Thursday, March 30, 2006
One of the loveliest mitzvos of the springtime is Birkas HaIlanos, the blessing on the trees.
[The next few paragraphs are excerpted and adapted from the above-linked article].
The source for the mitzva is a Gemara [Brachos 43b], which states: “A person who goes out during the days of Nisan and sees trees in bloom, says, ‘Blessed are you L-rd our G-d, King of the Universe, Who did not leave anything lacking in His universe, and created in it good creatures and good trees, to give pleasure to humankind with them.’ ”
The Kaf HaChaim [a leading Posek, one who rules on Halachic matters] decided that the Gemara’s use of the word Nisan has Halachic significance. Basing his opinion on the language of the Gemara and in contrast to some other authorities, the Kaf HaChaim rules that the full blessing should be said only if one sees a blooming tree in Nisan. He adds that if one can only find a blooming tree after Nisan is over, the words of the blessing should be recited without mentioning the Divine name. The Birkei Yosef says that according to the “Derech HaEmes [the Kabbalistic tradition], the blessing belongs only in the days of Nisan.” [A possible explanation of this is that] only in those places where there has been a freezing, dark Shvat [a winter month in the Northern Hemisphere] can a person truly appreciate the warmth and light of Nisan. [Thus there is a connection from Tu B’Shvat, the New Year of the Trees, to Chodesh Nisan, the month of the Blessing on the Trees].
The rabbis discuss whether it is significant that the plural form (trees) is used in the Gemara. While the Rambam doesn’t discuss the question directly, in describing the mitzva, he states that one should make a blessing when going out to the fields or gardens, and seeing blossoming trees. The Halachot Ketanot infers from the language of the Rambam that in order to be obligated in the blessing, there must be a “ribui ilanos,” a multitude of trees. The Kaf HaChaim requires that, at a minimum, a person needs to see two trees in order to recite the blessing, but l’chatchila (preferably) it is better to go to a place that has a ribui ilanos. However, other authorities maintain that it is enough to see one tree to make the blessing.
It is told of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt"l [another late leading Posek], that once a Torah student saw him making the blessing over a flowering tree in a courtyard in his neighborhood of Shaarei Chessed, Yerushalayim. The student went over to the Rav and asked, "On the next street there is a courtyard with two trees that are in bloom. Wouldn't it be proper to be more exact and bless on two trees?"
Rav Auerbach pleasantly answered, "I, too, am aware of this opinion mentioned in the sefer Avodat Kodesh. I also know every courtyard and tree in my neighborhood. But look up at this window!! From there the face of a widow, shining with happiness, could be seen. Every year she anticipates this season and pines for the day that I will come bless on this tree in her yard. What is one stringency of the author of Avodat HaKodesh compared to a tear of joy of a widow?!"
Many of you have requested me to post the story of the Pittsburgher Rebbe’s niggun, “Ilan, Ilan”, which appeared in the English HaModia the week of Tu B’Shvat. Since the niggun originated on Rosh Chodesh Nisan, I felt it was appropriate to post it now. So now, on to our story…
The Pittsburgher Rebbe, Rebbe Avraham Abba Zt"l
A Mission Fulfilled
by Avraham Growise
Few people know the intriguing story behind the niggun, ‘Ilan, Ilan, Bameh Avarechecha,’ which was written by the Pittsburgher Rebbe zy”a, and has become popular the world over. It is a tale of tragedy and hope.
Rosh Chodesh Nisan 5737
It was a joyous day in the home of Reb Binyamin Cohen of Bnei Brak, who was celebrating the bris of his son. Though it was a simple affair, to which a small number of relatives, neighbors and close friends had been invited, the atmosphere at the Boyaner Kloize [Shul] in the Ramat Aharon neighborhood was uplifting and inspiring. Perhaps this was because the Pittsburgher Rebbe zt”l had come from Ashdod to be the baby’s sandak [the one who holds the baby while he has the bris], in view of the fact that the Cohen family was descended from the Nadvorna dynasty, to which the Pittsburgher Rebbe belonged.
During the seuda [festive meal] that followed the bris, the Pittsburgher Rebbe suddenly called for everyone's attention.
''Today is Roth Chodesh Nisan, which starts the period for saying Birkas HaIlanos, the bracha on blossoming trees," the Rebbe said. “Therefore, I would like to teach you a new niggun I've come up with for the words [from Maseches Taanis],
Ilan, ilan, bameh avarechecha – Tree, O tree, how can I bless you?
Peirosecha mesukim, tzilcha naeh, amas hamayim overess tachtecha – your fruit is sweet, your shade is pleasant, and a stream flows beneath you.
Ela, yehi ratzon shekol netios shenotin mimcha yihiyu kmos’cha – But [all I can say is], May it be His will that all of your offspring should be like you!”
It was the first time that the Rebbe had sung the niggun publicly. He sang it slowly, wanting all those present to catch on. His eyes were closed, and his face was aflame. The Rebbe sang the tune with great emotion, and repeated it again and again, until all the guests were caught up in song.
It was electrifying. Every time the niggun began again, it was sung louder and louder, until the room seemed to have been transported to a place of great holiness. Soon, every time the niggun would come to an end, the guests almost shouted the bracha, “May that which is planted from you be just like you.'' At some point, the Rebbe stopped singing, and so did the other guests. The room remained silent for several seconds, with those present not wanting to shatter the rarified mood.
The silence was finally broken when Reb Ben Zion Growise, who lived in the Cohens' building, got up and offered a bracha to the Rebbe, saying, “May HaKadosh Baruch Hu [G-d] make it possible for the Rebbe to sing this niggun at this baby's chasuna [wedding].'' The crowd answered with a hearty “Amen!,” but the Rebbe didn't answer. Suddenly, the room was silent again.
The Rebbe gave Reb Ben Zion a long, piercing look. His face looked grim. And then he said to Reb Ben Zion, “At the chasuna, you are going to sing this niggun.'' Those assembled immediately understood the meaning of the Rebbe's words that he, the Rebbe, would not be on this earth for this baby's chasuna. The guests once again fell silent as they began to sadly contemplate exactly what form the Rebbe's prediction would take…
The Fourth Day of Chanuka 5738
Less than a year after the bris, Reb Ben Zion was spending the day in Jerusalem. As he entered the crowded beis medrash, he suddenly felt a tap on his shoulder.
''Did you hear?'' asked an old friend of his. "Did you hear about the tragedy?''
No, Reb Ben Zion hadn't heard.
“It's terrible. There was a car accident, and a whole family, the Cohen family of Rosenheim Street in Bnei Brak, was badly hurt.”
Reb Ben Zion’s mind started racing. “Which Cohen family? I live on Rosenheim Street, and in my building alone there are two Cohens.”
A few more questions and it became clear: the family of Reb Binyamin Cohen from the third floor – the whole family – had been critically injured in an accident.
Reb Ben Zion was in shock. He remembered the look he had gotten from the Pittsburgher Rebbe only a few months before, and the remark he had made about singing that niggun at the baby’s chasuna. No, it can’t be, Reb Ben Zion told himself. The Rebbe had given a bracha, so it couldn’t be as serious as it sounded. Rumors are often exaggerated.
Reb Ben Zion made his way back to Bnei Brak to see what the situation really was and whether he could help. But when he arrived home, he learned that it was even worse than he had imagined. Almost the whole family had perished in the accident: the father, Binyamin; the mother, Sarah; the daughter, Zahava; and three of the boys, Shmuel, Yechiel Michel and Itamar.
Only the baby, Uri Leib, had miraculously survived. He had been sitting on his mother's lap when a truck hit their car head-on, crushing the vehicle and most of its occupants. But the force of the crash threw open one of the doors and sent the baby flying out of the car; he landed on some bushes on the side of the road.
Even more miraculous is that he was found at all. Apparently the rescue personnel who arrived at the scene didn't even realize there had been a baby in the car. It was only later that people came back to look and found Uri Leib crying in the bushes, having suffered only a few scratches.
The six members of the Cohen family were buried the following day in a massive levaya [funeral]. It was the fifth day of Chanuka, and there stood the six tall vans of the Chevra Kadisha [burial society], as if representing the five lights of the day, plus the shamash. Because it was Chanuka, there were no hespedim [eulogies], but there wasn't a dry eye among the participants.
Neighbors, friends and other members of the community prayed for the full recovery of little Uri Leib. They believed that this baby would indeed grow up and marry, and that the song “Ilan, Ilan,” would be sung at his wedding.
Asara B’Teves 5750
Ashdod was in mourning. The Pittsburgher Rebbe had returned his holy soul to its Creator. He left behind a legacy of Torah and chessed [kindness] that had helped change the face of this port city, having touched the lives of so many who had been far from Torah. Among the mourners was young Uri Leib, only a few months shy of his Bar Mitzva. He had no knowledge of what had transpired at his bris, but as a member of the extended family of the Pittsburgher Rebbe, he felt deep sorrow at the passing of the great tzaddik.
What happened to the niggun that Reb Ben Zion was supposed to sing at the boy's wedding? Indeed Reb Ben Zion would have loved to fulfill the Rebbe's command, but it had been years since the residents of Rosenheim Street had seen Uri Leib, who had been raised by his cousin, the Clevelander Rebbe in Ra’anana. His old neighbors, whom he had never known, had no way of finding out when or if he had married.
But in an incredible ''coincidence," in a chance conversation with someone during what turned out to be the week of Uri Leib's Sheva Brachos [celebrations of the week following the wedding], Reb Ben Zion learned that he had gotten married a couple of days earlier, on…Tu B’Shvat!
“Ilan, Ilan...'' The sound of the niggun at the baby's bris still echoed in Reb Ben Zion's ears. Suddenly, that elevated, inspired feeling that had enveloped all those who had attended that bris washed over him once again. He had to find the chasan [groom]!
Some quick, pointed investigating finally got him the information he needed: the location of that night's Sheva Brachos. He arrived toward the end of the seudas mitzva, and asked for permission to address the guests. He then told them the entire story.
And then, fulfilling the shlichus [mission] of the Pittsburgher Rebbe, he began to sing. Once again, the guests closed their eyes. Once again they were swept away by the tune to higher realms. There wasn't a dry eye in the house as Reb Ben Zion sang the niggun of the Pittsburgher Rebbe: “Ilan, ilan, bameh avarechecha…”
[The author writes]: In memory of my classmate Yechiel Michel Cohen z”l, whose life was cut off at the age of 6, and the rest of his family. Printed in the 17 Shvat 5766 – Feb. 15, 2006 edition of the English HaModia weekly newspaper.
Ilan was recorded on both the first and second Pittsburgh recordings. Also, Mordechai Ben David recorded this song on his Once Upon a Niggun album.
Ilan was also recorded on Chasidishe Oitzros, Volume One, clip 9.