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The Trees’ Hall of Fame

Libi Astaire

Meet some of the most celebrated trees in Jewish history — as well as a few that, despite their interesting stories, have remained in the shade

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

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W hen ecologist Suzanne Simard was doing research for her doctoral thesis, she made an amazing discovery: Trees can talk! Using a network of latticed fungi buried in the soil, trees can communicate their needs to other trees, which can respond to SOS signals by sending the necessary nutrients over the network.

Two decades after Simard’s initial discovery, scientists are still studying what trees talk about. What scientists have not discovered — at least not yet — are any examples of trees sharing stories about their childhood or boasting about the eineklach. Yet if trees could talk like humans do, some would have amazing stories to tell.

A Tale of Two Trees

Any article about famous trees has to begin “in the beginning,” with the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Even though Adam Harishon and Chava were the only two people to see these trees, that hasn’t stopped them from being two of the most-talked-about trees in human history, with the Tree of Life being an important symbol in both revealed Torah and Kabbalah.

But what does the Tree of Life look like? Here’s what Yalkut Shimoni says in its description of Gan Eden (Bereishis 20): “In the center is the Tree of Life, its branches covering all of Gan Eden, containing five hundred thousand varieties of fruit, all differing in appearance and taste. Above it are the Clouds of Glory… Beneath it are the disciples of the Sages who expounded on the Torah….”

The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was a “delight to the eyes,” but what sort of fruit did it have? Chazal offer different opinions, with Rabi Meir suggesting a grapevine, Rabi Nechemiah stating it was a fig tree, and Rabi Yehudah maintaining it was wheat stalks (Berachos 40a). The Ben Ish Chai tries to reconcile these three opinions by suggesting the fruit had the taste of all three. However, the Midrash Rabbah (Bereishis 15:7) cites other opinions, one of which is that Hashem doesn’t wish the identity of the fruit to be revealed, to protect the honor of the species, which wasn’t to blame for what happened.

Under the Old Oak Tree

We know what Avraham Avinu did while sitting under the Oaks of Mamre (Elonei Mamre) — he was recuperating from his bris milah, when he spotted the three angels and rushed to invite them for a meal. But where was Avraham’s oak tree located?

The medieval traveler Benjamin of Tudela placed it about two miles north of Chevron. Today Elonei Mamre is part of Chevron, but in an area controlled by the Palestinian Authority.

A 600-year-old oak tree that can be visited is the one that overlooks the kever of Rabi Yosef “Abba” Chalafta. The kever of his son, Rabi Yose, lies a few feet away. The kevarim are located in the Galil, near Kfar Chananya. Rabi Yosef lived during the Roman persecution, when it was forbidden to learn Torah. He taught his talmidim anyway, and is quoted in Pirkei Avos (3:7) as saying: “When ten people sit and study Torah, the Divine Presence dwells among them….” Certainly, one of the benches near the kevarim and the famous oak tree is a quiet place to sit and study Torah. (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 577)

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