Bishalach/Tu B’Shvat: Tree Words ~ Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

This upcoming week is a little-known holiday called Tu B’Shevat (the 15th of the month of Shevat). The Mishna (Rosh Hashanah 1:1) says that Tu B’Shevat is the Rosh Hashanah (New Year) for Trees. This means that Tu B’Shevat is the halachic cut-off date for delineating between one year’s fruits and the next. In honor of the significance of this holiday and its connection to trees we will explore two Hebrew words which mean tree: “eitz” and “ilan”.

We might be familiar with the word eitz and its various forms from the Bible: eitz ha’daat (the Tree of Knowledge), eitz ha’Chaim (the Tree of Life), atzei Shittim (Shittim wood), atzei Levanah (Lebanon wood), and the like. There is, however, another word for tree: ilan. We have already shown over and over again that no two words in the Hebrew language mean exactly the same. So then why are there two words for “tree” and what is the difference between those two words?

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) writes that the word eitz is related to the Hebrew word atzum (strong) and etzem (bone), as it denotes the strength and durability of a tree (as opposed to other, flimsy forms of flora, like grass).

The attentive reader might notice that while the word eitz appears countless times in the Bible, the word ilan does not. Rather, the word ilan appears only once in the Bible (Daniel 4:7) and a similar word — ilana (which also means tree) — appears several times in the fourth chapter of Daniel (verses 8, 11, 17, 20, and 23). That chapter, like most of the book of Daniel, is actually written in Aramaic, not in Hebrew. This would suggest that eitz is a Hebrew word, while ilan(a) is an Aramaic word. The latter word constantly appears in the Mishna and other rabbinic writings, leading us to ask why the Sages of the Mishna preferred to use the Aramaic word for tree, instead of the Hebrew one.

To resolve these difficulties, Rabbi Chaim Hirschensohn (1857-1935) explains that while Biblical Hebrew uses the word eitz to mean both a tree and its wood, the Rabbis decided to differentiate between living trees and cut wood by using two different words. To that effect, they took the Aramaic word ilana found in the Bible to mean a living tree, Hebraized it to coin the word ilan, and adopted that neologism as the new word for a live tree. Concomitantly, they narrowed the definition of the Hebrew word eitz to refer only to wood. The advantage of this new linguistic policy was that the Rabbis now had a convenient way of differentiating between a live tree and wood with a simple change in word.

Rabbi Betzalel Stern (1911-1988), the author of Responsa Be’tzel Ha’chachma,wasonce asked whether the traditional formulation of blessings and prayers were phrased according to the grammar and usage of Biblical Hebrew or of Rabbinic Hebrew. He answered this question by citing the Mishna (Berachot 6:1) which rules, “On the fruits of an ilan one blesses borei pri ha’eitz (“He who creates the fruit of the eitz”).” Rabbi Stern explained that although the word for tree in the spoken vernacular was the Aramaic-based ilan, the Mishna nonetheless chose to use the word eitz in the wording of the blessing before eating fruits. To him, this clearly demonstrates that the Rabbis preferred Biblical Hebrew to their own form of Hebrew when deciding on the exact phraseology of blessings.

Bishalach: How to Pass the Driving Test ~ Tzvi Abrahams


How to Pass the Driving Test

נִסָיוֹן: test

נֵס: miracle

נֵס: banner

נוּס: flee

נֵס: sail

נִיסַן: Nisan

נִסָיוֹן: Test

וַיֹּאמֶר ה’אֶל מֹשֶׁה הִנְנִי מַמְטִיר לָכֶם לֶחֶם מִן הַשָּׁמָיִם וְיָצָא הָעָם וְלָקְטוּ דְּבַר יוֹם בְּיוֹמוֹ לְמַעַן אֲנַסֶּנּוּ הֲיֵלֵךְ בְּתוֹרָתִי אִם לֹא

And Hashem said to Moshe, “Behold, when bread rains down from the heavens and the people will go out and collect it every day, it is in order that I will test them to see if they will go in the ways of My Torah or not.”1

Hashem has laid out in front of us a beautiful challenge. On the one hand, we have been given the Torah, תּוֹרַת הַחַיִים/the instructions for living, while on the other hand we have to work for a living. The challenge that we are faced with is how much time we are going to invest in learning Torah and in pursuing a livelihood. The two are seemingly mutually exclusive — unless one is a rabbi, who of course has the best of both worlds!

The challenge is beautiful, because as Jews we have the choice to elevate ourselves through the Torah and transcend this world, or to follow the masses in amassing a small fortune so that we can retire as early as possible to really “enjoy” the fruits that this world has to offer. The fact that we have a unique mission, the mission to choose, and being that the choice is an exceedingly difficult one, makes this challenge of life truly beautiful.

The test of the manna teaches us some important tools on how to face the challenge of life.

Whether one collected too much manna or too little, at the end of the day everyone got what he needed according to the number of mouths he had to feed. To explain this phenomenon, the seeds of the manna can be compared to walnuts, which have a lot of excess shell in relation to their nut. The ones who collected a lot of manna were left with a lot of excess shell, whereas the ones who collected little ended up with comparatively less shell and much more nut.2We learn from this that we can spend two or or ten hours a day earning a living, yet at the end of the day we are going to receive exactly what was ordained for us on Rosh Hashanah. If we earn too much, then Hashem will take it away from us in the form of extra dental treatments, parking tickets, etc., and if we earn too little, then our money will be blessed with less dental treatments and parking tickets, etc. It’s by no means easy to live this way, but this is one of the lessons of the manna.

Not to leave over from the manna for tomorrow. In other words, we are not meant to be saving money for a rainy day. The Gemara says that whoever has bread in his basket today and worries about what he will eat tomorrow is lacking in his level of emunah.3One who has the ambition to be financially secure is really saying, “I don’t want to be reliant on Hashem,” or, even worse, “I don’t believe that Hashem has the power to give me my parnasah.” He loses the opportunity to really see the hand of Hashem in his life. People who invest most of their time in learning Torah really see Hashem in their lives in a big way. Not an easy choice.

Not to go out collecting manna/money on the Shabbos, but instead receive double on Friday. Unfortunately, the Jews who left for America from Eastern Europe and Russia in the early twentieth century in search of a better life free from the pogroms found that in order to succeed they needed to work on Shabbos. For the most part, those Jews assimilated into American society and married out. In hindsight, would they have been better off being victims of persecution where at least they would have died being Jewish? Again, not an easy choice.

As much as Hashem tests us, there are times when we test Hashem. Sometimes, we are so involved in this world that we find it hard to connect with Hashem. We even question if He really exists; we challenge Hashem to show Himself, to show us a sign, crying: “Are You really there?!” So Hashem sends us Amalek in order to wake us up. The mashalis to a son being carried around on his father’s shoulders. Time passes by and the son forgets that he is being carried around, to the point where he asks people, “Have you seen Abba?” His father then takes him of his shoulders, sends a dog to bite him, and very quickly the son comes running back to his abba.4

The test of the bitter waters: After the splitting of the Yam Suf, the Bnei Yisrael traveled for three days without finding water. When they arrived at Marah, they found the waters were too bitter to drink. In order to sweeten the waters, Moshe was told to throw a tree into the waters. The commentaries explain that the Bnei Yisrael were then given a few mitzvos as a test to see if they were ready to receive the Torah. The Torah, which is compared to water, tasted bitter. At first, Torah learning is unpalatable — what relevance is there to an ox goring an ox? I would much rather spend my spare time watching movies, going to concerts, wining and dining, playing sports and games, etc. Why sit and break my teeth over a language and an ideology that is far away from me, that belongs in a different realm?!

And that’s just it; it does belong in a different realm, and so do we. In this world we are like a fish out of water, which Rabi Akiva compared to a Jew without Torah. The only way to connect to the source is to jump in the river. We come into this world surrounded by water; the waters break, and here we are, on dry land, so to speak. Hashem gives us a certain amount of time to return to the living waters. If after a lifetime on dry land we go without tasting the sweet waters of the Torah, then we are truly dead. There is nothing left to keep us alive — like a fish out of water.

This is the test of life: do we run after the הֶבֶל הַבָלִים/the vanities of this world, of instant pleasure, and blind ourselves to reality where we are on a road to nowhere, or do we throw ourselves in the deep end and try to make sense of a world that is hidden from the naked eye, a beautiful world where we could be privileged to see amazing colors of coral reefs and tropical fish, a world where we are truly alive in the living waters of the תּוֹרַת חַיִים/the living Torah?

נֵס: Miracle

וַיִּבֶן מֹשֶׁה מִזְבֵּחַ וַיִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ ה’נִסִּי
And Moshe built an altar and called it “Hashem is my miracle.”5

What, in actuality, is a miracle? A miracle can be classified as anything beyond the normal; a point where we see Hashem’s hand clearly directing our lives, which can be anything from splitting the Reed Sea to landing a parking space in the Old City of Yerushalayim as you pull up to the parking lot. Nothing is too big or too small for Hashem; it’s all the same in the eyes of Hashem.

Aנֵס/miracle is related to the word נִסָיוֹן/test in that to pass a real test is nothing short of miraculous. Given that our definition of miraculous is seeing Hashem’s hand in our lives, then the real test of life is whether we really see Hashem’s guiding hand in our lives or not.

When Hashem tested Avrahamwith the impossible task of sacrificing his beloved son Yitzchak, the test was not for Hashem to know if Avraham was capable of following through, because Hashem already knows the endgame. Rather, it was for Avraham to know deeply within himself that he could overcome his own nature and by doing so reveal Hashem in the world.6The Ramban says that the idea of a test is to reveal one’s potential into actuality. If we are not tested, we would not see what we are capable of.

אֵין הקב”ה מַעַמִיד אָדָם בְּנִסָיוֹן אֶלָא אִם יָכוֹל לַעַמוֹד בּו
Chazal say that Hashem does not give someone a test that he not able to withstand. Life is a series of tests where hopefully we rise to the challenge. With each test we grow and see the great power within ourselves — we see our innate godliness.7

נֵס: Banner

וְנָשָׂא נֵס לַגּוֹיִם וְאָסַף נִדְחֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וּנְפֻצוֹת יְהוּדָה יְקַבֵּץ מֵאַרְבַּע כַּנְפוֹת הָאָרֶץ
And on that day Hashem will make a banner to the goyimto gather in the exiles from the four corners of the world.8

We also ask Hashem every day in our Shemoneh Esreito raise the banner and gather in the exiles from the four corners of the world. A banner is a כָּלוֹנֵס/pole with a flag raised at the top, which, when used in war, is a sign for the army to gather together. A נֵס, therefore, is not just about seeing Hashem’s hand in our lives, but also a raising of Hashem’s awareness in the world for us to gather around. A נֵסsymbolizes that Hashem is here, continually playing an active role, even behind the scenes when we don’t see Him.

נוּס: Flee

Rashi in Yeshayahsays that the flags of battle, which are raised high, are a sign to the lookout that the enemy is approaching. He then signals to his fellow countrymen to gather and do battle, or to flee.9As we see with Yosef when he fled from the wife of Potiphar, וַיָּנָס וַיֵּצֵא הַחוּצָה10— sometimes, when faced with a test, our task is to flee as fast as we can from a place of danger. This was the test of Yosef, which he nearly succumbed to, yet he rose to the challenge and became Yosef HaTzaddik.

נֵס: Sail

Aנֵסcan also refer to the sails of a ship. Without them and the wind, the ship doesn’t move. Life, which is compared to a boat traversing the open seas, is constantly being tossed around by the raw elements of nature. The challenges of life, the נִסְיוֹנוֹת, are like the wind that moves the sails, for if it were not for theנִסְיוֹנוֹת, our boat would not go anywhere.11

נִיסַן: Nisan

נִיסַן/Nisan, of course, is the month of miracles: Yitzchak, the miracle child, was born on Pesach; the open miracles of the plague of the firstborn and the splitting of the Red Sea; and also the hidden miracles of Purim, although celebrated in Adar, coincided with Pesach, when all of Klal Yisrael fasted and when Haman was hanged.

In conclusion, the idea of נֵסis where Hashem reveals himself in nature. נִסָיוֹןis where we reveal Hashem in the world by revealing to ourselves our true power, which is our ability to bring Hashem into the world by recognizing that Hashem is the root cause of everything. The test of the manna was (and is) to know that not on bread alone does man live, but rather from what comes out of the mouth of Hashem does man live.12The Torah, which contains the words that come from the mouth of Hashem, gives us everlasting life. If we were to be truly living with this idea, then we would relinquish control of our livelihoods to Hashem and spend the majority of our time learning Torah, because, as Solomon says at the end of Koheles, “at the end of everything all will be heard,” namely, that at the end of our lives we will be called upon to speak out the knowledge of the Torah we have learned. We will not be called upon to give an account of how much money we have in the bank!

When we relinquish control, we are actually handing Hashem control of the driving seat, and we in effect become the passenger. If we want to pass the test of life, we have to know Who is driving.


2As heard from Rabbi Ephraim Kahana of Zichron Yaakov.

3Sotah 48b.

4Rashi to Shemos 17:8.

5Shemos 17:15.

6Bereishis 22:1.

7For further reading, see Rabbi Akiva Tatz, Living Inspired.

8Yeshayah 11:12.

9Ibid., 30:17.

10Bereishis 39:12.

11From a shiurgiven by Rebbetzin Shira Smiles.

12Devarim 8:3.

Bishalach: Sweet and Pleasant ~ Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

berry close up cooking delicious
Photo by mali maeder on

Sweet and Pleasant

Not long after the Jews’ Exodus from Egypt, they travelled in the desert for three days and finally reached a place called Marah—aptly called so because its waters were bitter (mar). Predictably, the Jews complained to Moshe that they had nothing to drink, so G-d instructed Moshe to cast a tree into the waters and miraculously render them sweet (matok). The word matok is not the only word in Hebrew which means sweet. We pray every morning, “ve’ha’areiv na…” in which we ask G-d to make His words of Torah “sweet” (areiv) in our mouths. Similarly, in the Holiday Mussaf Service, before the Blessing of the Kohanim, we ask G-d “ve’tei’areiv lifanecha…” in which we ask G-d to make our prayers “sweet” (areiv) like sacrifices before Him. What is the difference between areiv and matok?

The Vilna Gaon (1720–1797) does not directly address this question, but does explain the difference between matok and another word. He writes that naim/noam (pleasant) refers to visual appeal, while matok refers to gustatory appeal (which, of course, has to do with the sense of taste).

Indeed, if one parses the Bible for instances of the words matok one will notice a pattern in its appearances. Words related to matok or metek commonly refer to culinary “sweetness” (something which tastes sweet), while the word areiv never appears in a gastronomical context (the only exception is Proverbs 20:17). In Song of Songs (2:14), the word areiv applies to auditory sweetness, as one lover says to the other, “allow me to hear your voice because your voice is sweet (areiv)”. Moreover, according to one opinion in the Talmud (Brachot 43a), the proper blessing to be recited over the scent of sweet-smelling balsam oil is …borei shemen areiv (“…who creates areiv oil”). This suggests that the word areiv also applies to the realm of the olfactory. According to this, it seems that matok refers specifically to a sweet taste, while areiv can also refer to a sweet voice and a sweet scent.

With his signature diligence, Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740–1814) explains the differences between all three words in question. He argues that the word matok refers to an objective way of measuring taste and therefore refers specifically to the type of taste that is widely-acknowledged as “sweet”. “Sweet” is the polar opposite of “bitter”. “Sweet” is the form of taste found in such foodstuffs as honey, figs, dates, etc. Accordingly, the word matok primarily denotes a universally-recognized, positive taste. Nonetheless, the word was borrowed to refer to anything which one might argue is positive, desirous, or worthwhile.

That said, R. Pappenheim explains that the waters at Marah are described as matok not because they were objectively “sweet”, per se, but because of the contrast in their transformation. Previously, those waters had been objectively “bitter” and now they lost that bitterness.

  1. Pappenheim writes that as opposed to the word matok which denotes an objective sweetness, the word areiv denotes a subjective sweetness or pleasantness. In that vein, a masochist who has an affinity for bitter foods might say, “bitter is areiv for me”, but he would not say “bitter is matok for me”. Areiv is an acquired taste; it is a matter of personal choice.

[Perhaps, for this reason, we pray that the Torah should be areiv in our mouths because we want the Torah to appeal to us on a personal level. Similarly, this might also be the reason we ask G-d to look at our prayers as areiv like sacrifices, instead of matok. As opposed to paganism, Judaism does not believe that the rituals of sacrifices have any intrinsic (or “magical”) value, but that their value comes from the fact that G-d commanded us to offer these sacrifices. Accordingly, the word matok which denotes something objectively sweet is inappropriate, so we use the word areiv which means that they should appeal to G-d on the basis of His personal favor.]

  1. Pappenheim continues to explain the meaning of naim/noam. As opposed to the Vilna Gaon who understood that those words refer to visual sweetness, R. Pappenheim argues that these words do not refer to any type of physical property, but rather to the transcendental pleasure that one derives from enjoying something sweet. In this way, matok and areiv refer to the physical, while the term naim focuses on the sublime. The root of naim is NUN-AYIN-MEM, the last two letters of which also make up the root of the word im (“with”), because one’s soul tends to bond with that which he considers pleasant or enjoyable. In this way, the pleasantness of naim/noam focuses on the spiritual aspect as it binds disparate entities and joins them together.

According to etymologists, the origin of the word areiv is unknown. However, some linguists suggest that its original meaning was related to the word arev (mixed) in the sense of “to be well-mixed”. So, for example, a glass of wine which is properly-mixed with the right proportion of wine to water, is considered pleasant and especially appealing. According to these etymologists, this is the basis for the meaning of the word areiv in the sense of “sweet”.

I would argue that just as R. Pappenheim understood that naim is related to the idea of connection and attachment, so does the word areiv also refers to a type of binding. The common denominator between all the different groups of words that use the root AYIN-REISH-BET is that they all denote a form of connection or a joining of disparate elements: an arev is a guarantor on a loan (he connects the lender and borrower), erev (evening) connects day and night, taaruvot/irvuv is a mixture, an eirev is the woof-component of woven fabric, an eruv connects space into one Halachic domain, the Plague of Arov consisted of an assortment of beasts, and the Erev Rav are the mixed multitudes. The same applies to the word areiv. Sweetness/pleasantness creates a connection between the object in discussion and the one who beholds it. The more pleasing or sweet something or someone else is, the more the other wants to come closer to it. Therefore, because sweetness is an impetus for that link, it is related to the words for binding or connection.