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On Fruit and Transformation

Thought Shavuot was all about dairy foods? Think again, says Rabbi Gabriel Botnick

When you think of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, what do you picture as the forbidden fruit they ate? You might imagine an apple though we have no true idea what grew on the Tree of Knowledge. However, history has provided plenty of hypotheses.

Our sages have suggested the fruit might have been a grape, reasoning that nothing brings on more trouble than wine. Or it might have been a fig, since immediately upon eating it, Adam and Eve saw they were naked and made loin cloths out of nearby fig leaves.

But the most interesting hypothesis I’ve read about the forbidden fruit is that it was wheat. One might dismiss this as wheat is not a fruit, but we must remember we’re dealing with rabbinic logic here!

In ancient times there were two main grains that were widely cultivated: barley and wheat. Even though it is hearty and healthy, it’s not so easy on the stomach, so our ancestors avoided making barley into bread. Instead, they used it forstews, beer or animal feed. Wheat was held in much higher esteem, asit could be ground into a very fine flour for making easily digested bread.

Our sages also teach that the first solid food most children ate was wheat bread, which their parents would feed them once they started talking. This suggests a direct connection between wheat and knowledge, so sages identify the forbidden fruit as this grain.

But the symbolism of wheat and barley goes even deeper. In ancient Israel, farmers would plant wheat and barley seeds in the autumn, just in time to be nourished by the winter rains. However, the barley grows faster and would be harvested in March or April, while the wheat would be harvested in May or June. In the Torah, the barley harvest is associated with Pesach as the Israelites would make an offering of barley to God then. Fifty days later, the Israelites would celebrate Shavuot and bring an offering of bread, made of the finest flour from their wheat harvest.

Of course, the importance of Pesach and Shavuot extends beyond the agrarian, as they remind us of the two most central events in our people’s history. Pesach celebrates our liberation from enslavement and the birth of our people, and Shavuot celebrates the day God gave us the Torah and we attained knowledge.

Shavuot’s association with wheat, a grain so tied up with knowledge, led our sages to teach that ‘without wheat, there is no Torah; without Torah, there is no wheat’.

The 50-day journey that takes us from Pesach to Shavuot is called the Omer. The essence of this period is to see ourselves transform from being merely free animals into cognitive humans – finding our humanity through the wisdom of the Torah.

On this journey from Pesach to Shavuot, I encourage you to manifest your fullest potential as a human. And if you find yourself stuck, just remember Adam and Eve, who taught us that even the simplest of acts (like eating an apple) can prove to be truly transformative.

Spring cleaning for the soul

While many Jews will spend the day after Purim resting and reflecting on the previous night’s festivities, a small group of people will already be looking ahead one month and beginning their preparations for Pesach. I know it’s crazy to think about, but the time for eating matzah will soon be upon us. And while some people might spend a week or two (and many only a day or two) looking up new recipes, loading up on groceries and cleaning the house in preparation for the holiday, few people consider the spiritual preparations the holiday demands.

You see, just as Pesach can be viewed as the Jewish approach to spring cleaning, some rabbis say that we should treat the holiday as a chance to do some spring cleaning of our souls – a bit like a Yom Kippur 2.0.

The Maggid of Kozhnitz – an early and influential Chassidic rabbi – famously taught that just as we prepare for Pesach by clearing our homes of all signs of chametz, so too we must prepare for the holiday by clearing our souls of all negative inclinations. Pesach, he explains, is a joyful holiday – one that celebrates freedom and new beginnings – and requires us to be open to the joy these blessings bring. So just as we must wash the dirt off our windows to let in the most sunlight, we must also clear away the grime of our negativity if we are going to let in the joy of the holiday.   So how do we clear away our negative inclinations? The same way we clear our homes of chametz. We start the search for chametz in the places where we are most likely to eat it – in our kitchens and dining rooms – so we need to start looking for negativity where we most often exhibit it. Do you find yourself speaking poorly about other people more often than you should? Then you will want to use this month to be more aware of what you say when speaking of others. Do you find that you don’t treat your body as well as you should? Then this is the perfect time to think more about what you eat and how you stay healthy. No one knows you better than yourself, so take some time to identify one or two aspects of your life on which you would like to focus.

Now, before you worry about recalling every aspect of your life in which you can be negative, remember that we are only required to search for chametz in places we can reach. Don’t worry about remembering every slip-up you made this past year – by addressing the things you actually can remember, odds are you also will address the things you can’t recall. And just as you would never go to a friend’s house and start cleaning out their chametz, you should use this time to focus on doing your own spring cleaning – that’s already a big enough job as it is.

Don’t forget – to clean a house really well, you have to start by tidying up the place and preparing your supplies. So don’t fall into the trap of thinking you only need to spend a few minutes on this spiritual cleaning if you’re going to do a thorough job. This process takes time and preparation. But if you start early enough, it will be easier to identify your biggest obstacles and to figure out how to address them – in that way, you can get the most joy out of the freedom and new beginnings that come with your holiday celebrations. And really, is it ever too soon to start preparing to be happy?

Rabbi Gabriel Botnick