In the shul of the Rebbe Shlom'ke of Zevhil, the tables overflowed with trays and baskets filled with every species of fruit imaginable, in a spectacular variety of colors that challenged the ability of the eye to assimilate.
Connection: Seasonal--TU B'SHVAT
Esrog Jam on Tu b'Shvat
The sun was already overhead. Tu b'Shvat, the "New Year's Day" for fruit trees in Israel, would start that night, and the residents of Jerusalem could feel the festive atmosphere permeating their famous Machane Yehuda midtown market place. The numerous food stands were all stuffed with colorful displays of an astonishing variety of fruits, and the crowds of Jewish customers were happily buying them out of love for the fruits of the Holy Land, to be celebrated on their annual special day, and in gratitude and praise to the Creator who bountifully provides them.
In the shul of Rabbi Shlomo, the Rebbe of Zevhil, in the Beit Yisrael neighborhood of Jerusalem [behind Meah Shearim, the location of Mir Yeshiva], the chasidim were finishing the preparations for the festive meal that evening. On the crowded tables were trays and baskets filled with every species of fruit you could think of, in a spectacular variety of colors that challenged the ability of the eye to assimilate. There was even a special jam whose primary ingredient was cooked etrog, which had been prepared by the wife of one of the chasidim.
The Rebbe settled into his chair at the head of the table and deep contemplation of the fruits. He thought about the nature and symbolic significance of each of the species of fruits, and also the complicated question in Jewish law of which of the many kinds of fruits should be given the preference to recite over it the blessing before eating fruit.
Finally he chose the appropriate fruit, recited the blessing with intense concentration, and chewed a small piece. Then he had his attendants distribute most of the vast quantity of fruit among the large crowd assembled in multiple rows round the table.
In the midst of the distribution, a young boy walked in, a cute kid of about ten years old. Most of the men in the shul recognized him, as he lived in the area and would drop in at the shul from time to time. He enjoyed spectating at the colorful events that took place there. He especially enjoyed being present when the Rebbe would host a "tisch" - a table--from where he would distribute "shirayim"-'leftover' food from his serving dishes-and inspire all the chasidim with song and teachings.
The Rebbe looked towards the boy, and signaled him to come closer. In excitement mixed with a bit of trepidation, the boy went over to the Rebbe's chair. The Rebbe smiled at him and said, "Its Tu b'Shvat. Did you have any etrog jam yet?"
The boy shook his head "No." The Rebbe dipped a spoon into the delicacy, presented it to the boy, and signaled him to say the blessing before tasting. After the boy did so, the Rebbe said to him:
"Do you know that it is of great benefit to eat etrog on Tu b'Shvat? On this 'Rosh HaShana of Fruit Trees,' all the fruits for the year to come are judged, including the etrogs that Jews will use on Sukkot for the commandment of "Taking the Four Species." We have a tradition that we pray on Tu b'Shvat [during the Boraich Aleinu prayer in Shemonah Esreh] that there will be available excellent quality etrogs for the mitzvah on this holiday of Sukkot this year."
The boy returned to his place in the crowd. By the following night Tu b'Shvat was over, and within a few days the young boy had already forgotten everything the Rebbe had said to him.
Eight months later the Jewish month of Tishrei arrived, which begins with two days of Rosh HaShana and then, on the tenth of the month, Yom Kippur. In the following four days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, the market places and streets of Jerusalem were packed with people looking to buy the Four Species - etrog (citron), lulav ( a date palm branch), hadasim (3 or more myrtle twigs) and arravot (2 willow stems) - for the mitzvah of joining them together and shaking them on each of the days of Sukkot [except Shabbat].
Besides the potential customers, hoards of Jewish youth were circulating among the different stands excited to see what was happening and what would happen. Vendors were hawking their wares at the top of their voices, nearly everyone was sorting through the Four Species, hoping to find a superior specimen or a good deal that their predecessors had overlooked. The most particular even pulled out magnifying classes and jeweler's loupes to minutely examine the etrogs for blemishes, and were animatedly consulting with each other and any rabbinical authority in the vicinity.
The young boy whom the Zevhil Rebbe had befriended was also present. He found himself becoming overwhelmed with the desire to possess a superior quality, fine-looking etrog of his own. Every previous year he had recited the blessings over his father's set of the Four Species. He well understood the limitations of his father's income and how it was difficult for him to afford even the simplest etrog that was kosher for the mitzvah. Nevertheless, his longing became stronger and stronger, until finally he could not hold himself back, and he revealed his desire to his father.
The father listened carefully. He was thrilled that the passion that filled his young son's heart was to be able to fulfill a commandment in the finest possible way. Although he couldn't possibly afford to purchase a high quality etrog - he didn't even possess that much cash - he gave him some coins and a few small bills, and prayed that with Heaven's help it would turn out to his son's satisfaction. At least he would be able to have his own kosher etrog.
The boy passionately thanked his father, then ran off excitedly to the well-known etrog store of Reb Zalman Sonnenfeld. The shop was busy, but when there was a pause between customers, Reb Zalman turned to the young boy and pleasantly asked, "So, what can I do for you?"
"I want to buy an excellent etrog."
"Really? How much money do you have?"
The boy extended his hand to allow the seller to count his meager stash. Reb Zalman kept a straight face and said patiently, "Good. Go over to that corner of the shop. There you can find a nice etrog for yourself. But please, make sure not to poke in any of the other etrog crates. Understand?"
The boy nodded his head in affirmation and strode quickly to the corner of the store that Reb Zalman had indicated. He picked up the first etrog he saw, examined it, then returned it to its place and lifted up a different one. But he quickly found flaws in it so he placed that one down too. And so it went with another dozen or so samples.
Then, suddenly, he found himself staring with a rush of emotion at the etrog in his hand that he had just plucked from much deeper within the carton that had been designated to him. It seemed top notch. His heart beat faster as he rotated it slowly in his hand and scrutinized it minutely. Not a single blemish! Its color and shape also appealed to him. Even its pitom ['pistil'--the protruding nipple at the top] was perfect. What an exemplary etrog.
He trotted to the front of the store and excitedly showed his find to Reb Zalman. The owner looked carefully at the etrog and began to shout at the startled boy. "Didn't I warn you not to touch any etrog in the other crates? Did you really think I would sell you such a superior etrog for the pittance of money in your hand? Why, the price of this etrog is at least 200 times that!"
The boy quickly attempted to justify himself to the shopkeeper, explaining that he had discovered it in one of the boxes in the corner that had been indicated to him. He didn't pick up a single etrog from any other crate.
Reb Zalman didn't believe him.
Fortunately for the boy, some of the other shoppers had taken note of him. They enjoyed watching such a young fellow examining the etrogs with so much care and patience. They testified to the store owner that the boy was indeed telling the truth.
Reb Zalman felt ashamed and regretful that he had suspected the boy unfairly. He also now perceived the guiding hand of Providence in the matter. His stern face transformed with a warm smile as he said, "It appears that it was meant for you to possess a magnificent etrog this year. Since I recognize now that you came upon it honestly, it is yours. You deserve it. I'll sell it to you for the sum of money in your hand."
He wrapped and packaged the etrog securely and handed it to his little customer. The boy accepted it in both hands with pure joy. And to the amused delight of the sympathetic shoppers, he sprinted out of the store with his prize. He wanted to get home as fast as he could to show it to his father and relate to him all that had happened.
Only after he reached the house and calmed down somewhat did he recall suddenly and clearly what had taken place on Tu b'Shvat eight months before and the words of the tzadik of Zevhil: that eating etrog preserves on Tu b'Shvat and praying for a good etrog is a segula (propitious) for obtaining an excellent etrog for the Mitzvah of the Four Species on Sukkot.
He told all of this to his father too. Tears glistened in the eyes of each of them.
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