2/06/2012

This Tu Bi-Shvat, Eat Fresh Fruit

[Adapted from this 2-year old blog post]

The celebration of Tu Bi-Shvat evolved over time. Originally it was nothing more than a demarcation line between two years’ worth of crops, with ramifications for the various tithes and contributions that must be made annually. It was not a holiday in any sense. But during the long exile, when few Jews were able to live in the Land of Israel, and the initial meaning of Tu Bi-Shvat became impracticable, many Jewish communities began eating fruits symbolically on Tu Bi-Shvat, imbuing it with certain sense of celebration. In the 16th century, the mystics of Safed intensified the celebration, and an elaborate ritual meal was developed around the eating of the land’s produce. Tu Bi-Shvat has continued to evolve, especially after the Jews returned en masse to their ancient homeland over the past century, but the custom of eating the fruit of the land has persisted.

But for some reason, the fruit we eat on Tu Bi-Shvat is always dried. Growing up in the US, we celebrated Tu Bi-Shvat with dried fruits that, if they did not actually come from Israel, reminded us of Israel (for some odd reason, carob, bokser in Yiddish, always featured prominently, as though it were edible). If the point is to celebrate the fruit of the Land of Israel, why not eat it fresh?

The obvious answer is that the holiday takes place in the middle of the winter, when fresh fruit was often unavailable, especially in the cold countries of the Ashkenazic Diaspora. Moreover, drying was a way to make fruit more durable; it could last through the winter and also would not spoil in transit. As a rule, until modern times, the only way that a Diaspora community could obtain fruit from Israel for Tu Bi-Shvat was if it was dried. This is an example of a 'custom' born out of a very straightforward reality. Nevertheless, even with the advent of refrigeration and rapid transport, the old habit of eating dried fruit of Tu Bi-Shvat remained. So in grade school we suffered through the leathery bokser instead of enjoying fresh apples. It was part of the experience.

Here in Israel, the persistence of this custom takes on an even more ironic dimension. Much of the dried fruit available here is imported. On Tu Bi-Shvat of years past, marketing efforts have been made to encourage the purchase and consumption of Israeli dried fruit instead of relying on imports. After all, the original custom was to eat from the fruits of the Land of Israel.

But there is a much simpler solution: Eat fresh fruit! The custom to eat dried fruit was only because that was the only Israeli fruit available; it was never the ideal. So why not enjoy the good stuff?

There is actually precedent for this idea in rabbinic literature. Discussing the mitzva of bringing the first fruits to Jerusalem, the mishna (Bikkurim 3:3) states: "Those who were close brought figs and grapes, and those who were distant brought dried figs and raisins." When using fruit for a mitzva, it was better to use fresh fruit; however, in the interests of increased portability and durability, those who had a long trek could bring dried fruits.

There is a deeper level to this as well. Rabbi Kook (in Eyn Ayah) discusses how those who are "close" and those who are "distant" represent either two distinct spiritual states. “Closeness” is associated with the land of Israel and the fullness of the potential of Jewish existence, whereas “distance” is associated with an exilic Jewish existence that sacrifices its full flavor for the sake of durability and portability. The first group is associated with fresh fruit, and the latter group with dried fruit. Both are acceptable, but “fresh fruit” is preferred.

A little something to consider as you eat your Tu Bi-Shvat fruits, be they dried or fresh.
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