Birkat ha-ilanot is recited specifically over fruit, to symbolize the abundance that Hashem gives us beyond the basic necessities of existence * Ideally, the blessing should be recited at the beginning of the month of Nisan, but if one did not have a chance, it may be said even in the month of Iyar * Many comments from mikveh-going women brought to light a real problem of discomfort caused by the behavior of the balanit * Halachically, the role of the balanit is to see if the woman’s hair is completely submerged in the water. As for any further assistance, the balanit should ask the woman tovelling whether she is interested in it
Our Sages said “One who goes out during the days of Nissan and sees trees in bloom says, ‘Blessed is He Who did not omit anything from His universe and created in it good creatures and good trees, to benefit mankind with them’” (Berachot 43b).
The purpose of the blessing is to thank Hashem for His kindness, for reviving and flowering the trees that stood dry in winter, and now, bloom and grow flowers that eventually will develop into good fruits that humans enjoy.
Our Sages enacted to recite the blessing over trees and not vegetables, because trees are more beautiful. Moreover, Hashem’s loving kindness is more evident in trees, in that they grow fruit without the difficulty of plowing and re-sowing every year. Furthermore, the basic food for human existence comes from types of grains, legumes and other vegetables; Hashem, in His kindness, added fruit trees for us, to diversify our food with rich and fine flavors. Therefore, we say in the blessing “Who did not omit anything from His universe” – even things that have no existential need.
Laws of the Blessing
The blessing is on flowering fruit trees. Ideally, the blessing should be recited on seeing at least two trees, but when necessary, one may also recite the blessing on one flowering tree.
Whoever did not have a chance to see the trees in bloom, and saw them after their fruits began to grow, should not recite the blessing over them. However, if their fruits are tiny and barely noticeable, a blessing may still be recited (M.B. 226:4; Peninei Halakha: Brachot 15:8).
If it is known that the tree was grafted in a prohibited way – with two different kinds of fruit – a blessing should not be recited over it, because in the opinion of many of the poskim (Jewish law arbitrators), Hashem should not be praised over a tree in which a sin was committed (Halachot Ketanot, Vol. 1, 60: 265). In addition, if it is known that the tree is still in the orlah years (3 years after being planted), it is not proper to recite a blessing over it, since it is forbidden to enjoy its fruits (Rabbi Akiva Eiger). However, as long as it is not known for sure that the tree is grafted or orlah, one may recite a blessing over it.
Time of Blessing
The time of blessing depends on the flowering of the trees after the winter, whether before or after the month of Nisan. Regarding our Sages statement that the time of reciting the blessing is during the days of Nisan, this is because in the Land of Israel, trees usually bloom in Nisan. Indeed, the Kabbalists emphasized the virtue of this blessing, through which great tikkunim (rectifications) are made to the neshamot (souls) who have been re-incarnated in trees, and these tikkunim are made precisely in the month of Nisan. Consequently, some Achronim wrote that one should be careful to say the blessing precisely in the month of Nisan. Those quick to fulfill mitzvot recite the blessing on Rosh Chodesh Nisan. In practice, however, according to the majority of poskim, those who did not have a chance to say the blessing in the month of Nisan may do so in the month of Iyar (M.B. 226:1).
Women recite this blessing similar to men. This blessing is not considered a mitzvah she-ha-z’man garma (a time-bound mitzvah), because it is a natural reality that has brought it about.
The Blessing Outside of the Land of Israel
In the northern countries, where flowering is delayed until the month of Iyar, the blessing is recited le-chatchila (ideally) in the month of Iyar. A person located in the southern hemisphere, where the flowering of the trees occurs in the month of Tishrei, should recite the blessing over trees in the month of Tishrei (Har Tzvi 1: 118).
The Minhag of the Mikvah Attendant (Balanit)
In the course of my studies and writing of the laws of taharat ha-mishpacha (family purity) within the framework of ‘Peninei Halakha’, I arrived at the issue of the balanit, and found it worthwhile to clarify it, in order to reconcile the various opinions surrounding the issue.
As part of studying and writing the book, my wife, together with other women of the community, formed a large WhatsApp group of women, and when a question arises about the actual minhag (custom), prevalence of a particular problem, or ways of solving it, my wife raises the question and women from all over the country respond. Every question receives hundreds of responses, and the responses are incisive. On the topic of the balanit, the responses were particularly complex and charged. In addition to many women who described the encounter with the balanit as positive, there were quite a few complaints.
Some women complained about balaniot (pl. of balanit) examining the entire body, and while the tovelet (the woman about to tovel, or immerse in the mikvah) stands naked in front of them, argue with her that she must remove pieces of skin or cut her nails shorter. Occasionally, women who grow their nails long come to the mikvah, and the balanit argues with them that the nails must be trimmed before tovelling (according to halakha, it is permissible to tovel with long nails that are done nicely). Some women complained about balaniot who speak in harsh and unpleasant tones, or who engage in small talk with them, thus interfering their desire to withdraw within themselves in thoughts of purity.
Some women wrote that they prefer the balanit only see that all the hairs are in the water as per ikar ha-din (letter of the law), and not to inquire about the details of her preparations, since according to halakha, a woman is trustworthy when it comes to the issue of her own purity, and does not require to be supervised over it. Some wrote they would prefer to tovel without a balanit, or that the balanit just make certain she got out of the water safely after tovelling. One woman wrote, “Corona only helped the situation… now the balaniot keep their distance. There were times when I objected to the examination, and the balanit said it was on the rabbi’s instruction.” Quite a few women wrote that they feel ashamed when the balanit examines them, and feel their privacy has been invaded in a disrespectful manner. They prefer the balanit enter only when they are already in the water, and check to see that while tovelling their hair is also submerged in the water, and then leave, and allow them to get out of the water alone.
The Other Side
Apparently, as a result of the complaints about the excessive intervention of balaniot, in quite a few mikvahs the balanit restrains herself, saying nothing beyond what is necessary, and there are tovlot who regret this. “I know the balanit is afraid to mention the main points of halakha, because some women are offended by it, but for me it is important, so that I don’t forget something.” “I would be really happy if the balanit checked everything halachically required to be checked on the body, but unfortunately in my community, she just comes in to see the tevilah.” “With us, the balanit says nothing; she only looks to see that all the hair has submerged in the water, and it already happened once that I accidentally tovelled with non-permanent earrings on and realized it only after I got home. I had to go back and tovel again, and felt very disappointed about it.” Then again, some women praised the involvement of the balaniot: “I like when the balaniot check the nails and all things that might be considered a chatitzah (barrier), and remind me of the details – it calms me down.” One woman even wrote, “I prefer a mikvah where the balanit checks everything. It’s a much better feeling than just “tovel, and leave.” “Our balanit gives me a lot of encouragement; at a time when I was stressed-out about losing weight, she reassured me, and made me feel good.”
Consequently, it is appropriate to clarify the basis of the minhag of the balanit, and suggest the proper way to fulfill the task.
The Foundation of the Minhag of the Balanit
Purity is achieved by immersion in a mikvah, and the mitzvah of tevilah is to have the entire body in the water, as the Torah says “Ve-rachatz ba-mayim et kol bisaro” (‘He must immerse his entire body in a mikvah’) (Leviticus 15:16). Our Sages learned from the word “et“, that one must tovel with the body, all hair connected to the body as well (Eruvin 4b). If a woman tovelled and left even one finger or strand of hair out of the water – her tevilah is pasul (invalid). Also, it will not help if she tovels the same finger or strand of hair once again; rather, she must go back and immerse her entire body in water with all her hair at the same time.
Seeing as a woman cannot see herself while tovelling, there is concern that perhaps one of the hairs of her head will remain floating on the water and her tevilah will be invalid. Therefore, some Rishonim wrote that another woman should stand by and look to see that all the hairs of the tovelet are submerged in the water (Rosh). And if there is no other woman – she should ask her husband to do it (Maharam from Rotenburg, Orchot Chaim). Some poskim added that if she wrapped a cloth on her hair, her tevilah is valid (Rashba and Meiri). Others wrote these as being two equal options – that either she make use of another woman, or wrap a cloth on her hair (Ra’avad).
Shulchan Aruch (YD, 198:40) ruled that a woman should stand by and see that all the hair of the tovelet is immersed in the water, and be-di’avad (after the fact), when there is no other woman to see this, the tovelet should wrap her hair in a loose cloth, and thus tovel.
Consequently in all the mikvahs, a permanent woman is assigned to assist women who tovel. Due to this, there were those who used to ask that same woman to help them also check there was no chatzitzah on their body in places they could not see. From this, the custom was established that in every mikvah there is a balanit that guides new tovlot and assists experienced women to tovel according to halakha, without a chatzitzah. In practice, there are mikvahs where it is customary that before tevilah, the balanit reviews with the tovelet the details of the necessary preparations to make sure she has not forgotten anything, and there are mikvahs where the balanit even helps to examine the body and nails from any trace of chatzitzah. Then there are mikvahs where the balanit only checks to see that all the hairs have submerged into the mikvah.
The Appropriate Guidance
The correct approach is that when a tovelet enters the mikvah, while fully dressed, the balanit should ask what assistance she is interested in, and not force assistance upon her that she is not interested in, because there are women who are seriously offended by an unwanted intervention.
In addition, the balaniot should avoid forcing chumrot (halachic stringencies) and minhagei chasisdut (customs of the particularly pious) upon the tovelet, such as removing makeup that is done well or color that has no independent substance and cannot be felt above its surface, trimming nails that are well made, or removing pieces of skin and hard skin on the feet, and the like.
The Blessing over Tevilah
In the Talmud (Pesachim 7b), it is explained that one should always bless before performing a mitzvah – “except for tevilah“, because a person is not yet fit to bless.
According to the opinion of many Rishonim, the meaning is that a ger (convert) blesses in the mikvah after tevilah, because before tevilah he is not yet a Jew, but a woman blesses before tevilah, while clothed. This is the opinion of Rif, Rambam, and Shulchan Aruch (200:1), and this is the minhag of some women from Middle Eastern and North African communities.
On the other hand, some poskim say that since gerim bless after tevilah, our Sages determined that all those who tovel should recite the blessing after tevilah. In practice, according to this minhag, women are accustomed to enhance the mitzvah and tovel twice and recite the blessing between them, thus fulfilling both methods, for they bless after the first tevilah, and before the second one. This is the minhag of all Ashkenazi women and most of the women from Middle Eastern and North African communities, as many of the Sephardic poskim have written, such as: Chida, Chekhrei Lev, Chesed L’Alafim, Eretz Chaim Sithon, and Ben Ish Chai. In practice, each woman should continue her minhag.
This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.