Context

Context

Name of festival:
Tu B'Shvat; pronunciation "Too Bish-vat"
Origins:
New Year for Trees [Arbor Day]
Date of festival:
15th of Shvat

"And there are four new year dates: - The first of Nissan - new year for kings and festivals - The first of Ellul - new year for animal tithes. Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Shimon say: the first of Tishrei. - The first of Tishrei- new year for calculation of the calendar, sabbatical years and jubilees, for planting and sowing - The first of Shvat - new year for trees, according to the school of Shamai; The school of Hillel say: the fifteenth of Shvat."
Mishna "Rosh Hashana", Ch.1, Mishna 1

Clarification

New Year:
Specific dates in the year which serve to initiate calendar calculations.
For kings:
If a Jewish king ascended the throne in the middle of the year, then his second year of reign is calculated as beginning from the following 1st of Nissan.
For festivals:
Pesach - the festival which falls in Nissan - is considered the first major Jewish festival in the cycle of "regalim" [pilgrimage festivals - Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot].
For tithing animals:
When calculating tithes, one should not mix young born after the first of Ellul with those born before and who are therefore considered to have entered their second year of life, for the Torah commands us to tithe from the fruits of each year.
Calendar:
As for kings above, but relates to non-Jewish kings.
Sabbatical years:
Laws on the sabbatical year enter into force on the first of Tishrei, according to the Torah.
Jubilee years:
These laws enter into force on the first of Tishrei in the appropriate year, in accordance with the Torah.
Planting:
Used to calculate the years during which it is forbidden to enjoy the fruits of young trees ["orla" - the law forbidding picking fruits of trees under 3 years old].
Sowing:
Vegetables picked after the first of Tishrei should not be tithed together with those picked beforehand, which are considered produce of the previous year, as the Torah commands us to separate tithing for the harvest of each year [as with animals].
For trees:
Tithing from trees whose fruits ripen after this date is calculated separately from those which ripen earlier.

"The first of Shvat is the New Year for Trees according to the school of Shamai, whereas the school of Hillel determine the fifteenth of Shvat."

The festival of the fifteenth of Shvat is not mentioned in the Tanach. The Mishna discusses the issue: when should the New Year for Trees be observed? From this, we understand that the assignment is not the establishment of the festival but the determination of the correct agricultural calendar for fruit trees. There was a disagreement between the schools of Shamai and Hillel [two major judicial schools of thought in the time of the Mishna] as to the correct date for the New Year for Trees. The school of Shamai maintained that the first day of the month of Shvat was suitable, whereas the disciples of Hillel calculated that the fifteenth of Shvat was more suitable. Custom follows the school of Hillel.

Obviously, the disagreement was not based on any inability to decide upon the festival or select an date on which to plant trees. The New Year for Trees was necessary in order to be able to implement the precept of tithing fruit. The Torah commands every Jew to take yearly tithes from the fruit of his trees and give it to the priests and Levites dedicated to the Temple services, as well as to the poor. It is forbidden to calculate the tithe from one year using produce of another year. Therefore, it became imperative to determine the date of the New Year for Trees.

Our sages, who were well versed in agriculture, reached the conclusion that the fifteenth of the month of Shvat is the marginal date when the rains fro mthe previous year cease to irrigate the trees and they are benefitting from the new rains. From this grew the legend that on that day a heavenly court judges the trees and pronounces sentence, much the same as for humans on Rosh Hashanah [the first of Tishrei], when man's fate is decided.

The Essence of the Festival

Tu B'Shvat is the festival which most visibly demonstrates the Jewish people's link to Eretz Israel. It is the festival when everyone experiences their love to the land and for the commandments which relate to the land. It is the festival of agriculture and nature's renewal; the festival of love for trees which reaches back to our distant roots as a people in the land of Israel.

This festival was born in the country of Israel, where its main customs and traditions developed. When the country was conquered and the Jewish people went into exile, they took with them their customs, inclduing the festival of Tu B'Shvat. Taking it with them, they symbolically carried with them throughout their wanderings Eretz Israel itself and the memory of its fruits and trees.

Every year, as this date arrived, Jewish houses set their festive table with the fruits for which the land of Israel was legendary - raisins [grapes] and nuts, figs and dates, olives, pomegranates, and the grains constituting the "seven species" of the land. Together with these fruits which illuminated the dark corners of exile, light from the skies of Israel would enter each home.

The very sweetness of the furits alleviated the bitterness of life in exile and reminded Jewish people everywhere that the land of Israel awaited its children.

In these days of renewal, when the people has returned to its own land, this festival, too, has found a new expression. No longer only the date when fruits of the Land of Israel are tasted, it has been transformed into the day for tree-planting, as it says in the Torah: "And when you shall enter this land, you shall plant fruit-bearing trees..." [Vayikra 19.23].

Major Customs of the Festival

1. Eating fruits:

One of the most important customs of this festival is to eat those fruits for which ancient Israel was famed, as in the verse:

"For the Lord G-d will lead you into the good land, a land flowing with waters... A land of wheat and barley and vine, of fig and pomegranate, the land of the olive and honey".
Dvarim 8; 7-8.

The first fruits of these species were once brought as an offering to the priests in the Temple. Below are the seven species which became the symbol of the land of Israel:
wheat, barley, a cluster of grapes, figs, the pomegranate, the olive tree and date palm.

For this reason, an effort is made to acquire the fruits of these seven trees for the table, but other fruits are also eaten associated with the land and its produce, particularly: almonds, citrus fruits, apples - whether fresh or dry.

2. Special ceremonies:

The town of Tsfat [Safed] in the Upper Galilee played an especial role in the determination of the traditions associated with Tu B'Shvat. In the 16th century, after the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain [1492], Tsfat became the recognized center of the Kabbalah [Jewish mysticism].

The Kabbalists of Tsfat, the most well-known of whom was Rabbi Yitzhak Luria Ashkenazi [also known as Ari zal], interpreted the Torah and its commandments through secret methods of study. They accorded the festival with new meanings and inaugurated new rituals for the observance of "night ceremonies of rejoicing for trees", resembling, in some degree, the traditions of the Pesach seder. Family members would gather around the table, set with a white cloth and an abundance of flowers and fruit, as well as flasks of white and red wine. The ceremony for Tu B'shvat includes readings from the Torah, Talmud and Zohar [one of the major writings of Kabbalah], relating to fruit.

Special blessings would be recited over flowering and fruit-bearing trees.

Following this, four cups of wine would be imbibed:

  • The first cup - white wine, symbolic of slumbering nature;
  • The second cup - white wine, mixed with a small quantity of red wine for the awakening of nature;
  • The third cup - red wine, mixed with a small quantity of white wine, for the conflict betwen the rains and the sun, and the victory of heat over cold. Red is also used to symbolize the explosion of color in the flowering fields;
  • The fourth cup - red wine alone, for the splendor of the sun and summer.

After the four cups are imbibed, the ceremony proceeds with the eating of fruit.

3. Planting trees:

A. From the sources -

"And when you enter this land, you shall plant fruit-bearing trees..."
Vayikra 19.23

"The Holy One, blessed be He, occupied Himself with planting immediately after Creation of the world. For it is specifically written: "And the Lord G-d planted a garden in Eden". So shall you also, when you enter the land of Israel, first of all occupy yourself in planting."
Vayikra Rabba 25

The planting of trees is a labor which has a symbolic meaning over and beyond its literal interpretation.

Teacher Focus

    1. The above midrash is governed by the following concept: "After the Lord your G-d shall you follow". What conclusions does the midrash draw from these words?
    2. "To follow the Lord" means to follow in His paths, to imitate the deeds of G-d. What particular action taken by G-d is man expected to copy?
    3. From where do we learn that the planting of trees is a particularly important issue?
    4. Could it be said that man is helping G-d create the world?
    5. Why do you think the planting of trees is so important?

B. From the Sources

"And when you enter this land, you shall plant fruit-bearing trees..."
[Vayikra 19,23]

"The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to the Jews: even if you see that it is filled with every good thing, you shall not say: I shall settle, but will not plant, - and you shall not be negligent in planting... When you enter the land, you will find trees planted by other people. So shall you plant trees for your descendants. And let no-one say: I am already old, how much longer shall I live? Why should I strive on behalf of others, if tomorrow I may die? Therefore a person may not evade this duty, even if he plants trees in old age, to add to what has already been planted"
Midrash Tanchuma, Kedoshim

Teacher Focus

  1. In what state did the Jewish people find the land of Israel, when they entered it?
  2. Against what does the Midrash warn us?
  3. What does the Midrash recommend be done and why?
  4. What is the nature of the responsibility placed on each person by the Midrash?
  5. Why does a person have to consider future generations? (See below)

C. From the Sources

A Midrash on the social responsibility of each individual:

"Once, Honi HaMa'agal was walking along a road and saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked him, "How many years will it take till the tree bears fruit?"
"Seventy years", came the reply.
So he asked, "Are you sure that you will be alive in seventy years' time to enjoy the fruits of this tree?"
Came the reply, "When I arrived in this world, I found a carob tree, planted for me by my fathers, as I plant this one for my children."

Honi sat down by the way to eat, became drowsy and fell asleep. A great rock covered him and hid him from the eyes of others. He slept for seventy years. When he awoke, he saw a man picking the fruit from this tree.

He asked him, "Who planted this tree?"
"My father," came the reply.

Then he said to himself, "I must have slept for seventy years." He saw that his she-ass had brought many offspring into the world. He went home.
There he asked, "Where is the son of Honi Hama'agal?"
Came the reply, "His son is no longer alive, but his grandson is".
He said, "I am Honi HaMa'agal", but no-one believed him.

He went to the Talmudic college and heard the sages say, "This issue is as clear to us today as it was in the days of Honi HaMa'agal, who, when he came into the college, would elucidate to the sages all the difficulties in comprehension."

He said to them, "I am Honi HaMa'agal", but no-one believed him and no-one accorded him the respect he deserved. He became dispirited, prayed with all his heart for mercy and died.

Rabba said, of this instance, it is said, "Either there is communication or there is death".
Tractate Ta'anit, 23


 

 

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27 Jun 2005 / 20 Sivan 5765 0