna Gaon who saw knowledge of the "seven wisdoms" as necessary for a true understanding of the Torah (i.e., science as tool for understanding the Torah), but in a much more lofty sense whereby science is itself Torah because it unveils the divinity present in the world of human activity.

One who learns to examine the laws of nature so that the deeper his understanding, the deeper his awe at the works of God in creation - i.e., at every stage of his study he keeps in mind God's involvement in the laws of the subject under discussion - is seen as being engaged in Torah no less than one who merits achieving a deep admiration for the words of the sages in Aggadah or Halakhah.

The familiar words of Rambam regarding the paths to attaining fear and love of God via the creation become doubly significant in our day, if one knows how to seek out the positive. Praiseworthy is he who is capable of passing on such deep admiration to his students.

At first glance, it appears best to leave things as they are, to peruse Torah in the study hall and to leave science as a secular matter. This, however, was the path of "the Spies." They were not wise enough to see the great value of maturity and the complex life of body and spirit above and beyond spiritual life per se.

In my humble opinion we have merited an opportunity to widen the parameters of sanctity by allowing the sciences to enter the confines of the Torah. Of course, this must be carried out with the appropriate caution and zeal for the Torah. It must be guided by Torah scholars who fear and love God, scholars versed in the sciences who possess the talent and ability to translate the language of science into the language of the study hall.

In the many educational institutions in Israel today that teach both religious and secular studies, a clear distinction is drawn between these two areas. This differentiation creates a kind of conflict in the hearts of our students. What's more, many of the students are drawn to the secular more than the sacred. Placing scientific subjects in the proper light, as belonging to the realm of the sacred, will change the educational map completely.

The great abyss that separates the Torah-true community from those growing ever estranged not only to the Torah and its commandments but to all Jewish values, the nation and the Land, obligates the religious to take responsibility for subjects which in the past could have been left to the non-observant. These subjects must now be seen as part of the Torah studied and practiced by students of the yeshiva study hall.

During the terrible disaster recently experienced with the dismantling of the Gush Katif communities, thousands of orthodox soldiers lacked the inner strength to cling to their beliefs and prevent the implementation of this shocking injustice. Instead, they took part in it on all levels. This obligates us to do some soul-searching regarding the kind of education our schools are giving to prepare youngsters for the encounter with "life" outside the study hall.

It would appear that approaching the sciences as religious studies will help students understand and internalize the fact that there is nothing which does not have its beginnings in the Torah and that life inside and outside of the study hall are two sides of the same coin. Therefore, military service, scientific advances and their application, etc., all flow from the same spring, and they all have sacred moral value.

If a person's life is filled with a sense of the sacred he drinks of the fountain of Torah in whatever he does, even when he engages in matters which are normally considered secular, and he merits magnifying God's greatness in all facets of his life. Tu B'Shvat, the New Year for the trees is an appropriate time to awaken to this sacred call.
Translated Midrashic sources in the above article were taken from, or based upon, Davka's Soncino Judaic Classics Library (CD-Rom).

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