“Life and Growth” by Rabbi Nissan Mindel

The following article was written by Rabbi Nissan Mindel and published in the Jerusalem Post Magazine on January 28, 1972. This article will be published in an upcoming book titled “Chabad In America Through The Folders of Nissan Mindel”. Section in the upcoming book is devoted to some articles, letters and talks of Rabbi Mindel himself. While he did not write these in his capacity as editor in chief of Chabad publications, he often consulted with the Rebbe about these and received input from the Rebbe.

In the Hebrew calendar, the 15th day of Shvat, or Tu Bi’shvat, is marked as the New Year for Trees.

In days of old, during the time of the Temple in Jerusalem, when the laws of the tithe were in force, the date had a special significance. It marked the beginning of a new year for the fruits and trees. Tithe – one tenth of the produce – had to be set aside separately for “old” fruits, that is to say, fruits ripened before Shvat 15, and “new” fruits, those ripening after that date. Old fruit could not be used in lieu of tithe due on new fruit. 

There is an indication in the Talmud that a period of tree planting began on Shvat 15 and continued for a month and the Israeli custom of observing the day as Arbor Day may therefore be regarded as the revival of an ancient practice.

Although it is not a religious festival, Sephardi Jews make a considerable feature of Tu Bi’vat. They gather in the synagogue to observe Tikkun (similar to the vigil of the first night of Shavuot) and recite selections from the Torah and the Zohar which speak of plants, trees and fruits and their symbolic meaning in Jewish life. 

Among Ashkenazim in the Diaspora generally, no special prayers or festivities are prescribed for the New Year for Trees, although it  is customary to eat various kinds of fruit, especially those that grow in the Holy Land and particularly at least one that has not yet been eaten that year, so that the Shehecheyanu blessing may be recited over it. 

Nor does Tu Bishavat as such have any special significance to Chabad, the mystical branch of Chassidism founded at the end of the 18th century by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. Chabad literature however, contains a considerable amount of discussion on the symbolic aspects of trees and fruits.

Chabad Style

In characteristic Chabad style, these are used as illustrations to bring within our mental grasp some abstruse concepts, or to gain profound insight into the esoteric discipline of the Torah and mitzvos. The metaphor is also used incisively to provide a special touch or poignancy in some day-to-day problems. The idea behind this didactic method rests on a fundamental doctrine of the Baal Shem Tov that everything surrounding us and everything in nature in general must serve as a lesson in self-improvement, the better to serve the A-mighty G-d and fellow man.

One of the things which we learn from trees, the present leader of Chabad, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, often reminds us, is that trees always grow; as long as they are alive, they grow. Even in winter what seems  to be an interruption in the process of growth is actually a pause to gather new strength for further growth, to produce new and fresh fruits every year. The sign of life is growth.

In terms of human experience, this means continuous progress. For Jews the real measure of growth is in terms of spiritual advancement; the Torah and mitzvos are our roots and fruits. In these a Jew is expected to grow constantly, without interruption. No matter how fully grown he may think himself today in matters of Torah and mitvos, he must grow a little more the next day and still more the day after. In this area there is, of course, always room for improvement and the time is always ripe. The Torah and mitzvos are infinite, because they derive from the Infinite (Ein Sof).

Rabbi Schneur Zalman – the Alter Rebbe, as he is known among Chassidim – gives us some profound insights into the significance of the mitzvos by means of analogy from plant life.

Seed to Tree

A fruit seed is planted and it grows into a tree bearing fruit year after year. The results – both in quantity and quality – are extraordinary and wonderful. The question poses itself: how is it that a small seed can reproduce itself into a gigantic tree bearing such tasty fruits? The answer to this mystery is: the Creator has implanted in the earth an infinite power to recreation, akin to the infinite power of the Creator Himself to create yesh me’ayin (being out of non-being). For the seed planted in the soil must degenerate before it can reproduce, and nothing is left of its original self, except perhaps its shell. 

What is true of the world of plants, the Alter Rebbe explains, is true in the realm of the mitzvos. Indeed, in the Talmud the mitzvos are called fruits. A Jew performs a small mitzvah, such as putting on tefillin, reciting a blessing, learning a little Torah, giving money to a poor man or even saying a kind word to someone – and out of this small act there grows a reward which is out of proportion to the effort; a reward which the A-mighty promises, will be enjoyed both in this world and in the world to come. 

The Alter Rebbe gives us a further insight into the mitzvos by drawing a comparison between “fruit of the tree” and “fruit of the earth.” The main thing that distinguishes a fruit from a vegetable is that fruit grows on a tree year after year, while a vegetable has to be planted anew every year.

Extra Reward

The Alter Rebbe makes the following observation: if you plant a seed of wheat or a potato, the earth will produce many seeds and many potatoes, which will be exactly like the seed and the potato planted. In other words, the reward for your toil will be in kind, but many times over. On the other hand, if you plant an apple seed you will be rewarded not only by many seeds but by an apple tree, which will eventually produce many apples. Here the reward is not in kind – for the tree and fruit that grow out of the seed are nothing like the seed planted; the reward is quite extraordinary and wonderful. This is also the reasons why it takes longer from the planting of a fruit-seed until the fruit is produced than it takes a seed of wheat  or a potato, to reproduce. 

On the basis of the Talmudic definition of mitzvos  as fruits, the Alter Rebbe goes on to explain that the mitzvos too, fall into two categories of fruit of the earth and fruit of the tree. There are mitzvos for which the A-mighty rewards in kind, but in very generous measure. For instance, when we give tzedoko as prescribed by the Torah (a minimum of one tenth of our income) the Torah promises an abundance of wealth as a reward. If we help a person in need, the Lord helps us in our need. Such mitzvos are like fruit of the earth.

There are also mitzvos, such as tefillin, Shabbos and Yom Tov and kashrus, for which the reward is altogether wonderful and cannot be measured in terms of any enjoyments and benefits known to us in this world. The reward has to do with the pure pleasure and bliss of the soul, and most of this reward is reserved for the world to come.

The Alter Rebbe also takes note of the two distinct qualities of fruit: taste and fragrance. These, too, serve as useful metaphors in the exposition of his philosophy. 

Most fruits have both a good taste and a delicious aroma. What is the difference between the two? In the case of taste, when we have chewed and swallowed the delectable morsel, that is the end of it. We cannot have both the taste and the cake. However as far as smell is concerned, we can go on enjoying the fragrance of a thing again and again, for our smelling it does not diminish it.

Taste and Fragrance

On the other hand, taste is associated with food which we consume. Food has a nourishing value, which helps to sustain our physical body,  becoming bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh. Not so with fragrance. It can be very refreshing, enjoyable and stimulating, but has no food value.

Applying the distinction between taste and fragrance to the Torah and mitzvos – the Alter Rebbe concludes that Torah is more closely related to taste, while mitzvos have a close kinship to fragrance. Torah has to do with intelligence and understanding. One must understand what one learns and absorb it, until it becomes part and parcel of one’s personality. Torah, by its very nature, is compellingly inspiring. It permeates and transforms. Torah has a good taste; it is intellectually gratifying and is food for the soul, vitally necessary to nourish and sustain. 

A mitzvah is more closely related to fragrance. It dos not depend upon understanding; one requires no special intelligence to do a mitzvah. One need not know the taam of a mitzvah. In Hebrew taam means both “taste” and “reason.” Not that it is without taam. On the contrary, the reasons and implications of mitzvos, as noted above, are infinite and beyond full human comprehension, since the human intellect is finite and limited. The mitzvos have to be fulfilled in obedience to the Divine Will, with complete self-surrender: na’aseh (we will do) and then v’nishma (we will understand). In a sense, the mitzvos are even higher than the Torah, just as the sense of smell is in some respects more delicate and subtle than the sense of taste.

To be sure, to study Torah is also a mitzvah, indeed one of the greatest – Talmud Torah keneged kulam, “The study of Torah equals them all.” Thus, Torah has preeminence in both taste and fragrance.