Fresh carob makes a better snack: chewy, sweet, umami, with a unique complex flavor.
On the 15th of Shevat, when the calendar says early winter, and Eastern Europe lies covered in snow, in Israel the first signs of spring appear as the almond tree begins to flower. So the Mishnah declares the 15th of the month of Shevat as the new year for trees, the start of the fiscal year for arborists (Rosh Hashanah 1:1).
You have to pay your agricultural taxes on each year’s harvest separately. The year starts on a specific day well after the olive harvest of the old year and well before any fruits are ever ready — so you have no trouble telling whether your fruit comes from this year’s crop or last year’s.
Our forebears, Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews in the warm lands of the south, could celebrate Tu b’Shevat and their connection to the land of Israel by developing an elaborate meal around the fruits of Israel, “a land … of vine and fig and pomegranate, a land of oil olive and (date) honey” (Deut. 8:8). They ate courses of olives, pomegranates, and dates, in between drinking white wine and red wine.
Our forebears, Ashkenazic Jews in the colder northern lands of Europe, made a strong effort to keep their connection to the land of Israel, too. Ashkenazi Jews, like Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews, recite a blessing in gratitude for the land in every grace after meals.
Our synagogues, ideally, face toward the land of Israel. But in the colder parts of Europe, it was difficult, years ago, to obtain foods from the Holy Land.
If you wanted to celebrate Tu b’Shevat, you had to make do with whatever fruits you could get. That meant eating dried carob, the fruit of a kind of locust bean tree (Ceratonia siliqua) — in Yiddish, bokser.
Which explains why, when I went to Hebrew school, the teacher gave us each a stubby piece of dried carob. I also got a few other pieces because the other children did not particularly want any. It takes an effort to enjoy the taste of dried carob — chew on the woody pod long enough, and you can get some flavor — but you can enjoy the idea that the fruit came from Israel. Think of what that meant to our ancestors in Europe.
Fresh carob makes a better snack: chewy, sweet, umami, with a unique complex flavor. Last time I visited Israel, my family had a picnic in a grove of carob trees, and I enjoyed several of the pods for dessert. I thought they were delicious. On the other hand, no one else wanted any.
Like it or not, the fruit is a pretty complete food. It has plenty of sugars and other carbohydrates, proteins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants. Carob has several culinary uses, including as a chocolate substitute, as if anything could replace chocolate. The locust bean gum that thickens commercial food products comes from the seeds of the carob.
Etymologists say bokser comes from a word meaning “ram’s horn tree,” perhaps inspired by the appearance of the twisty dark pods. The English, carob, derives from the Hebrew haruv. From the same three-letter root, het-resh-bet, come words for “destruction,” for “sword” and for “dryness.” What’s the connection? Maybe because the tree survives in dry parts of the world, or the fruit dries completely; or the pod looks like a scimitar; or, in a famine or drought, you can at least eat carob.
The Carob in Literature
The carob appears in rabbinic literature. When Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai offended the Roman authorities, he and his son Eliezer hid in a cave with a stream and a carob tree, providing all their needs for years (Talmud Shabbat 33b).
The Mishnah treats the carob as a tree that produces food for humans (Peah 1:5 and elsewhere) although much of the crop was used for animal fodder. Rabbinic literature uses the expression “eating carob” to mean “living in poverty” (Lev. Rabbah 13:4).
An old man planting carob trees appears in several rabbinic stories (Rabbi Burton Visotsky counts at least eight versions). In rabbinic literature, the carob famously takes years to reach maturity. In one version, the Roman emperor challenges the old man, “Will you live to eat the fruit of these trees?” And the old man responds, “Early or late, I do what pleases my Master in Heaven.” The emperor mockingly offers the man a basket of gold if he lives to bring the fruit to the palace. Many years later, the man brings the fruit, and the emperor gives him a basket of gold (Leviticus Rabbah 25:5).
In a parallel story, early scholar Honi challenges the old man, who says, “I found carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted these for me, I, too, plant these for my children.” (Talmud Taanit 23a).
Author Miriam Feinberg Vamosh notes a grove of carob trees grows at Yad Vashem, which honors the memory of “righteous gentiles,” those who heroically saved the lives of Jews during the Holocaust, by planting carob trees in memory of each hero. Vamosh wondered, “Why carob trees?”
She found her answer when a guide at the Rothschild Gardens in Zichron Ya’akov explained why the carob trees in that garden bear no fruit. The Rothschild Gardens carobs get too much water, the guide said: “Because we water the lawns regularly, the carobs get too much water and they don’t bear fruit — carobs only bear fruit under stress, where no other fruit will grow.”
Vamosh writes, “Right then and there, I connected to the Yad Vashem carobs: They symbolize the people who ‘bore fruit’ in a desert of evil and immorality.”
So, on Tu b’Shevat, we can celebrate the coming of spring and our connection to the land of Israel by eating olives, pomegranates and dates, and drinking wines, but perhaps we might also want to chew on a carob fruit.
Louis Finkelman is a professor at Lawrence Tech and a rabbi at Congregation Or Chadash in Oak Park.