A Talmud Tale
Told by Peninnah Schram
Honi the Wise One was also known as Honi the Circle Maker. By drawing a circle and stepping inside of it, he would recite special prayers for rain, sometimes even argue with God during a drought, and the rains would come. He was, indeed, a miracle maker. As wise as he was, Honi sometimes saw something that puzzled him. Then he would ask questions so he could unravel the mystery.
One day, Honi the Circle Maker was walking on the road and saw a man planting a carob tree. Honi asked the man, “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?”
The man replied, “Seventy years.”
Honi then asked the man, “And do you think you will live another seventy years and eat the fruit of this tree?”
The man answered, “Perhaps not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees.”
Tu B’Shevat is the New Year of the trees. This Jewish nature holiday occurs on the fifteenth day, the full moon, of the Hebrew month of Shevat, in late January or early February. At this time, in Israel, the almond tree is the first to begin to flower and the sap begins to rise within the trees.
While the counting of the age of trees was important in ancient times for taxation purposes, in modern Israel, this agricultural holiday has become similar to Arbor Day. Trees are planted in Israel on Tu B’Shevat or else money is sent to the Jewish National Fund to plant trees for us. On Tu B’Shevat, it is also customary to eat fifteen different Fruits, especially fruits and nuts grown in Israel, for example, pomegranates, grapes, figs, dates, almonds and carob.
In Judaism, trees are regarded as extremely precious and important. There are blessings over the first buds of spring and also when we eat the fruits for the first time in that season. There is a saying that if the Messiah is coming while you are planting a tree, finish planting first and then go and greet the Messiah.
This story is one of the classic tales from the Talmund (Ta’anit 23a). I heard it from my mother who often reminded me that her father had repeated this story to her many times. It focuses on the importance of taking care of the world for the next generation.
“Spirit in Nature: Teaching Judaism and Ecology on the Trail”
by Matt Biers-Ariel, Deborah Newbrun and Michal Fox Smart
Behrman House, 2000.
“Let the Earth Teach You Torah”
by Ellen Bernstein arid Dan Fink
Published by Shomrei Adamah (Keepers of the Earth)
Ten Classic Jewish Children’s Stories
NY & Jerusalem: Pitspopany Press, 1998 (This collection includes another story of Honi, “Honi and the Rainmaker.”)
Teva Learning Center
Articles about Hasidic Stories and Storytelling
Link to special issue of Jewish Heritage Online, “New Year of the Trees”
School of the Seasons
About the Contributor:
Peninnah Schram, storyteller, author, and recording artist, is Associate Professor of Speech and Drama at Stern College of Yeshiva University. In addition to the title mentioned above, other books include Jewish Stories One Generation Tells Another and Stories Within Stories: From the Jewish Oral Tradition. Her CD, The Minstrel and the Storyteller: Stories and Songs of the Jewish People, was recorded with singer/guitarist Gerard Edery.