Nissan – the month of redemption. Pesach, searching for chometz, leil haseder, matzah, maror, the four cups of wine. So much going on in one month! In fact, Nissan is so overwhelmingly Pesach-oriented that people tend to forget that there is more to this month than Pesach cleaning and matzah crumbs. The other aspects of Nissan sometimes get lost in the shuffle. Let us take this opportunity to discuss some of the customs of chodesh Nissan that are not directly related to Pesach.
THE ONCE-A-YEAR BRACHA
There is a halachic riddle that often makes the rounds: Which four brachos are recited only once a year? One of these brachos is Bircas Ilanos, the bracha recited on blossoming fruit trees. (I will cite the other three brachos towards the conclusion of this article.)
The Gemara (Brachos 43a) states that one who sees blossoming fruit trees during Nissan recites, “Boruch Atta Hashem, Elokeinu Melech ha’olam, shelo chisar ba’olamo davar, u’vara vo briyos tovos v’ilanos tovim, l’hanos bahem bnei adam” – “Blessed are You… for nothing is lacking in His world, and He created in it good creatures and good trees, to cause mankind pleasure with them.”
Although technically this bracha is included in the “birchos ha’re’iyah” – brachos recited when seeing and experiencing various phenomena such as mountains, oceans, earthquakes, etc., nevertheless in halachic literature it is set apart from the others with its own chapter in Shulchan Aruch. Moreover, its uniqueness is especially evident in the Kabbalastic sources, where it is viewed as a vehicle to effect various positive accomplishments in the spiritual realm.
Strictly speaking, this bracha is similar to the other birchos ha’re’iyah in that one is not obligated to go out of his way to become obligated to recite the bracha. Just as one is not required to fly to Switzerland in order to recite the bracha on the Alps, so too one is not obligated to seek out blossoming fruit trees. Indeed several poskim mention the fact that most people are not accustomed to recite this bracha. Nevertheless, the poskim do speak very highly of those who make the effort to recite this special bracha and that it is the custom of talmidei chachamim to do so (Levush, Aruch HaShulchan and Eishel Avraham [of Butchach] 226). It is interesting to note that Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach z”l was very careful to recite this bracha and he mentioned that since his bar mitzvah he had never missed a year (Halichos Shlomo, Tefilah, chap. 23, footnote 121).
There is a disagreement whether this bracha must be recited specifically during Nissan or if one can recite it before or after. Some contend that since the Gemara and the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 226) both write “Nissan,” that is when it should be recited. This is also the opinion of those who follow Kabbalistic practices (Kaf HaChaim 226:1; Badei HaShulchan #18). Others maintain that when the Gemara says, “Nissan,” it does not mean to exclude other months. Rather, the reason why the Gemara mentions “Nissan” is because it is the usual time when the trees begin blossoming (Mishnah Berurah 226:1; Badei HaShulchan ibid; Shu’t Yechave Da’as vol. I, #1).
Therefore, it seems that lechitchilah, one who follows Ashkenazi practices should wait until Nissan and thereby follow the stringent opinions. However, if he is afraid that he will not have a blossoming tree available in Nissan, or if it is already Iyar and he has not yet recited the bracha, he may do so during a different month. Later we will discuss until what stage in the fruit’s development this bracha can be recited.
However, those who follow Sephardic minhagim should consult his or her Rav since there is a disagreement whether the bracha may be recited in any month other than Nissan. (See Kaf HaChaim ibid. and Shu’t Yechaveh Da’as ibid.
THE SOUTHERN HEMISPHERE
This disagreement whether one may recite bircas ilanos during months other than Nissan only applies to countries such as Eretz Yisrael, where the trees blossom at that time. In areas where winter ends late, e.g., northern Europe, and blossoms do not appear until Iyar, or in the southern hemisphere where the seasons are reversed and the trees blossom in Tishrei, everyone agrees that the bracha is recited during whichever month the trees blossom (Shu’t Har Tzvi, Orach Chaim I, #118; Shu’t Tzitz Eliezer, vol. XII, #20; Aruch HaShulchan 226:1).
BIRCAS ILANOS AND SHABBOS
Another disagreement between Sefardi and Ashkenazi poskim is whether one may recite this bracha on Shabbos. The Kaf HaChaim (226:4) maintains that one should not recite the bracha on Shabbos since there is concern that he might come to pluck a fruit blossom from the tree. Indeed Rav Chaim Palagi writes that although the custom of the city of Kushta (Constantinople/Istanbul) was to recite the bracha on Shabbos, the custom of the city of Izmir was not to (Sefer Mo’aid l’Kol Chai 1:8). However, other Sefardi poskim disagree with the Kaf HaChaim and cite a Gemara in Succah (36b). The Gemara states that on Shabbos or Yom Tov one is allowed to smell a hadas (myrtle) that is attached to the ground, but he is not allowed to smell an esrog that is attached. The reason for this distinction is that since a hadas’ main function is for its aroma, one will not come to detach it since he can just as easily smell it while it is attached. However, one may not smell an esrog, since it is generally used for eating, and he might come to detach it from the tree (Rashi ad loc.). This is also the halacha in Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 336:10). Therefore, with regards to bircas ilanos, which is even less than smelling a hadas since he is merely looking at the flowers, one may recite the bracha on Shabbos (Shu’t Yechave Da’as, vol. I, #2).
The Ashkenazi poskim do not discuss this question at all, and it would seem that they permit reciting this bracha on Shabbos. (Sefer VeZos HaBracha pg. 157; Halichos v’Hanhagos of Rav Elyashiv, quoted in Haggadah shel Pesach, Keren Re’eim edition, 5766).
WHERE AND HOW MANY?
According to Kabbalistic sources, in order to recite this bracha, lechatchilah, one should leave the city and go to a place where there are many trees. This is based on the Gemara which says, “One who goes out during the days of Nissan and sees trees.” The fact that it says “goes out” is understood to mean that one goes out of the city, and “trees” being plural indicates that there should be more than one (Kaf HaChaim 226:2-3; Shu’t Lev Chaim, vol. II, #44). However, these two ideas are not mentioned by the Rishonim or the poskim. Rather, one may recite the bracha on trees in one’s courtyard or anywhere else (Avudraham; Chayei Adam 63:2).
With regards to the number of trees required, while some poskim contend that lechatchilah one should recite the bracha on at least a minimum of two trees (Kaf HaChaim ibid; Moreh b’Etzbah #148; Halichos v’Hanhagos of Rav Elyashiv, quoted in Haggadah shel Pesach, Keren Re’eim edition, 5766), others maintain that even one tree is sufficient. Although the Gemara uses the plural form, “trees,” which seems to indicate a minimum of two, there are other places in the Gemara where the plural is used and nevertheless a single item is also included. For example, when the Mishnah (Brachos 54a) lists the phenomena upon which one recites “oseh ma’ase bereishis,” it states: “On mountains… oceans, rivers and deserts” – all plural form. Yet, the halacha is that one recites the bracha even when seeing only one of each (Shu’t Tzitz Eliezer, vol. XII, #20; See Shu’t Rivevos Efraim, vol. VIII, #77, who reports seeing Rav Moshe Feinstein z”l recite the bracha on one tree).
THE FIRST TIME – THE LATEST TIME
Before discussing the last possible time for reciting birchos ilanos, we must briefly describe the growth process of fruit and their blossoms. Many fruits, such as nectarines, plums, apricots, cherries, oranges and pomegranates, develop from a blossoming flower. At first the flower comes out of the bud. After pollination, the flower falls away and the fruit, although extremely small, can be seen. The fruit continues to grow until it ripens.
In general, birchos ha’re’iyah are meant to be a spontaneous expression of praising and thanking Hashem for the various phenomena that He has created. Hence, there are opinions that one may only recite the appropriate bracha immediately upon seeing the particular phenomenon, and if he did not do so, he has lost the opportunity. That being the case, the same should apply to bircas ilanos, and indeed there are poskim who maintain this position (Machtzis HaShekel 225:9; Chayei Adam 63:1; Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 60:1).
However, the Mishnah Berurah (226:5) comes to a different conclusion. He contends that even if one did not recite the bracha the first time he saw the blossoms, he may do so when seeing them at a later time, provided the fruit is not yet visible, i.e., the blossom has not yet fallen off.
In a situation where one did not see blossoming trees at all, there is room to be even more lenient. In this case, the Mishnah Berurah (4) holds that one may recite the bracha up to, but not including, the stage when the fruit is fully ripe. Once the fruit has ripened, one should no longer recite the bracha.
The reason why in general we are more lenient regarding bircas ilanos as opposed to the other birchos ha’re’iyah is based on the previously mentioned idea that these brachos are expressions of one’s hispa’alus – amazement over the various phenomena. Most of the birchos ha’re’iyah are not limited to any specific time of year, and the phenomena are available for viewing at any time. However, bircas ilanos is different. The bracha can only be recited during a specific time frame on an event that is limited. Therefore, a person tends to feel hispa’alus over the blossoming during the entire blossoming season (Piskei Teshuvos 226, footnote 54).
While bircas ilanos is a halacha in Shulchan Aruch, there are other Nissan-related topics that are purely minhag. The first is these customs is the reading of Parshas HaNesi’im. After the Bnei Yisrael built the Mishkan, Moshe erected it on the twenty-third day of Adar. That day was the beginning of the eight days of miluyim – inaugural days of the Mishkan, which concluded on Rosh Chodesh Nissan. During the first twelve days of Nissan, the twelve nesi’im, the princes of the twelve shevatim, one nasi each day, brought offerings for the chanukas hamizbayach, the inauguration of the Altar.
As a remembrance of this event, there is a custom to read the Parshas HaNesi’im (Bamidbar 7) during Nissan. Starting with Rosh Chodesh, and continuing for twelve days, the section of each nasi is read on its particular day. On the thirteenth day, the parsha of “BaHa’aloscha es haneiros” (ibid. 8:1-3) is read (Mishnah Berurah 429.8).
Among those who follow this minhag, there is a disagreement whether or not one may use a Sefer Torah for this reading. Some contend that one is not allowed to read publicly from a Sefer Torah unless a bracha is recited before and after the reading. Since the reading of Parshas HaNesi’im during Nissan was not instituted by Chazal, one may not recite a bracha for this reading (Shu’t Meishiv Davar, vol. I, #16). It is for this reason that many are accustomed to read Parshas HaNesi’im from a chumash.
Others maintain that there is nothing wrong with using a Sefer Torah for a non-obligatory use (Likutei Mahariach in the name of the Divrei Chaim of Sanz), as we find in the poskim that the Radvaz and the Arizal would use a Sefer Torah to review the weekly parsha (Ba’er Heiteiv 285:1).
A WHOLE MONTH WITHOUT TACHANUN
Another aspect of the month of Nissan is that tachanun, a supplication usually recited after tefilas Shacharis and Mincha, is omitted. The reason for this omission is that in general tachanun is not recited on festival days or other days of that have a joyous nature. It is for this reason that one does not recite it during yomim tovim, Chanukah, minor festivals such as Tu BeShevat and on a day when there will be a bris milah. The month of Nissan also has this status. The reason for this is not because of one particular cause; rather it is due to several factors.
We mentioned earlier that during the first twelve days of Nissan the nesi’im brought offerings in the Mishkan for the inauguration of the altar. The halacha is that on a day when a person brings a korban it is considered to be a personal yom tov. It would seem that since the nesi’im were in essence representatives of all Klal Yisrael, these days are awarded the status of being a yom tov for everyone (Tur Orach Chaim 429).
Although this event happened long ago and it should not have any bearing on whether we recite tachanun, there is a basis for this in halacha. The Gemara (Pesachim 50a) discusses the prohibition of doing melacha on Erev Pesach. The reason for this injunction is disputed between the Rishonim, and several hold that since the day when one offers a korban is considered a yom tov, it is forbidden to do melacha. Therefore, the fourteenth of Nissan, when everyone brought the Korban Pesach, was considered to be a yom tov. Tosafos there concludes that this prohibition is relevant even in our time when there is no Beis HaMikdash, since the prohibition remains in place. Similarly, since the first twelve days of Nissan were elevated to the status of a festival, they retain this distinction.
Tachanun is likewise not recited on the thirteenth of Nissan because not only the day that a person brought an offering was considered to be a yom tov, but also the day when he ate the meat of the korban. This is because just as offering a korban is an opportunity of kirvas Elokim, of becoming closer to Hashem, so too when eating the meat with kedusha in Yerushalayim. Hence, the last nasi, Achira ben Einan, was still eating on the thirteenth of Nissan the meat of the korban that he had brought the day before, since a Korban Shelamim was eaten on the day it was brought, the following evening and during the following day (Kalbon HaShekel 429).
The fourteenth of Nissan was also a festive day since the Korban Pesach was offered. And as we mentioned, tachanun is not recited during a chag, so the seven days of Pesach are also “tachanun-free.”
The question is, why is tachanun not recited during the week after Pesach when there are no festival days? The more commonly given answer, quoted in the Mishnah Berurah (429:7), is that since most of the month has attained a level of sanctity, i.e., it is considered a yom tov, we conclude the month with the same sanctity.
The Chasam Sofer (Shu’t Chasam Sofer, vol. I, #103) provides a different reason. He quotes Sefer Ma’ase Rokei’ach, that the inauguration of the third Beis HaMikdash will take place during the week following Pesach, so it is awarded the status of being a festival in anticipation of that event. May we merit to see it bimheirah beyameinu!
OTHER OMISSIONS IN TEFILAH
Aside from tachanun, there are other sections of davening that are omitted as well. These include: 1) V’Hu Rachum, an extension of tachanun usually recited on Mondays and Thursdays; 2) the “Yehi ratzon” tefilah recited after Torah leining on Mondays and Thursdays on days when tachanun is recited; 3) Tzidkascha tzedek, usually recited before Aleinu during Shabbos Mincha. These three sections always follow the rules of tachanun, i.e., whenever tachanun is not recited, they are also omitted.
During tefilas Shacharis of the weekday, perek 20 of Tehillim, LaMenatzei’ach mizmor L’Dovid, is usually recited before U’Va LeTzion. There is a disagreement between minhag Ashkenaz and the Sefardic minhag when this is omitted. According to customs followed by those of Sephardic descent, it is skipped whenever tachanun is omitted. However, according to the Ashkenazim, it has its own set of days when it is omitted. Therefore, according to them, it is recited during most of Nissan, with the exception of the week of Pesach. Some also skip it on Erev Yom Tov and Isru Chag (Hilchos Chag b’Chag, Pesach 1:7).
It is worthwhile to point out a common mistake. There is a short tefillah, Keil Erech Apayim, added to the davening on Mondays and Thursdays before kriyas HaTorah. Many people assume that this is only recited on days when tachanun is said. However, the truth is that it has the same status as LaMenatzei’ach. Therefore, on a day when tachanun is not recited, but LaMenatzei’ach is, Keil Erech Apayim is added as well (Mishnah Berurah 131:35).
AV HARACHAMIM AND KEIL MALEI RACHAMIM
Since Nissan is considered a festive month, many communities do not recite Av HaRachamim or Keil Malei Rachamim during this month. There are exceptions to this rule, for example, during Yizkor on the last day of Pesach when both of these tefilos are recited, and on the Shabbos after Pesach, when many will say Av HaRachamim because of the calamities that occurred during Sefirah (Rama, Orach Chaim 284:7 and Mishnah Berurah 18).
For this reason, many have a custom that if a yahrtzeit occurs during Nissan, they will recite Keil Malei Rachamim before Rosh Chodesh Nissan.
THE PAUPER’S CHALLAH
A fascinating minhag mentioned by the Rishonim is the “challas ani” – the pauper’s bread. Apparently, there had been a custom that every Jew, both young and old, would bake a challah on Erev Shabbos HaGadol and give it to the poor. The Rishonim add ominously, “and from the day that they made light of it (this custom), the grain became cursed” (Sefer KolBo #47).
Several possible reasons for this minhag have been suggested. The Mateh Moshe (#543), a late sixteenth century disciple of the Maharshal cites a custom of his Rebbi. Before Pesach, the Maharshal would insist that everyone either bake or cook some food made with flour that had been ground for baking matzah. This was because there was always some concern that perhaps a small quantity of the wheat or flour set aside for matzos, inadvertently became chometz. The Maharshal held that by taking some of this wheat or flour and using it for a pre-Pesach food, one could assume that had there been any chometz in the flour, it would have been used up before Pesach. It was this food that was given to the poor in honor of Shabbos HaGadol. (See Magen Avraham [430:1] who although argues with the Maharshal’s premise, but nevertheless maintains that one should follow this practice since it was suggested by such a righteous individual. Unfortunately, the Magen Avraham’s arguments are beyond the scope of this article.)
The Shelah HaKadosh suggests that perhaps by giving to the poor a portion of the flour used for matzah baking, the flour as a whole attains a higher level of sanctity.
A third possible reason for the minhag of challas ani is based on the idea given by Chazal that during the holiday of Pesach the world is judged regarding grain (Rosh HaShanah 16a). Meaning, it is decided then how plentiful the grain crops for the coming year will be. Perhaps for this reason, the Jews would give bread to the poor before Pesach in order that in that merit of doing so, the grain crop would be blessed. Once this minhag fell into disuse, a curse was placed on the grains, and they no longer reach their full potential (Hilchos Chag b’Chag, Pesach, chap. 1, footnote 16).
Another custom that revolves around challah during the month of Nissan is the challah baked for the Shabbos immediately after Pesach, called the “shlissel challah” – key challah. There are many variations of this custom. Some bake a challah in the shape of a key; others bake a regular challah with an extra strand of dough on top which is shaped like a key; another variation is to insert a key into the challah while it is still dough and bake them together; and yet a further variation is to puncture the dough with a key before baking.
The reason for this is based on the passuk (Devarim 28:12), “Hashem will open for you His goodly treasury, the heavens…” That just as Hashem opened up the heavens starting with the month of Iyar and provided the Bnei Yisrael with manna, so too we ask Him to provide us with sustenance. Therefore we prepare the shlissel challah on Shabbos Mevarchim Iyar to indicate this hope (Sefer Ta’amei HaMinhagim pg. 250).
THE FOUR BRACHOS
At the beginning of this article we mentioned a riddle: Which four brachos are recited only once a year? The four brachos are: 1) bircas ilanos, 2) the bracha recited prior to bedikas chametz, 3) the bracha recited when lighting candles for Yom Kippur and 4) the bracha of Nacheim which is included in Mincha of Tisha b’Av. (This last bracha is actually recited twice by the chazzan; however, most recite it only once.)
THE MONTH OF GEULAH
Chazal tell us that in Nissan our forefathers were redeemed from Egypt, and we will eventually be redeemed in Nissan (Rosh HaShanah 11a). Nissan is the month of miracles. In fact, according to some, the name “Nissan” comes from “nissim” – miracles (Bnei Yissaschar). The Ramban at the end of Parshas Bo explains the role that miracles play in our everyday life. If a person keeps in mind the overt miracles that Hashem performed for us during the exodus, he will come to the realization that everything that happens to him down to the smallest detail is in fact a miracle and that there is no such thing as teva – nature. If a person performs the mitzvos, the reward for doing so will cause him to prosper, whereas transgression of the mitzvos will bring the opposite.
Let us hope that this Nissan we will merit to see the fulfillment of the passuk (Michah 7:15), “As in the days of your exodus from the land of Egypt, I will show him wonders.”