December 18, 2018

Carob or Chocolate: Tu B’shvat’s Trees?

One is the fruit of a tree that grows in Israel: carob. The other, chocolate, is derived from the cocoa tree, which bears the scientific name “the food of the gods,” or theobroma. While the carob has its roots in the Mediteranean, the cocoa tree is rooted in Central America. Both produce pods, which in turn contain edible seeds. Each has religious connections. Sometimes they are confused for each other. Sometimes, carob is a chocolate substitute. Only the carob has traditional associations to this week’s Tu B’shvat and its celebration of trees.

People of a certain generation recall carob or chroov (Hebrew) or bokser (Yiddish) from childhood celebrations of Tu B’shvat. Hebrew school teachers passed around lanky, tough pods for us to nibble at our school desks in California, yielding a taste of Israel. That expanded our palate though perhaps not so much our desire for Israeli foods.

The Talmud notes that carob pods alone nourished the poor Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa from Shabbat to Shabbat. (Ta’anit, 24b) The famous Honi Hamaagal story about planting for future generations centers on a carob plant. (Ta’anit, 23a). Carob’s appearance in other  Middle Eastern based religions extends to Islam. During Ramadan carob juices are drunk. In addition, in Christian sources, the Book of Matthew (3:4) claims that John the Baptist ate carob in the desert, thus explaining its English denotation as St. John’s Bread. Perhaps this association puts carob on Easter and Lent menus.

One might lament that cocoa trees only grow 20º north and south of the equator and, therefore, not in Israel, sadly. Imagine if our Tu B’shvat customs could include chocolate as a fruit native to Israel. To bridge this challenge and build on Tu B’shvat Seder customs, Cantor Eric Schulmiller created a Fair Trade chocolate and coffee “>Tu B'shvat chocolate bark.

Rabbi Deborah R. Prinz lectures about chocolate and Jews around the world. Her book, “>Jewish Lights) is in its third printing. The book is used in adult study, classroom settings, book clubs and chocolate tastings. Prinz blogs at The Huffington Post,The Forward, On the Chocolate Trail, and elsewhere.