Updated: Nov 5, 2020
Tu B’Shevat is coming up in a few weeks, and I want us to take some time and think about trees, as a symbol, but also trees as a reality, and about the lessons we learn from sitting at their feet.
Especially now at winter, we have an opportunity to witness what awesome creatures they are (imagine yourself stan
ding outdoors in a cold of –30c for a full week and looking more majestic as time goes on). It makes a lot of sense to have a special Rosh Hashanah/ New year dedicated just to them.
Over the next 3 weeks I’d like to go over different aspects of this festival, so that when the full moon of Shevat arrives; we are better prepared to celebrate.
This week we’ll look at the ancient origins of the festival and what that might we learn from that. Next week we’ll look at a story from the Talmud presenting trees as a place of knowledge and spiritual learning. And finally, on the week of Tu B’Sehvat we’ll ask ourselves: should we or shouldn’t we be planting new trees?
4 New Years
In the beginning:
There are four new years: The first of Nisan is the new year for kings and for festivals. The first of Elul is the new year for the tithe of beasts. Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Shimon say: the first of Tishri. The first of Tishri is the new year for years, for Shmitta and jubilee years, for planting and for [tithe of] vegetables. The first of Shevat is the new year for trees, according to the words of Bet Shammai. Bet Hillel says: on the fifteenth of that month. (Mishna Rosh Hashana 1:1)
This mishna, which opens the discussion of Rosh Hashanah in general, gives us the names of 4 New Years, and before asking “how can that be?” think of the way we treat 1st of Tishrei and January 1st.
A New Year means the beginning of something, and when we celebrate a new year, we celebrate a specific process, institution or idea (and probably other things as well). In the mishna, they list for us 4 times in the Jewish calendar when we start counting something. For instance, the 1st day of Elul is the date from which the tithing of cattle for the temple begins. The 1st of Nissan is when we start counting a monarch’s “year”. And Shevat is when we count the year when tithing the fruit of trees. Notice how in almost all cases the new year begins on the first day of the month i.e. the New Moon, but for the tithing of trees a question comes up - New moon or Full moon (15th of the month, or as we say, ט”ו/ Tu of the month)? Why mark the new year of trees on Shevat? According to the Talmud (BT Rosh Hashana 14a, with Rashi’s commentary) - this is when most of the rainy season had passed, the sap had risen in the trees, but ripening has not yet begun. We have everything ready for new fruit, but no fruit yet and we are waiting. It is the time when all the old fruit had already gone, and no new fruit is ready yet and so we have time to pause and appreciate.
Is it all about sap?
I’m wondering if the argument between Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai has anything to do with the rising of sap at different phases of the moon.
There are some indications this might be the case, but I’m curious to hear if any of you knows of some good evidence relating to this.
In any case, the rising of the sap means in this context that the Earth (at least 2000 years ago in Eretz Israel) was starting to warm up, and the depth of winter has passed. We are not close to spring yet and winter isn’t over, but we’ve moved into the “waning” phase of winter, to borrow from the Lunar cycle.
While everything above ground is still cloaked in winter and trees and plants seem to be asleep, inside the trees we can witness a different story. Their deep roots feel the first hints of warmth, and if we learn how to listen to them, we might know that spring will soon be on its way.
For many generations, Tu B’Shevat was the place where we played out our relationship to our land of Israel – through the fruits of the land, through songs and stories and the trees which were planted there.
Tu B'Shevat in the snow, does that even make sense?
Today, wherever we are, Tu B’Shevat is an opportunity to talk about our connection to all land, to Earth itself and to the words Earth is trying to tell us. The Earth, then and now, speaks to us through trees, and their health can tell us a lot about the health of the world, and about our own situation. It isn’t by chance that Torah is likened to Etz Chayim – the Tree of life.
Here in Edmonton we live among stunning trees, both Evergreens and Deciduous, they are all wonderful faces of the Tree of Life, and we are blessed to have this day for recognizing their spiritual and physical importance for us. Their strength, endurance, close communal ties and sensitive understanding of what’s going on in the world. I sometimes wish I was more like a tree!
This year, Tu B’Shevat falls on Feb. 10th.
An easy assignment!!
Leading up to Tu B’Shevat, please share photos of great Edmontonian Trees you come across, add the hashtag #yegtubshevat and tag us on instagram (Temple Beth Ora)