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April 21, 2014 | 21st Nisan 5774

Winter white

Galilee Diary #219
February 6, 2005
Marc J. Rosenstein

The best known Tu Beshvat song is “Hashkediya Porachat,” “The almond tree is blooming, and a golden sun is shining, birds on every rooftop proclaim the coming of the holiday…” And as the squill flowers are a marker of the beginning of the fall, so the almond blossoms are a sign that winter is passing. In the past few days, as one drives around the Galilee through the windblown rain and hail, one can’t miss the glow of the almond trees scattered over the hillsides and along the roadsides. Almonds blossom before their leaves come out, so the whiteness of the trees (with a slight pinkish cast) is very striking. Somehow their appearance gives rise to an optimism that can make you forget how miserable the weather is at the moment.

The almond tree follows the dictates of the solar year, not the lunar calendar, so it missed its cue for Tu Beshvat this year. This being a leap year, Tu Beshvat fell “early” relative to the solar calendar, and the almond trees didn’t bloom until about ten days after the holiday. Now we will insert an extra month to push all of the holidays later in the solar cycle, so next year the almonds should be in full bloom by the time Tu Beshvat comes around.

Although they are not listed as one of the seven species that symbolize the fertility of Eretz Yisrael, almonds arrived here from the far east well before the biblical period, as they are taken for granted in the Bible as a delicacy: when Jacob sends his sons back to Egypt a second time to buy food, he sends a gift box to win Joseph’s favor, which contains pistachios and almonds [Genesis 43:11]. Indeed, almonds have remained somewhere between being a staple and a delicacy until today. They are very nutritious, and have a long shelf life – which meant that they could be transported long distances easily in pre-modern times. Apparently, almond milk (made by grinding the nuts with water) was often used as a milk substitute in the days before refrigeration made animal milk available and safe. Haim Nahman Bialik, in his classic essay, “Halachah and Aggadah,” refers to an old custom of eating meat cooked in almond milk on Shavuot – a reference that I have been trying for years, unsuccessfully, to track down.

Apparently the almond flower was considered a thing of beauty, and became an artistic motif as well: the instructions for fashioning the menorah in the Tabernacle specify that the cups are to be “shaped like almond-blossoms, each with calyx and petals.” [Exodus 25:33]

More interestingly, the almond seems to have carried then, as it does now, symbolic significance related to life and rebirth. For example, after Korach’s rebellion is put down (Numbers 16), the people take up his complaint, questioning the authority of Moses and Aaron. Moses instructs each tribal leader to inscribe his name on a wooden staff, and he deposits the twelve staffs in the Tabernacle. “The next day Moses entered the Tent of the Covenant, and there the staff of Aaron of the house of Levi had sprouted: it had brought forth sprouts, produced blossoms, and borne almonds.” [Numbers 17:23] And Koheleth, the author of Ecclesiastes, contrasts the cyclical rebirth of nature with the irrevocable death of humans [Ecclesiastes 12:5]:

For the almond tree may blossom,
And the squill may be resume its burden [of blossom-stalk and leaves]
And the caper bush may bud again,
But man sets out for his eternal abode,
With mourners all around in the street…

On Monday I walked up the sidewalk in front of my home and noticed my neighbor’s almond tree, looking brown and dead on a dank and dreary day, a few leftover dried-up nuts still clinging to its branches. By Wednesday, the weather had not changed, but the tree had sprung to life, lighting up the day. The traditional blessing for seeing trees blossom for the first time: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has withheld nothing from His world, but has created in it goodly creatures and goodly trees for the enjoyment of human beings.”

Amen

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