The month Nisan begins tonight and with it, so many associations. Last year, I wrote about the practice of refraining from eating Matzah from Rosh Hodesh Nisan (i.e. tonight) until Passover. Most people make, if any, the association of dreaded Pesach cleaning and preparation. I’ll be writing some about that in a few days or next week, God willing, but for now, let’s stick to things connected specifically to Rosh Hodesh Nisan.
One association fewer people make is that Birkat haIlanot, the blessing over blooming trees, is typically said in the month of Nisan:
ברוך אתה ה” אלוהינו מלך העולם שלא חיסר בעולמו כלום וברא בו בריות טובות ואילנות טובות ליהנות בהם בני אדם
Barukh Atah Adonai Eloheynu Melekh haOlam, sh’lo hisar b’Olamo kloom, uvara vo b’riyot tovot v’eelanot tovot lehanot ba-hem b’ney adahm
Blessed are you, Hashem our God, King of the universe, for nothing is lacking in His universe, and He created good creatures and good trees in it so that people can enjoy them.
( * There are a few variations of the blessing. This is the way it appears in the Shulhan Arukh. I suppose if you’re learning this for the first time, you’re learning it from me; say it the way you were taught it.)
The occurrence and wording of the blessing make sense: we tend to bless God for those things that benefit us and happen at specific times (think holidays.) We also make blessings on anything enjoyable (Birkhot haNehenin.) But there is more to this practice than simply making the blessing. First, you have to see the tree. It is not enough to know that this is when it will happen or to hear that someone else saw it. Second, it is the blossom or flower of the tree that you must see. Third, we say the blessing only when we see this happen to/on a tree that produces edible fruit. Finally, each person says this blessing only once per year, upon seeing such a bloom for the first time.
Among the purpose of blessings is to compel us to see the beautiful in the ordinary and in the extraordinary and to appreciate these as gifts from God. Birkat haIlanot has a particularly beautiful way of doing this. “One who goes out,” says the Shulhan Arukh, “in the days of Nisan and sees trees from which a flower is blossoming, says [the above blessing.]” (OH 226:1) Truthfully, the later scholars tell us, the blessing is not connected only to this month, but that this is the time when trees typically bloom in warmer countries (the Shulhan Arukh was probably compiled in Tz’fat and was based on material “the Mehaber” previously compiled there and in Adrianople, Turkey.)
This blessing fits into a category known as Birkhot haRe’iyah, blessings of seeing, made when seeing things: rainbows, lightning, certain people, oceans and, of course, trees in bloom. Sometimes it is hard to look at something in nature and see a spark of God in it, have a spiritual experience from it. How much harder it is to look at people, especially the ones you don’t like, and see God in them. All the soft-spoken rabbi talk about “the image of God” in the world won’t make that easy. These blessings help. Notice that the rule isn’t that one should go out looking for such a tree. When you go out, starting around now, it says, you have to observe everything around you; don’t necessarily look for a tree, but when you spot one–which means you have to observe everything around you–say this blessing.
Of course, the timing of the blessing makes sense because people mark Rosh Hodesh Nisan and it’s around now that trees start to bloom in many parts of the world (at least in the northern hemisphere.) But I posit that there is another reason. We start paying attention to blossoming trees tomorrow because in a certain way, that’s what tomorrow is all about. Rosh Hodesh Nisan is a time to remember that redemption is on its way. Just as we must do with trees, beginning tomorrow, if not all the time, we have to start looking around. Miracles can (Nisan from Nes, miracle) happen at any time anywhere. Maimonides even defines a miracle this way: when something unusual but within the limits of the natural order happens at precisely the right time. Usually we don’t notice miracles until after they’ve happened. Most scholars hold that you can’t say Birkat haIlanot after the actual fruit comes out; the whole point of the blessing is to thank God for potential. Right now (Rosh Hodesh begins in a few minutes here on the East Coast) is a particularly auspicious time to be thinking about potential. Our redemption as a people and as individuals is as close and as evident as the blossoming trees. Only by remembering to bless it will we remember–and merit–to see it.