This essay is adapted from Seasons of Life, available at www.targum.com/store/Slifkin.html
I. From Fruit to Vegetable
Tu BiShevat, the new year for trees, is a time of great festivity. We may wonder, though, why this should be so. We do not find such celebration on the new year for vegetables or crops. What is so special about fruit?
A distinction between fruit and crops is found at the beginning of the Torah. In the utopia of Gan Eden, Adam was instructed that his diet would consist of fruit:
“And Hashem, God, commanded man, saying, You shall eat from any tree in the garden.” (Bereishis 2:16)
When Adam sinned and fell from his lofty spiritual stature, his diet was also reduced to a lower status:
“And to Adam He said, …The land is cursed because of you; you shall eat in suffering all your life. It shall sprout thorns and thistles for you, and you shall eat the grasses of the field.” (Bereishis 3:17-18)
No longer would the fruits of the trees sustain man. Now he was to to live off the grasses of the field – wheat, barley and other grains and vegetables. Upon hearing this, Adam became greatly distressed:
“When Hashem said to Adam, It shall sprout thorns and thistles for you.., his eyes streamed with tears; he said, Master of the Universe! I and my donkey shall eat from a single trough!” (Talmud, Pesachim 118a)
In the transition from a diet of fruit to one of crops, Adam perceived that he had fallen to a status approaching that of an animal. Let us look a little deeper at this difference.
II. More Than Meets The Eye
Man is called “adam,” because he was formed from adamah, “earth.” This sounds straightforward enough, until we consider that cats and dogs and duckbilled platypuses were also formed from the earth! Every creature was formed from adamah – why is it only man who receives the name adam?
The Maharal explains that there is a conceptual similarity between man and earth. Consider a patch of bare earth. It appears to be featureless, lifeless. One can dig, and one will still find nothing more exciting than soil. But if one waits and watches, one will witness an incredible phenomenon. Plants and flowers will grow seemingly out of nothing. Even huge trees can develop – and where does their bulk come from? The earth has a tremendous hidden potential within it; there is so much more than meets the eye.
Let us now consider animals. An animal is referred to in the Torah as behemah. This word is comprised of the words “bah mah,” which mean “what is it?” or “what’s in it,” or, as we might say, “what you see is what you get.” What you see in an animal – its skin, eyes, limbs, and fur – is all there is to it. There are no hidden depths to a hippopotamus.
But man has the ability to develop his intellect and to perform acts of a genuinely altruistic nature. He can engage in spiritual growth, transforming himself into an ever-superior being. There is so much more to man than meets the eye. That is why he is named after earth. Man and earth are similar in that both contain tremendous hidden potential.
If we contrast fruit with crops and vegetables, we can see the same essential difference. When grains and vegetables are grown, the entire plant is cut and consumed. What you see is what you get. Once it is consumed, there is nothing left. There is never any further possibility of produce from this plant.
A fruit tree is different. What you see is only a tiny fraction of what you get. For even when all the fruit have been consumed, there remains vast potential in the tree. It has the ability to produce more fruit, and more, for many generations.
Adam was originally on the level of eating fruit. He was a vast reserve of potential which was waiting to be actualized. But when he sinned, he dropped to little more than the level of an animal. An animal has nothing more to it than meets the eye. It does not possess great potential that can be used for creative spiritual expression. It therefore subsists on a diet of crops and vegetables, which likewise have no potential for further development. In the same way, Adam’s capacity for spiritual development was greatly reduced.
III. From Earth to Heaven
The conceptual difference between fruits and vegetables is also expressed in their contrasting appearances. Fruit trees stand tall, reaching upwards from the earth toward the heavens. They represent a striving for spiritual growth and a potential that desires expression. Crops and vegetables, on the other hand, lie low to the ground; they represent lowly physicality and no desire for elevation.
“Adam HaRishon reached from earth to Heaven…but when he sinned, Hashem laid His hand upon him and diminished him…” (Talmud, Sanhedrin 38b)
This gemara is speaking in metaphorical terms which we can now understand. Adam originally reached up toward the heavens like the fruit trees, expressing a tremendous potential for growth. But after the snake led him to sin, this potential became severely limited. The snake itself, which masterminded the sin, changed from being a creature that walked upright, paralleling the tree, to one that slithers in the dust, paralleling the crops and vegetables. Man, unlike other animals, still walks upright. Though man’s greatness was reduced, he was still left with the potential to grow and, even reclaim his original stature.
IV. The Egyptian Donkey
In Adam HaRishon’s cry of despair, he laments that he must eat the same food as his donkey. The donkey is called chamor, which is based on the word chomer, “material.” The donkey is the most “materialistic” creature. A simple-minded beast, it is drawn solely after its physical desires. Adam realized that his altered diet demonstrated a fall to such a level.
Interestingly, the donkey is linked with a particular nation: “In the land of Egypt…whose flesh is as that of donkeys…” (Yechezkel 23:19-20)
Egypt was a nation steeped in materialistic drives and is therefore represented by the donkey. It lacked any capacity for spiritual growth, and it is not surprising that the Jewish people remembered Egypt as a land of vegetables:
“We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for nothing; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic…” (Bemidbar 11:5)
Vegetables, possessing none of the vast potential of fruit trees, express the essence of Egypt. And thus it is described when it is contrasted with Eretz Yisrael:
“For the land which you are entering to possess is not like the land of Egypt which you left, where you sow your seeds and water it by walking [to bring water from the Nile], like a vegetable garden.” (Devarim 11:10-12)
The very name for Egypt, Mitrayim, is based on the word meitzar, “restriction,” referring to its limited capacity for growth and lack of spiritual potential.
Winter is the “exile” period of the year. But this section of winter is particularly connected to the exile in Egypt. This is signified by the weekly Torah readings at this time, which discuss our exile in Egypt. Conceptually, then, we are at a “vegetable” stage, one that restricts spiritual growth. That is why the new year of the fruit trees, with all its spiritual significance, is a cause of great celebration.
This article is published as part of a Tu b’Shevat Learning Campaign, coordinated by Canfei Nesharim (“on the wings of eagles”), an organization of Torah-observant Jews who are working to educate the Jewish community about the ideas, inherent in Jewish Law, which today can be labeled as ‘environmental’ in nature. www.canfeinesharim.org