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Tu b'Shevat: The New Year for Trees

 

Tonight, (Tuesday night, Jan. 30th) begins the one-day minor festival of Tu b'Shevat - literally, ?the 15th day of the month of Shevat, called by our sages the New Year for Trees.

In the Mishnah of tractate Rosh HaShanah, four different new years are described. The first day of the month of Nisan is described as the New Year for marking the yearly cycle of holidays and pilgrimage festivals of the Hebrew calendar, as well as the new year for determining the length of the rule of the kings of Israel.

The first day of the month of Elul is considered to be the New Year for the reckoning of animals, specifically livestock whose age needed to be determined for the purpose of tithing.

The first (and second) day of the month of Tishrei, known as Rosh HaShanah, (the head of the year), is the anniversary of the creation of man - the day upon which the first man, Adam, (Adam and Chavah), was created, and thus the birth of mankind. In the Torah, the first of Tishrei is referred to as Yom hateruah - the ?Day of the Sounding of the Shofar?, and listening to the sound of the shofar is the central commandment of the day. Rosh HaShanah is also considered as the new year for the purpose of calculating the calendar, the sabbatical years and jubilees, ands for the planting and sowing of crops.

Tu b'Shevat - the 15th of Shevat, known as the New Year for Trees, is the new year for the purpose of determining the proper tithe to apply to the year's agricultural produce.

The Torah gives us specific commandments relating to agriculture in the Land of Israel:

Orlah: the prohibition against eating the fruit of trees produced during the first three years after they are planted.

"When you come to the Land and you plant any food tree, you shall surely block its fruit [from use]; it shall be blocked from you [from use] for three years, not to be eaten." (Leviticus 19:23)

Neta Reva'i: the sacred status of fruit in its fouth year.

"And in the fourth year, all its fruit shall be holy, a praise to HaShem." (Leviticus 19:24)

The tithe of Maaser Sheni, also eaten in Jerusalem, and Maaser Ani, the tithe given to the poor, were calculated according to whether the fruit ripened before or after Tu b'Shevat.

"You shall tithe all the seed crop that the field gives forth, year by year. And you shall eat before HaShem, your G-d, in the place He chooses to establish His Name therein, the tithes of your grain, your wine, and your oil, and the firstborn of your cattle and of your sheep, so that you may learn to fear HaShem, your G-d, all the days. And if the way be too long for you, that you are unable to carry it, for the place which HaShem, your G-d, will choose to establish His Name therein, is too far from you, for HaShem, your G-d, will bless you. Then you shall turn it into money, and bind up the money in your hand, and you shall go to the place HaShem, your G-d, will choose. And you shall turn that money into whatever your soul desires; cattle, sheep, new wine or old wine, or whatever your soul desires, and you shall eat there before HaShem, your G-d, and you shall rejoice, you and your household. And [as for] the Levite who is in your cities you shall not forsake him, for he has neither portion nor inheritance with you. At the end of three years, you shall take out all the tithe of your crop in that year and place it in your cities. And the Levite because he has no portion or inheritance with you and the stranger, and the orphan, and the widow, who are in your cities, will come and eat and be satisfied; so that HaShem, your G-d, will bless you in all the work of your hand that you will do." (Deuteronomy 14:22?29)

To this day these commandments are observed in the land of Israel. Orlah, fruit within the first three years after the tree is planted, is forbidden to eat.

Tu b'Shevat marks the beginning of the season in which fruit trees in the land of Israel begin to flower and produce fruit. The earliest of the fruit trees to blossom is the almond tree. The name of the almond tree in Hebrew, shekadia, and its fruit, the almond, shaked, is derived from the Hebrew word meaning diligence and perseverance, words which aptly describe this early blooming tree.

In contemporary Israel Tu b'Shevat has also become a holiday for emphasising environmental issues and for planting trees and replenishing the forests of Israel, which were devastated over 2000 years ago by the invading Romans who used the timber for their war machines and caused the degradation of Israel's forests and the desertification of much of the land of Israel. Millions of trees have been planted in Israel over the past century, and Israel is the only country on the planet with a net increase of tree over the past one hundred years.

Famously, the verse in Deuteronomy asks the rhetorical question "Is the tree of the field a man?" (20:19) The verse is referring specifically to the prohibition against cutting down fruit trees during the siege of an enemy city, but has taken on a spiritual-philosophical aspect, alluding to the ideal nature of man to set down deep Torah roots in order to blossom spiritually and ethically and reach out and upward, as do the branches of a tree, heavenward, seeking a relationship with G-d.

This spiritual dimension of Tu b'Shevat gave birth to a wide-spread kabbalistic tradition of holding a Tu b'Shevat 'seder' meal, in which certain fruits of the land of Israel are eaten and their blessings recited.

May we all tap in to the cosmic energy which is entering into and animating our fruit trees, and ourselves become part of the spiritual rejuvenation taking place in creation at this time!

 

 

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