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YisroThis week, we celebrated Tu BiShevat - the New Year for Trees. The following, inspiring story, sent to me, is apropos for the occasion.
By Yerachmiel Tilles
Nissim Kinouri lived not far from Tiberias in a humble village on the shore of Lake Kinneret, which gave him his family name. He was extremely poor. He had no fields or orchards; all he had was a pomegranate tree, which stood alone next to his small cottage. The pious Reb Nissim would sit in the shade provided by its thick and leafy branches and learn Torah throughout the long sunny days. In season, the majestic tree would become laden with deep red, juicy globes of fruit, and the whole family would be overjoyed. Selling its pomegranates was their main source of income, and there was always enough for them to enjoy the delicious fruits too.
By the Three Weeks [in the summer, between the Fast Days of 17 Tammuz and 9 Av], the tree would already be covered with fruit. Nevertheless, no one would ever pick any until after Tisha B'Av. Then, with the weeks of mourning over, the season of joy could begin. Before Shabbat Nachamu, the "Shabbat of Consolation" [after the fast of 9 Av], Reb Nissim, with his son to help him, would approach the tree and select bikurim, the choicest ripe ones. On Shabbat, trembling with the holiness of the occasion, he would recite the blessing shehecheyanu in joyous intensity. Only then would he finally enjoy the taste of his delicious produce.
The quality of the fruit of Reb Nissim's one and only tree were well known throughout the Tiberian region. Jews and Arabs alike would flock to purchase them. It was said to be exceptionally beneficial for health to eat these pomegranates; the more one ate of them, the better off one would be. Many women reported that the compote they made from them had strong curative qualities.
Of course, there is a limit to how much income can be derived from only one tree. The famous pomegranates commanded a good price, but with the money needed to cover a whole year's expenses, Reb Nissim barely managed to eke out minimal support for his large family. Indeed, it often seemed that Reb Nissim had nearly as many children as he had pomegranates. As time went by they grew and matured, just like the fruit on the tree. The years flew, and his older daughters were blossoming into young pretty women whose time to wed was fast approaching. It was imperative to start to seek appropriate mates for them, but there did not seem to be even the remotest possibility to provide each of them a respectable dowry.
Then, to make matters even more difficult, tragedy struck. The Three Weeks had already begun, and lo, the tree was totally bare of fruit. Its branches drooped toward the ground, as if embarrassed about what had happened.
The Three Weeks passed, and the advent of famine reared its ugly head. There were no pomegranates to eat, no money to buy other food, and certainly nothing to set aside for dowries. On the eve of Shabbat Nachamu, Reb Nissim stood under the tree and scrutinized its branches. If he could only find one fruit so at least he could make the Shehecheyanu blessing, as every year. He looked and searched, with tears welling up in his eyes; not even one pomegranate was to be found.
All of a sudden, he had an idea. "Avraham," he called to his bar mitzvah-age son. "Please come over here and climb in the tree. Maybe between the leaves you'll find a pomegranate, and then tomorrow, G-d willing, we can make a blessing over it." Avraham was a lively, energetic boy. He certainly did not have to be invited twice to climb a tree! In no time at all, he was up in its branches. His father waited below, holding his breath.
"I found! I found!" Avraham yelled. "And it is a really nice one too."
"Baruch HaShem," responded his father in delight and gratitude. Now he would be able to recite shehecheyanu.
"Another one! I found another one," announced Avraham excitedly. A few moments later, he triumphantly called out that he had discovered a third. Then he climbed down, reporting that there were no more to be found in all the branches.
Reb Nissim examined the three fruits. He was amazed. They were three genuine prize-winners. Huge, gorgeous, plump and juicy, he had never seen such superior specimens before, not on his own tree or on anyone else's.
As he was standing there, some of the women of the area arrived, large baskets in their hand, expecting to buy his excellent pomegranates, as usual. "I'm sorry," he told them ruefully, "I don't have any to sell this year. There were only three fruits."
The women understood and empathized. "May G-d make up your lack with double bounty next year," they blessed him, and even paid him "on account" for the fruit of the next summer. He didn't want to accept money under such conditions, but they insisted and pressed it upon him.
The family enjoyed the Shabbat of Consolation with a great air of celebration. After making his shehecheyanu on one of them, tasting a bit and giving a piece to his wife, Reb Nissim cut up the rest of it and another of the pomegranates into sections and distributed them equally to all the children. The third one he put aside.
Meanwhile, the word had spread about the three exceptional pomegranates of Reb Nissim. Everyone was saying they had powerful healing properties, because they contained all the juice that would normally be spread among an entire tree's worth of fruit. Daily, people would come and offer increasingly larger amounts of money for the one remaining pomegranate. But R. Nissim refused every proposal. He told everyone that he intended to save it for Tu b'Shvat.
Even his wife begged him to sell it. "We have no food in the house and the girls need to get married," she cried plaintively. Reb Nissim remained insistent. He would save the last fruit. G-d Al-mighty would certainly help them; there was nothing to worry about.
But from that moment on, his wife gave him no peace. She urged him to travel abroad to try to collect some donations for the weddings. Reb Nissim resisted mightily. He did not want to benefit from his status as a resident of the Holy Land, for Jews in Diaspora, knowing how difficult life was in the Holy Land (at that time), would feel sorry for him. After a while, though, when he saw the pain in the eyes of his wife and daughters, he relented and began to plan his trip. To reconcile his objections, he promised himself that wherever he went, he would not reveal his origins.
Reb Nissim parted from his family with a heavy heart. His travels took him to various different lands, numerous cities and many villages. But because he refused to identify himself as being from the Holy Land, no one paid much attention to him. As a result, he barely collected any money, the only reason he had left his home and the Land in the first place.
Eventually, he arrived at Istanbul, capital of the Ottoman Turkish Empire. He went directly to the main synagogue. Hardly anyone even noticed him when he walked in. Everyone was too worried about the terrible threat hanging over the Jewish community. The son of the Sultan was critically ill, and the Sultan had gotten it into his head that the Jews were responsible; probably they had cursed him. He therefore decided that if his son did not get well by a certain day, he would expel all the Jews from his land. This day, which happened to be the fifteenth of the month of Shvat (Tu b'Shvat), was the deadline. Expulsion loomed imminent over the Jews of Istanbul.
At the completion of the prayers, all the congregation remained in the synagogue in order to recite some Psalms together, hoping that would help to avert the evil decree. Reb Nissim of course stayed and joined in. Suddenly, the synagogue manager approached him and asked, Perhaps you are from the Holy Land?""
Reb Nissim was so taken by surprise he could barely speak. "How did you know?" he finally blurted out.
Replied the man, "Our rabbi is a holy man. He said he smelled the scent of Eretz Yisrael in the room. Now, please, tell me your name, and I will take you to meet him."
The synagogue manager led him to a small inner room, introduced him to the rabbi and departed. The rabbi, who was very old and quite distinguished-looking, extended his hand in greeting to Reb Nissim. "It is a long time since we have had here a Jew from Eretz Yisrael. How are our brethren in the Holy Land?"
Reb Nissim was still in shock. How had the rabbi known that he was from Eretz Yisrael? "How did the you know?" he addressed him. "Perhaps Your Honor smelled the pomegranate I brought with me?" he asked, almost certain that he had guessed correctly. "You have with you a pomegranate from Eretz Yisrael!" the rabbi asked loudly in excitement.
"Yes, Rabbi," answered Reb Nissim meekly. "I have been saving it to eat today, in honor of Tu b'Shvat, the New Year for Trees. I would be honored if the rabbi would allow me to share it with him."
The elderly rabbi leapt out of his chair and hugged Reb Nissim. "G-d sent you here, my son," he waxed enthusiastically, "to save the Jews of our city from the danger of expulsion that hovers over us."
The rabbi began to explain why he was so excited. "By now you know the sad situation we are in. Well, last night, we all sat together here in synagogue to perform the Tikunim for Tu b'Shvat, according to Sephardic custom. Everyone was worried about what would be the next day, but we did our best to drive those troubling thoughts away and to trust in the "Guardian of Israel who never slumbers or sleeps.
"Meanwhile, in my study of Tu b'Shvat in the holy books, I got involved in the section about the three categories of fruit that are eaten:
Fruits that are eaten whole, such as grapes, figs and apples, of which there should be ten different kinds;
Fruits that have hard pits, of which there should also be ten, such as peaches, apricots and cherries;
Fruits whose insides are eaten, but which have hard outer shells that are thrown away, such as pomegranates, walnuts and almonds, and these too should be ten in number.
"I studied deeply the matter," the rabbi continued, "because I wanted to understand the inner meaning, the mystical secret, of each of the fruits, which can't be perceived by the physical eye. As I became absorbed in my meditation, the word rimonim [Hebrew for "pomegranates"] began to pulsate before my eyes. Why? I thought and thought...and finally I concluded that this must be the key for our salvation.
"As soon as I realized that, an inspiration popped into my mind. The letters of the word rimonim - reish-mem-vav-nun-yud-mem - stand for "refuat-melech-ubeno-nissim-yavi-meheira": "The healing of the king and his son will be brought quickly by miracles!
"And now, here you are and your name is Nissim, which means "miracles" [in Hebrew]! It is not for nothing that you were so named; G-d has sent you to be the agent of our deliverance. Through you a miracle will bring about the salvation of the Jews of our land. That is why G-d arranged events so that you should happen to come here. Quickly! We must go right now to the sultan. Let us not delay even one moment."
Stunned, speechless and utterly confused, Reb Nissim hurried together with the elderly rabbi to the palace. They were shown into the sultan's presence immediately. As soon as he saw them he started to scream in urgent despair, "Save my son! Please save my son. If you do I'll cover you with gold, I'll never forget you. I'll be good to the Jews for the rest of my life. I'll...I'll...."
"Take us to him," the rabbi responded quickly, "and with G-d's help we will be able to cure him."
The two Jews were led into the young prince's room. He was laid out on his bed - pale, unconscious, without any signs of life. Reb Nissim took out the pomegranate from his pack, and carefully pulled off its crown. The six-month-old fruit was as fresh and juicy as if it had been plucked just that moment.
Taking a knife, he cut the pomegranate into two, and sliced off all the peel from one of the halves. Then he squeezed a few drops of the juice into a tiny cup and poured it down the sick boy's throat. As soon as the juice was swallowed, the prince opened his eyes! Reb Nissim administered some more drops, and before the amazed gaze of everyone in the room, the patient began to regain color and strength.
A few more drops, and the prince was able to sit up. The disease was gone! He would survive!
The sultan kissed their hands. "You saved my son's life!" he exclaimed. "I will never forget this. Never!" he gushed to the two Jews.
"I saved half the pomegranate for Tu b'Shavat, so we can say a blessing on it," whispered Reb Nissim to the rabbi.
They left the palace overjoyed, and in eager anticipation of telling the rest of the Jewish populace about the great miracle that had occurred.
Needless to say, Reb Nissim Kinouri no longer had to worry about making a living or about the dowries for his daughters. He returned to Israel, weighted down with the gold and silver the sultan had happily presented him. When he finally reached his home on the coast of the Kinneret, the first sight that greeted his eyes was the old pomegranate tree in front of his house, already loaded with gleaming red fruit.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network