Thursday, January 24, 2008

Tu Bishvat: The Prayer for a Beautiful Esrog

I received the following via email the other day. It is a tefilla for a beautiful and kosher esrog. It appears and was instituted in the sefer Leshon Chachamim from the Ben Ish Chai. He writes that it is accepted amongst the Chachmei Ashkenaz that one needs to implore, on the day of Tu B'Shvat, specifically about the etrog, that Israel should manage to have good etrogim. And once they mention etrog, a prayer for the rest of the fruits of trees as well.

Choshvei Shemo has the text (rather than picture) in electronic form, and he provides a translation, though it is a shorter text and therefore a shorter translation.

Now, saying this particular tefillah, or for that matter any tefillah on Tu Be-shvat for an etrog on Succot, is not my minhag, even if it was mekubal etzel kol chachmei Ashkenaz. And I am not about to adopt a new minhag just because it is being passed around the intertubes, be it via email forwards or on blogs. I might evaluate whether I agree with the aims of the minhag or tefillah and decide to adopt it. But just because I am told it was mekubal a while back does not mean I will change my existing custom to incorporate this practice as well.

I have my suspicions that what is happening here, in modern times (rather than the motivation back then), is that there is a vacuum of ritual acts and prayer on Tu BeShvat, because it is an halachic fiscal new year, rather than a real chag like other Jewish holidays. Therefore, people look to adopt rituals and tefillot for this day, and so they seize upon the kabbalistic Tu BiShvat seder condemned by Rav Yaakov Emden, and so they say a prayer for an etrog even though they are not really worried about their etrog.

And this is the sticking point for me. Back then, amongst the Chachmei Ashkenaz, there was a real concern that the Jews in their community would not be able to gain access to a kosher or mehudar etrog. Etrogim were scarce, and it was common for there to be a single etrog for an entire Jewish community, which cost them a king's ransom. Since etrogim were so scarce, one could only hope and pray that the etrog they got would not have any of the potential problems mentioned in the tefillah. There was real reason for this prayer.

But nowadays, through the aid of Hashem, etrogim are in extreme abundance. You can buy a lulav and etrog set that Jewish communities in Europe could only dream of, for about $30. And if you are willing to spend more, you can get even more and more mehudar. Is anyone who says this tefillah nowadays in any degree really worried that the Jewish community will not get mehudar esrogim and will be unable to perform the mitzvah? I seriously doubt it. Rather, the resurgence of this tefillah is a fad, to fill the gap in ritual and prayer. As such, I will not say it and change my existing custom. Had the situation nowadays been true back then, I strongly suspect the Chachmei Ashkenaz would not have seen the need to say it either.

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