Would the real new year for trees please stand up?
Scientists or not, we have all turned into exceptional lab rats. Surveys conducted around the world have clearly indicated that people’s perception of time during Covid has proven Einstein correct. Time is relative. The longing to be close with people we love stretches each day into an eternity. The distortion of what was once thought of as an objective 60 minutes or two weeks is deeply felt. Fixed buoys that help us locate ourselves while treading water in this sea of time are cherished.
The Mishna (RH 1:1) offers four points in the year which restart our annual cycles. Each of these “new year” dates marks a seasonal deadline, from tracking the years of a king’s reign to calculating percentages of our annual yield. The fourth new year listed, “for a tree” is subject to debate; the House of Shammai suggests that the new year for trees is marked on the first of the month of Shvat and the House of Hillel argues that it is two weeks later, on the 15th of the month.
Settling upon a date for the new year for trees was not a question of celebration. The modern custom to marvel at the produce of the Land of Israel on the new year of trees emerges hundreds of years later amidst the more mystical tradition. The very procedural difference between the choice of these two dates is the legal deadline for properly allocating the tithe of fruit grown on a tree in the land of Israel. Through a system of laws put in place in the Torah, produce is divided to include a portion of bounty dedicated to provide for a balance of social needs. With a seven-year agricultural cycle, some years a tithing is gifted to the poor and other years it is allocated to support the farmer’s own spiritual retreat in Jerusalem.
The substance of the disagreement between the Houses of Shammai and Hillel as to whether this date should be marked on the first or the 15th of the month is not clear. Perhaps Shammai’s suggestion of the first of the month maintains a consistency amidst the list, as each new year highlighted is relegated to the first of a month. Perhaps however, as the month of Shvat arrives still in the thick of winter, a premature time to be expecting much from blossoming trees, Hillel’s suggestion to defer the date for another two weeks inches the timing closer to spring.
The Talmud recounts a story of another famous sage Rabbi Akiva, who picked an etrog (citron) on the first of Shvat. The Talmud notes that Akiva, separated a tithe in accordance of the opinion of the House of Hillel and an additional tithe in accordance with the House of Shammai.
The Talmud struggles with Akiva’s choice to honor both opinions even characterizing such behavior as the “act of fools.” The traditional approach to law is to be decisive. Identify your teacher and follow him/her in practice, not juggle a thesis and counter-thesis.
In another mishnaic narrative (Rosh Hashana 2:8-9), Rabbi Akiva appears to advocate for this decisive voice, employing a need for submission and order. Amidst a debate concerning the acceptance of a witness testifying about his sighting of the new moon to establish the new month, a rabbinic dispute emerged between the head of the academy and another one of the leading rabbinic figures. The academy head sent a clear message insisting that his junior scholar concede his perspective and outwardly demonstrate his obedience to the determination established by the academy head. As the Talmud describes the angst and pain of the scholar’s struggle to forgo what he believes to be the correct decision, Rabbi Akiva surfaces. Rabbi Akiva urges the scholar to acquiesce explaining that the need for a systematic determinate by the collective of the people (led by the academy) is the truth. Heralding Rabbi Akiva’s advice, the scholar does in fact concede.
The contrast of these two images of Rabbi Akiva, once pluralist and once absolutist, is striking. In both cases, Rabbi Akiva stands outside of a rabbinic dispute calculating a procedural response. When establishing a uniform date for a national synchronized calendar month, Rabbi Akiva insists upon decisive and unwavering action. However, with regard to a personal allocation of his own resources either to the needs of others or to investing into his own development, he chose to heed both.
As Akiva himself advises in Pirkei Avot, 3:15, הַכֹּל צָפוּי, וְהָרְשׁוּת נְתוּנָה, וּבְטוֹב הָעוֹלָם נִדּוֹן “Everything is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is granted, And the world is judged with goodness.” Much around us is predetermined, but the capacity to make personal choices also abounds — the environment that we live in is shaped by the graciousness that we offer.
On the first of Shvat, as Akiva picks his etrog, he dedicates the uncertainty of these two weeks from the first to the 15th of the month as a time to embrace competing values. A time where one can choose to overextend a generosity of self to dedicate a portion to invest in one’s own spiritual trek and also set attend to those in need. Choice is granted, the world is judged by its goodness. Err on the side of goodness.