This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

It Grows on Trees*

I still retain some vivid childhood memories of the weeks preceding Tu Bish'vat, the Jewish New Year of the trees. During this season, our normal obsession with collecting hockey cards would give way temporarily to a vigorous rivalry over which class in our school could purchase the greatest number of paper leaves.

Many of you will recall those little green adhesive leaves that were sold by the Jewish National Fund, designed to be stuck onto a picture of a many-branched tree. If the fierce competition between the classes in our school was at all typical, then the buy-a-leaf campaign must have been one very lucrative fund-raising idea. It has inspired several more elaborate "tree of life" campaigns, variations of which have been implemented in our local institutions.

To tell the truth, the idea of selling artificial leaves did not originate with modern Zionism. The Mishnah describes a golden grape-vine that stood at the entrance to the sanctuary of the Jerusalem Temple. Prospective donors were encouraged to purchase leaves, grapes or entire grape-clusters, which they could ceremoniously hang on the vine.

Maimonides emphasizes that the choice of a grape-vine for this purpose had symbolic significance, since this was a favourite biblical metaphor for the people of Israel.

The Mishnah reports that the vine became so laden with gifts that it required three hundred priests to budge it. The Talmud, however, concedes that this number must be an a exaggeration.

The Mishnah does not tell us whether the gold was put to any use, other than as a visual testimony to the people's devotion to God and the glory of the Temple. Most commentators, however, understood that it was accessed from time to time in order to defray expenses related to the upkeep of the Temple, to provide gold plating for the altar, or to support needy priests.

All these goals were clearly more noble than the uses to which golden fruits were being put in Greek mythology. One is reminded of the infamous fruit that was given by Zeus to Paris of Troy. The young prince used it to reward Aphrodite for granting him the favours of fair Helen, setting in motion an unfortunate chain of events that would ultimately bring on the Trojan War.

The Mishnah quoted above was describing the situation that prevailed in the Second Temple. However, according to ancient Jewish legend, the idea of placing a golden plant in the sanctuary had already been implemented by King Solomon in the First Temple.

The main source for this tradition is a passage in 2 Chronicles 3:6 that enumerates the spectacular ornamentation in Solomon's edifice, and adds the obscure remark that "the gold was gold of parvaim." The unique and mysterious Hebrew word parvaim was understood in various ways. Most commentators saw it as denoting a place name or a colour. However, a popular interpretation in the Midrash derived it from the Hebrew root meaning "fruitfulness," leading the rabbinic preachers to conclude that the golden ornaments of Solomon's Temple were actually alive and capable of bearing fruit. Rabbi Aha bar Isaac reported that "when Solomon constructed the Holy Temple, he fashioned inside it all sorts of trees. Whenever the trees outside would bear fruit, the ones inside also bore their fruit." When the fruits ripened and fell from the boughs, they would be used for the livelihood of the priests.

One astute exegete explained that the gold fruits could not be plucked directly from the branches because no one knows how to tell when metal fruit is ripe enough to be picked. It was for this reason that they had to wait until they dropped off by themselves!

Some traditional commentators were uncertain whether the fruits produced by these trees were made of metal, or of the normal edible variety.

The first-century Jewish historian Josephus Flavius may have been familiar with such fantastic traditions extolling the wondrous properties of the golden plants. However, he took care to describe the phenomenon in strictly naturalistic terms, noting that their leaves were fashioned so finely and subtly that they gave the illusion of being in motion.

The miraculous animated gold was perceived by the sages of the Talmud as a reflection of Israel's proudest days of spiritual and national grandeur. Accordingly, the Midrash relates that their supernatural qualities ceased to operate when the Jews fell from glory or divine favour, either because of their lapse into idolatry in the days of King Manassah, or with the intrusion of the Babylonian conquerors into the sacred precincts.

By the same token, however, the rabbis looked forward eagerly to the future days of messianic redemption, when the living golden fruit-trees will once again be restored to the rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem.

And when that time comes, you may be certain that you will be receiving a call from the fund-raisers asking you to pledge a leaf or a grape-cluster.

This article and many others are now included in the book

In Those Days, At This Time
In Those Days, At This Time:
Holiness and History in the Jewish Calendar

published by

University of Calgary Press
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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, February 8, 2001, p. 8.