Birkat ha-Ilanot is a special blessing said once a year upon seeing blossoming fruit trees for the first time—the Talmud says, “in the days of Nisan.” But what if one sees such a tree for the first time in a month other than Nisan?
What drew me to this topic is that Jewish law pertaining to the southern hemisphere elicits larger questions of how to apply halacha to novel situations, as well as how to treat subjects experientially and/or scientifically unknown to Chazal.
Birkat ha-Ilanot brings up lots of fascinating intricacies,1 the major conceptual ones being whether this is a time-bound mitzvah and whether it is intrinsic to the month of Nisan.2 Is the blessing bound up in the sighting of a blossoming tree (or multiple trees), or is it, rather, about seeing a blossoming tree(s) at a particular span of time? Since there is the potential to say a beracha li-vetala, an unwarranted blessing with Shem Hashem, this is an important matter. One of the most interesting test cases for this question is what one does in the southern hemisphere, such as South Africa or Australia, where Nisan is the start of Autumn.
Table of Contents
- The Source in the Gemara
- Background Question 1: Time-Bound vs. Seasonal
- Background Question 2: Nisan Specifically?
- In the Southern Hemisphere
The Source in the Gemara
The wording of the blessing, and its circumstances, are laid out in a meimra of Rav Yehuda in Masechet Berachot:
|Berachot 43b Rav Yehuda said: One who goes out during Nisan and sees trees that are blossoming recites: Blessed…who has withheld nothing from His world, and has created in it beautiful creatures and trees for human beings to enjoy.||ברכות מג ע’ ב אָמַר רַב יְהוּדָה: הַאי מַאן דְּנָפֵיק בְּיוֹמֵי נִיסָן וְחָזֵי אִילָנֵי דְּקָא מְלַבְלְבִי, אוֹמֵר: ״בָּרוּךְ שֶׁלֹּא חִיסֵּר בְּעוֹלָמוֹ כְּלוּם3 וּבָרָא בּוֹ בְּרִיּוֹת טוֹבוֹת וְאִילָנוֹת טוֹבוֹת לְהִתְנָאוֹת בָּהֶן בְּנֵי אָדָם״.|
This is codified in Rambam, Hilchot Berachot 10:13 and Tur and Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 226:1.
Background Question 1: Time-Bound vs. Seasonal
R. Tzvi Pesach Frank rules in Har Tzvi, Orach Chayyim 1:118 that birkat ha-ilanot is not a time-bound mitzvah, because it is not caused by time but rather is caused by a different natural factor. He cites the analogy to bikurim (first fruits), which may also appear to be time-bound because they may only be brought up until Chanukah; but this is not related to time (zman Chanukah) but rather to the fact that crops do not grow after Chanukah. Since women, who are exempted from time-bound positive commandments, are explicitly obligated to bring bikurim, it follows that they, too, are obligated in birkat ha-ilanot. Birkat ha-Ilanot is caused by natural factors rather than time itself.
Background Question 2: Nisan Specifically?
In the Talmudic discussion, it’s presumed that the month in which the first blossoming of trees occurs is Nisan.4 However, this leaves open the question, must the blessing be said exclusively in the month of Nisan, and what does one do if one sees a blossoming tree for the first time earlier or later than Nisan? It is this question that allows for an exploration of the novel circumstances of the timing on the Jewish calendar of Spring in the southern hemisphere.
Ritva, in a comment which the Minchat Yitzhak cites and emphasizes, rules that the first flowering tree one sees in the Springtime:
פי׳ ברכה זו בשם ומלכות אלא שהתלמוד קצר ויומי ניסן לאו דוקא אלא כל מקום ומקום לפי מה שהוא דמלבלבי
“Meaning that this blessing with the opening formulation, about which the Talmud stated in brief ‘and the days of Nisan,” it’s not explicitly those, rather in each place according to when they [trees] blossom.”Ritva to Rosh Hashana 11a s.v. האי דנפיק ביומי ניסן.
Many Acharonim pick up this ruling and say the same, in particular, the Mishnah Berurah 226:1.5 However, inter alia, R. Ovadia Yosef in Yechaveh Da’at 1:1 says it is preferable to say birkat ha-ilanot in Nisan.
In some locales, the first blossoming of trees could occur later in the season, such as in Iyar, in which case most, but not all, poskim say that the blessing should be said upon first sighting in Iyar. For instance, the Aruch ha-Shulchan says in Orach Chayyim 226:1: “ובמדינתינו אינו בניסן אלא באייר או תחלת סיון, ואז אנו מברכין” – “And in our countries it [the blossoming] is not in Nisan but rather in Iyar or the beginning of Sivan, and that is when we bless.” In other locales (such as last year here in Los Angeles), this could occur in the month of Adar, in which case, the blessing would be said upon first sighting in Adar.6See Be’er Heitev, Orach Chaim 226:1.
In the Southern Hemisphere
It would thus seem that in the southern hemisphere, unknown to Chazal, we would apply the principle that one says birkat ha-ilanot on the first eligible trees int he springtime. This is the ruling of Rav Yitzhak Yaakov Weiss (the Minchat Yitzchak), who addresses this question directly and is a frequently cited source. He states that birkat ha-ilanot is said in the southern hemisphere at the time that the trees blossom, be it Elul, Tishrei, or Cheshvan. In Minchat Yitzchak 10:16 he writes:
I’ve translated the most salient part below:
באוסטרלי’ זמן הפריחה בחודש אלול תשרי, ונראה שס”ל שאז זמן הברכה…אבל באנשים דשם יברכו בחדשין הנ”ל, וממילא נפשט עיקר שאלתו…
אפשר לומר דבאמת ס”ל דוקא ניסן רק למשל כמו באוסטרלי’ מברכין במרחשון, ואין ראי’ מזה בא”י ובבל אי מותר לברך בחדש אייר.
In Australia the time of blossoming is in the months of Elul-Tishrei, and it seems reasonable that that is the time of the blessing…there the people say the blessing in the aforementioned months, and by this way the essence of his question is made simple…
We may say that they [Chazal] reasoned specifically in Nisan by way of example, just as in Australia one blesses in Marcheshvan, but this is not evidence as to whether it is permissible to bless in Adar or Iyar in Eretz Yisrael or Bavel.
In itself, this ruling is fascinating as an example of taking into account new information that alters the context in which a mitzvah is performed. Ultimately, the event—the blossoming of the trees—is judged the defining reason for the blessing, and the timing—in the month of Nisan—exemplary rather than definitive.
- Among the questions discussed by the poskim are: which kinds of trees are eligible for the blessing (especially grafted ones); whether it can be said during a tree’s orlah period (three years after being planted) or during the shemita year (when it’s prohibited to use the produce of Eretz Yisrael); the type of blessing that it constitutes; and the wording of it. There are divided opinions on all of these matters, including a divided opinion on whether there is a divided opinion.
- That is whether seasonality is the same as she ha-zeman gerama.
- The Gra, in his isddur, substitutes the word דבר for כלום, but most poskim prefer כלום.
- Berakhot 43b: הַאי מַאן דְּנָפֵיק בְּיוֹמֵי נִיסָן וְחָזֵי אִילָנֵי דְּקָא מְלַבְלְבִי.
- Also Har Tzvi, Orach Chayyim 1:118.