Now that elections have been held in America, we have them to look forward to in Israel. They will take place February 10, despite the attempt of Knesset member Ya’akov Litzman, the parliamentary head of the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisra’el party, to postpone them. Why? Because this year, the 10th of February comes out on the 16th of the Hebrew month of Shvat, the day after Tu B’Shvat, the Arbor Day of the Jewish calendar on which many Hasidic groups hold a tish that lasts long into the night. It wouldn’t be fair to the Hasidim, Litzman argued, to have to rise, groggy, the next morning and go to the polls to vote.
A tish, for the uninitiated, is a festive meal given by a Hasidic rebbe for his followers, generally on a Sabbath or holiday. The word means “table” in Yiddish, and customarily the rebbe sits at the head of one, joined by as many of his Hasidim as can fit around it, the elders seated closest to him. Those for whom there is no room at the table commonly stand around it or sit on benches, which in the larger Hasidic courts are sometimes tiered like bleachers, known in Yiddish as parentshes (from Polish poręcz, “balustrade”). Hasidic songs and melodies are sung, and every now and then the rebbe drinks a toast to his followers or hands out to them bits of food from the table that are called shirayim (a corruption of Hebrew sh’yarim, “leftovers”).
These toasts and morsels are supposed to bear the rebbe’s blessing and to have great powers. I can testify to how valued they are from my own experience, for many years ago I happened to attend a tish held by the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. (The Lubavitches have their own word for a tish — a farbrengn or get-together.) I was standing amid a crowd of Hasidim when the rebbe looked right at me and raised his glass in a toast, at which point I was hurriedly poured a glass of vodka with which to toast him back. After the farbrengn was over, I was mobbed by Hasidim wanting to know who I was and why I had merited such an honor. I’m not sure they believed me when I told them that I had no idea. To tell the truth, I still don’t, which makes my case unlike that of a Hasid named Hirsh-Leyb, about whom I will tell you in a moment.
First, though, let’s get back to Knesset member Litzman, himself a follower of the Hasidic rebbe of Ger, Yaakov Aryeh Alter, who lives in Jerusalem. Among the objections raised to Litzman’s Knesset maneuver was the fact that the Ger Hasidim do not traditionally hold a tish on Tu B’Shvat and that the real motive was the impending wedding of the Gerer rebbe’s granddaughter on that date, which Litzman wanted his fellow Hasidim to be able to sleep off peacefully. Yet while such a wedding is indeed scheduled, many Hasidic courts do hold a tish on Tu B’Shvat. There is actually an advantage in doing so, since whereas handing out shirayim of potato kugel and cholent at a Sabbath meal can be a messy business, on Tu B’Shvat, when it is customary to eat dried fruit, the shirayim are more easily passed around.
Hirsh-Leyb, however, who was a follower of the eccentric 19th-century Rabbi of Kotsk, had a different experience. One Tu B’Shvat, it is told, when he was attending the rebbe’s tish, at which the table was set with dried dates and figs, the rebbe suddenly called for a whole salted herring. He reached into the herring’s innards and pulled out the roe, and then handed it to Hirsh-Leyb as his shirayim, while exclaiming, “Hirsh-Leyb, es roygn,” “Hirsh-Leyb, eat some roe!” This Hirsh-Leyb dutifully did without understanding the reason. Neither, for that matter, did any of the other Hasidim, who were all equally baffled.
The better part of a year went by, the holiday of Sukkot came around and, disastrously, the annual shipment of citrons or esroygim that had been ordered for the holiday failed to arrive on time. Not only were the Hasidim left without esroygim, but worse yet, the rebbe didn’t even have one for himself. What was to be done? Everyone was in turmoil when suddenly, Hirsh-Leyb, who had been abroad on business, arrived with a fine esrog that he had bought there for the holiday. Naturally, he gave it to the rebbe, and all let out a sigh of relief. Only then did they remember the rebbe’s command of es roygn and connect it to the tradition that Tu B’Shvat, which occurs in the season when citron trees flower in the Land of Israel, was the time to pray for a fine esrog for the year to come. It seemed that the rebbe prophetically realized that Hirsh-Leyb would save the day, and so he had had given him a shirayim of herring roe as a punning blessing. Myself, I’m still waiting to find out why I was toasted.