For the week ending 27 January 2018 / 11 Shevat 5778

Noble Blossoming

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
Based on the writings of Rav Hirsch
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The fifteenth of Shvat is the New Year for the trees, when the tiniest buds of spring emerge from their wintery hibernation. Surely it is a time to reflect on the glory of Nature and appreciate the pleasures we enjoy from its yield. But the New Year for trees has greater significance: This day regulates the array of obligations which the annual gifts of Nature impose on the Jew. In fact, Rav Hirsch explains, the two must go hand in hand — a duty is attached to every enjoyment, in order to imbue the enjoyment with its true taste, to transform it from selfish indulgence to an acknowledgement of Divine love.

On the Jewish field, no seed ripens for the owner alone. At every stage in the process of cultivating food for nourishment we are reminded of our obligations to G-d and to our fellow man. Precisely where selfish and sensual desires enter, we are instructed to sanctify. Orlah, the prohibition against eating the fruit of a tree during its first three years, is measured from Tu B’Shvat. The first lesson in our approach to physical pleasure is one of restraint. By observing G-d’s command to refrain from the fruits of his own property, one practices the self-restraint necessary to keep all pleasure within the limits of morality. Next, during the three phases of production — nature’s ripening, man’s harvesting, and domestic preparation, we dedicate the first thing that comes to fruition to the Source of all blessing.

When the first ripened fruit appears each year, its owner marks it, setting it aside to be brought as bikkurim to the Beit Hamidkash, where he will verbally acknowledge his thanks to the Almighty for the bounty of the Land.

When the landowner works his land and gathers his produce, he sets aside the gifts to the Kohen and the Levi. He gives ma’aser, a tenth of his produce, to the Levi — providing his sustenance in order that the Levi will be able to devote himself wholly to the service of G-d. An equal amount, ma’aser sheni, is brought to Jerusalem to be enjoyed by its owner, again demonstrating that obligation and enjoyment are meant to coexist in the life of a Jew. Finally, when the grain is processed and turned into dough, before it is baked into bread, “challah” is removed for the Kohen. Before we put the final human effort into our nourishment, we dedicate a piece of that effort to His priests. Each stage is thus ushered in with its own sanctification, defining our relationship to the physical joys of nature, allowing for the noblest blossoming to take root within us.

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