Tu B'Shvat - the 15th of Shvat: A New Year for Trees
"There are four New Years. On the first of Nisan is the New Year for Kings and for festivals; on the first of Elul is the New Year for the tithe of animals - R. Eliezer and R. Simon say, On the first of Tishrei - is the New Year for the years, for Sabbatical Years, for Jubilee Years, for planting and for vegetables; and on the first of Shevat is the New Year for Trees according to the view of the Shammai, but the School of Hillel say, On the fifteenth thereof." (Mishnah Rosh Hashana 1:1)
One New Year - or Four?
As we know, Rosh Hashana - the new year - is celebrated on the first day of the month of Tishrei, which always occurs at the close of the summer season and the begining of autumn. So when we begin to read the opening chapter of the Mishna called Rosh Hashana, this is what we expect to see. But, we are in for a surprise, as the Mishna lists for us four different new years! One is a new year for kings and festivals, one is a new year for animals, one is a new year for marking the sabbatical and jubilee years as described in Torah, and finally, one is the new year for trees!
A new year for trees! What's it all about?
Tu B'Shvat - the fifteenth day of the month of Shvat is the new year for trees whose fruit is to be tithed, (ma'aser), and brought as an offering to the Holy Temple. Our sages understood that by the 15th of Shvat most of the winter rain had already fallen; the sap was beginning to rise in the trees; and the new fruit that would ripen during the summer and fall had already begun to form on the branches. Therefore, all the fruit picked from this day forward, would be considered part of the bounty to be tithed for this (upcoming) year.
Tu B'Shvat still retains its importance as the new year for the tithing of fruit, even thought the Holy Temple is not today standing. Farmers in Israel today still tithe their crops and it is forbidden to eat of fruit which has not yet been tithed.
Who me - a tree?
The Torah tells us that: "Man is the tree of field." (Deuteronomy 20:19) Why does Torah make this comparison? What do we share with trees?
- Like trees, we reach upwards: Trees yearn for the sun to provide them with the energy with which to grow. We yearn for the heavens: we strive to grow closer to G-d, and grow in the warmth of His loving kindness.
- Like trees, we are earth-bound: True, we can walk, skip, jump, even hang-glide - all things that trees can't do, but essentially we are earth-bound. We, like the trees, are part of this world, and like the trees, must do our best to flourish, and blossom, and bear fruit through our good deeds in this world.
- Like trees, we need deep roots: A healthy tree is deeply rooted, gaining its nourishment from the life giving waters beneath the earth's surface. We too, in order to flourish, need to partake of the deep waters of Torah. If our roots are weak or shallow, we won't get the spiritual nourishment we need in order to grow. A tree's strong roots help it to remain standing even in stormy weather. So too, our spiritual roots help us to stay upright, even during stormy times in our lives.
- Tree provide nourishing fruit, homes, and shade for other living creatures. We too, are part of a community filled with all different kinds of people, and must see ourselves as being responsible for the well being of others. We too, are part of an "ecosystem," the ecosystem that G-d created, containing earth and water, and air, animals and plants, and we are responsible for the earth's well-being, as well. G-d trusted the very first man with the responsibility for caring for G-d's creation: "Work and watch over the Garden of Eden." (Genesis 2:15)
It turns out we humans have lots in common with trees. How can we celebrate Tu B'Shvat - the new year for trees? Here in Israel, (and in other places, too), we plant trees on Tu B'Shvat, (or before or after Tu B'Shvat, if it falls on a Shabbat). We also eat lots of fruit on Tu B'Shvat, making certain to make the bracha - blessing - over the fruit before we eat it. It is customary to try to eat of the seven fruits of the land of Israel that are named in Torah:
"For HaShem your G-d has brought you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and depths, springing forth in valleys and hills; a land of wheat and barley, and [grape] vines and fig-trees and pomegranates; a land of olive-trees and honey [from dates]." (Deuteronomy 8:7-8)
The simplest way of celebrating Tu B'Shvat may also be the most rewarding: hug a tree, and wish it a shana tova- a happy new year!
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