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Having just recently celebrated the holiday of Shavuot and with the onset of the current summer season, Jerusalem is awash in flowers. The Jerusalem municipality has planted flowers all over the city and private citizens have also done their part from their balconies and flower boxes. One of the features of Israeli life is the constant presence of flowers. There are weekly Shabat flowers, paying a visit flowers, once a year Shavuot flowers, speedy recovery flowers and banquet flowers, wedding flowers and flowers for other life-cycle events as well. In fact, the number of flowers sold in Israel is far out of proportion to our numbers. We are hung up on flowers.

Part of the reason for our present affinity for flowers may subconsciously be to make up for our previous inability to have an abundance of flowers over the long exile, especially in Eastern Europe. The terrible and crowded living conditions of the ghetto, the poverty and dreariness of the shtetl, the oppressive taxes, duties and discrimination towards Jews all created a climate where flowers were the last thing for Jews to be concerned about. In fact, so distant were the Jews from flowers, that flowers themselves came to be considered a non-Jewish commodity. The Gaon of Vilna issued a famous ruling - not adhered to by most other scholars and most Jewish communities - forbidding flowers to be placed in the synagogue on Shavuot, since the use of flowers had now become associated with church services and decor. Flowers were definitely not a Jewish thing in the exile. Nevertheless, many Jews in Holland in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were active on the flower market of that country, especially in the sale of tulip bulbs. They suffered or profited, as the individual case may have been, in the tremendous financial crash that the collapse of the speculative tulip bulb market created. But in the rest of Europe, Jews and flowers did not really mix until well after the Emancipation in Germany and France. In this regard the opinion of the Gaon of Vilna can be readily understood not only in halachic terms but in societal terms as well. Flowers were just simply non-Jewish.

This association of flowers with non-Jewish religious services also explains the fact that Jews traditionally did not place flowers or wreaths over graves or as memorial symbols. This practice has changed considerably in modern-day Israel where flowers and wreaths are now common at graves and at memorial ceremonies. Many in the religious community today still object to these flower practices, again on the grounds that these are essentially non-Jewish customs. However, the practice of growing and displaying flowers in Israel, especially for Shabat, is widespread and exists in all of our communities. Israel has developed a wide-ranging flower growing and marketing industry and the beauty of Israeli flowers decorates many thousands of homes worldwide daily. I recall that when I was a rabbi in Monsey, New York, I convinced a wonderful local flower seller to import Israeli flowers every week and I encouraged the members of my community to decorate their weekly Shabat tables with those flowers. The flower seller, a pious Christian, saw his business increase many times over and not just from Jews who were buying Shabat flowers. He attributed his new found success to the fact that he now imported and sold flowers from the Holy Land. Because of his Holy Land flowers, he and his family made numerous trips to Israel and he was an ardent supporter of Jewish and Israeli causes. Flowers can have a strong influence on people's lives.

Once on a trip to Holland, I arose early to view the wholesale market of flowers just outside of Amsterdam. The floor was covered with hundreds of thousands of flowers of every color and shape imaginable. My eyes could not take in the beauty spread before them. Jews have a blessing that is recited upon the first sighting of the magnificent blossoms of fruit trees in the month of Nissan. That blessing states that the Lord had created such beauty in the world so that "humans may derive pleasure from it."

Flowers, like almost all other beautiful things, have a limited shelf life once cut down from their earthly source. And when flowers decay, they are no longer fragrant but become malodorous. But flowers that remain in the ground, attached to their roots and environment, can be perennial, giving forth their beauty year after year. There is a lesson in there for all of us as well. To be planted and attached to our traditions and loyal to our destiny and mission will enable us also to be like the flowers of beauty and thereby to bring pleasure to ourselves and to all of humankind.

Berel Wein

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