Of Fruit, Dried and Fresh

The custom to eat dried fruits on Tu B'Shvat is a funny one, and currently an ironic one.

While Tu B'Shvat has evolved over time, and clear historical layers can be discerned, it became a day to celebrate specifically the produce of the Land of Israel in the sixteenth century (I designed a 'Seder Tu B'Shvat' whose different elements are based on these historical layers; the 'haggadah' is available here).

Growing up in the US, we celebrated Tu B'Shvat with fruits that, if they did not actually come from Israel, reminded us of Israel (for some odd reason, carob, or 'buckser', always featured prominently, as though it were edible). And the fruit was always dried.

Indeed, someone asked me a few weeks ago why we specifically eat dried fruit on Tu B'Shvat. The obvious answer is that in the middle of the winter, fresh fruit was hardly available, especially in colder climes. Moreover, the whole reason that fruits were dried in the first place was to make them more durable (the other major way to preserve fruit through the winter was to ferment it into an alcoholic beverage; for some reason, wine was always more popular than raisins). This is an example of a 'custom' born out of a very straightforward reality. Nevertheless, back in grade school, they gave us dried buckser instead of fresh apples. It was part of the whole experience.

The ironic part is that here in Israel, the dried fruits are mostly imported, and from Turkey at that. Some are dealing with this either by prohibiting Turkish dried fruit or by marketing Israeli dried fruit. My solution would simply be - eat fresh fruit! The whole dried fruit thing was a concession to reality, not an ideal!

There is actually precedent for this idea in rabbinic literature. The mishna in Bikkurim 3:3 states: "Those who were close brought figs and grapes, and those who were distant brought dried figs and raisins." This tells us that the ideal, when using fruit for religious purposes, was fresh fruit. However, in the interests of portability and durability, dried fruits were permitted.

There is a deeper level to this as well. At the end of Rav Kook's Eyn Ayah to Brakhot, he has several pages of notes on some of the mishnaic tractates at the end of Zera'im. His comments on Bikkurim (which, taken together, would constitute an excellent text for study on Tu B'Shvat) were actually published in English a work called Of Societies Perfect and Imperfect: Selected Readings from Eyn Ayah.

In a nutshell, Rav Kook discusses how those who are "close" and those who are "distant" represent either two distinct spiritual states. 'closeness' is associated with prophecy, the land of Israel, and the fullness of the potential of Jewish existence, whereas 'distance' is associated with the 'four ells of halakha', exile, and a Jewish existence that sacrifices its fullness for the sake of durability, but which still retains the essence of the original flavor. The first group is thus associated with fresh fruit, and the latter group with dried fruit. Both, however, bring their produce to the Temple and take their place within the range of modes of Jewish worship.

A little something to consider as you eat your Tu B'Shvat fruits - dried or fresh.

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