Olive trees grow among pink and yellow flowers in the Golan Heights. / DORON HOROWITZ/FLASH90

A Tu b’Shvat primer

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A Tu b’Shvat primer

Olive trees grow among pink and yellow flowers in the Golan Heights. / DORON HOROWITZ/FLASH90

JERUSALEM – Perhaps nowhere more does the holiday of Chamisha Asar b’Shvat or Tu b’Shvat have more meaning than here in Eretz Yisrael, for this holiday bridges the gap between Jews in the Diaspora and Jews in Israel.

The holiday, which will begin the evening of Feb. 5, is not mentioned in the Torah but makes its first appearance in the Talmud where it is called Rosh Hashanah l’ilan. Why New Year of the tree? Like the holiday, Rosh Hashanah, Jewish literature of the sixth to 11th centuries identifies this holiday as one on which the fate of the trees and fruit is decided. Although this holiday is not mentioned in the Torah, it is known in the Mishnah (the first part of the Talmud which explains, interprets and analyzes the laws of the Torah).

Rabbi Tsvi Elimelech of Dinov, Poland, lived in the 18th-19th centuries and was known as B’nai Yesasschar after a famous Hassidic book he wrote by that title. He writes that the Mishnah calls the new year Rosh HaShana l’Ilan. Why did the Mishnah refer to a tree in the singular rather than the plural? Why wasn’t it called Rosh Hashanah l’ilanot?

B’nai Yesaschar writes that the sages tell us on Tu b’Shvat we should pray that when Sukkot comes we should acquire a beautiful and kosher etrog so we can fulfill the commandment of the four species. The tree that we need in order to fulfill a commandment begins its new year and in order to assure that we can obtain the fruit of that tree, we should pray for it on this day.

How does the holiday get its name? The “Tu” is an acronym for the Hebrew letters tet, which in the Hebrew system of counting is nine and vav, which is six, thus adding up to 15, the day on which the holiday occurs in the month of Shvat.

The date was chosen when the rabbinic schools of Hillel and Shamai (from the time of the Second Temple) argued about the dates. Hillel said it fell on the 15th of Shvat; Shamai said it began on the first of Shvat. Hillel’s opinion prevailed because it was thought that by the later date, the winter rains in Israel were almost over.

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Tu b’Shvat was a day meant to link the Jew to the land of Eretz Yisrael. In the time of the Second Temple, on this day, Jewish farmers would estimate their obligatory tithes for tax collectors and other contributions which Jewish law required. In effect, Tu b’Shvat was the beginning of the new fiscal year.

Another purpose of the holiday relates to the age of trees. In order to observe certain mitzvoth, one had to know the age of a tree. For example, the fruit from last year could not be used for this year’s tithes. Tithes had to be from new fruit. By designating Tu b’Shvat as a deadline, fruit gathered up to this time would be considered last year’s crop, and fruit picked afterward was part of the new crop and the new income.

Another point of Jewish law related to the age of trees is that fruit cannot be eaten from a fruit tree during the first three years the tree bears fruit. The fruit of the fourth year on a tree grown in Israel was brought to Jerusalem to be eaten there by its owner. The fruits of the fourth year can only be eaten by someone who is ritually pure. Since we are all considered ritually impure, and today we do not have the means necessary for purification, instead of bringing them to Jerusalem, we “transfer” the holiness of these fruits to money, and we discard that money. The owner was permitted to do as he pleased with the fruit of the fifth year.

Sephardic Jews were influenced by the practitioners of Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) and derived their practices from the Jewish mystics of the 16th century living in Safed, the principal town in the Upper Galilee. Jews would assemble and read about fruits and trees from a special book whose sources were the Bible, Talmud and the Zohar (the kabbalist work by various authors). Θ

Sybil Kaplan is a Jerusalem-based journalist, lecturer, book reviewer, food writer, and contributor to or writer of nine cookbooks.

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