Tu B’shevat – a message from Jerusalem

February 1, 2015 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.

He sends this message on the eve of Tu B’shevat….

From: Rabbi Raymond Apple, Jerusalem

Rabbi Raymond Apple

Rabbi Raymond Apple

Mazel tov to the trees. This week, on 15 Sh’vat, they will have their new year. Not that they are probably aware of it, though there is a Jewish belief that nature does have a form of self-awareness and even the trees and plants praise God. When the branches sway in the wind they are reaching out to their Creator. When the leaves rustle they are speaking their language and acclaiming God.

However, Tu BiSh’vat has a more mundane origin. Though it is in the northern hemisphere winter, it gave human beings a means of judging the age of the products of nature in order to be able to carry out the agricultural mitzvot.

Almost like the seasons of the textile trade, when mid-winter agenda is summer clothes and vice-versa, when the weather is cold we think of spring, when the night is dark we think of dawn, when life is full of problems we think of things being better.

How do we symbolise our hopes for a brighter future? The answer of the Torah is, “When you come into the Land, you shall plant all kinds of trees” (Lev. 19:23).

Trees are for shade, for wood – and especially for food. The kabbalists attached a special significance to the fruit of the trees. Not only was it good for health and nourishment, they said, but it was a way to overcome the traces of mankind’s original sin. If Adam and Eve could eat forbidden fruit, fruit-eating with God’s permission would absolve humankind from any effects of their sin.

Another kabbalistic idea centred around 30 kinds of fruit which were known in the Holy Land. They came in three categories, representing creation (fruits that could be eaten as they were, such as figs and strawberries); creativity (fruits that needed an action before being eaten, such as dates and olives, from which the stones had to be removed); and action (fruits like nuts that needed considerable effort before they could be eaten). In these three categories is symbolised the Divine-human partnership.


There was intense discussion a few years ago about the coming of the Messiah. Some said the Lubavitcher Rebbe was Mashi’ach: others were adamant that he wasn’t. Everybody agreed that when the Messiah arrived – whoever he was – the Jewish people and hopefully the whole world would sit up and take notice, and everything would be different.

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, in the days of the Mishnah, had a different thought. He said it would all depend on what you were doing at that moment. In his view, if a message came to say the Messiah was here and you were engaged in planting a tree, you had to go on with your planting and only then go out and welcome him.

The background to this statement is essential to an understanding of what Rabban Yochanan was saying. The Temple had been destroyed, the Holy Land was in ruins, the people’s morale was low. Only the long-awaited Redemption would brighten the future. In what sense? The coming of a Divinely-appointed leader would regenerate the nation, but that was up to God. The regeneration of the land depended on rehabilitating the trees, forests and vegetation, and that was up to the people’s own will and effort.

Maybe that’s what the Torah is telling us in the words, “Why do you cry to Me? Tell the Children of Israel to go forward!” (Ex. 14:15).


Q. Do you think that having a Simchat Bat when a girl is born is a good idea?

A. I am all in favour. There is a Yiddish phrase, “Every child brings its own blessing into the world”. Whether the child is a boy or a girl it is good to give them a blessing and to pray that God may help them to bring their own blessing to their parents and the community.

Ashkenazi custom has been for centuries that the father is called to the Torah in the Synagogue and the girl is named on that occasion; it is also linked with the mother saying the “Gomel” blessing in the presence of a Minyan. In Sephardi usage there is a post-Talmudic ceremony called “Zeved HaBat” which has recently been re-named “Simchat Bat” and introduced amongst the Ashkenazim too.

The elements of the Simchat Bat ceremony are in course of development but possible ingredients are a welcome (“Beruchah HaBa’ah”), readings from Psalms and Shir HaShirim, the baby naming, an explanation of the names chosen for the child, and the “Yevarech’cha” blessing. Candles are lit, the baby is dressed nicely and the Book of Vayikra could be placed in its crib. Family and friends then have a se’udah.

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