Near the apex of my indoor fig tree there is a single small, hard fruit. The tree moved (as did I) this summer, from a third-floor bedroom with six hours of direct light into a north-facing sunroom that, however congenial to my palms, spider plants and pothos, is not sunny enough to ripen figs. The tree itself, I hasten to add, is thriving, albeit somewhat confused, enthusiastically extruding new leaves and branches even as the Chicago days grow shorter and colder. I ought to remove that sad, under-developed fig so the plant can devote resources to more plausible forms of growth, but I cannot quite concede the fruit’s non-viability.
I am thinking of this fig as I read today’s daf. Rosh Hashanah 15 is mostly concerned with questions about how to date (pun intended) various fruits, which is relevant when determining their status vis-a-vis tithes and sabbatical years. A long discussion concerns etrogs (citrons) that grow in the sixth year of a sabbatical cycle but are picked in the seventh, sabbatical year (i.e., the shmita year), or which grew during the sabbatical year and were picked in the year afterward: Are they subject to tithes? Various authorities offer their opinions, among them Rabbi Yochanan. He holds that in the first case, even if the etrog was only “an olive-bulk” when the sabbatical year started and “grew to the size of a loaf (of bread),” still it counts as sixth-year produce and is subject to tithes. (Next Sukkot, I intend to look for a boule-sized etrog.)
Here is where figs come in. Rabbi Yochanan’s frequent sparring partner, Reish Lakish, quotes a mishnah in Sheviit which reads:
White figs: their sabbatical year is in the second year (of the cycle), since they ripen over three years.
The mishnah is somewhat cryptic, but the simplest reading seems to be that because these figs (the Hebrew term is b’not shuah; Rashi, following a Gemara elsewhere, identifies them as “white figs”) take several years to ripen, the ones that sprout in the sabbatical year, and thus ripen in the second year of the new cycle, are judged sabbatical produce. (If you are wondering how to track which fruit comes from which year, the Tiferet Yisrael, a commentator on the mishnah, suggests tying a new string on each fig in each year of its life. This seems like less-than-practical pomology, but maybe like a fun art project.) Reish Lakish’s challenge stumps Rabbi Yochanan, who has no reply.
I have asked my brother, who is a forester and an arborist: There is no fig tree whose fruit ripens over the course of three years. Either the mishnah is mistaken about how these b’not shuah grow, or the Talmud and later commentators are mistaken in identifying them as “white figs.” Sometimes, of course, rabbis were mistaken on an empirical question. A commentator on Maimonides, mocking his description of a mouse which grows spontaneously from the earth (and which is discussed in the Talmud), remarks acidly, “The collector collects things which do not exist.” And for the Talmud’s purposes here, it doesn’t matter much if this test-case is real or hypothetical.
Still, I find myself drawn to this empirical mistake. I am studying this daf about six feet from a diminutive, comically slow fig, a half-hearted fruit resulting from raising a fig in indoor Chicago, conditions nearly as bizarre as any bit of folk-botany from Late Antiquity. I do not think the mishnah set out to evoke a fantastical fruit — and yet one of the pleasures of reading the Talmud is encountering such unintentional fictions. Most of all, I am heartened to read about the b’not shuah, because they give me hope, however remote, that perhaps my tree’s puny, improbable fig will also someday ripen.
Read all of Rosh Hashanah 15 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on October 24th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.