The Irony of Tu B’Shvat

This year, there is for us a particular irony with Tu B’Shvat (the fifteenth day of the Jewish month of Shvat, which falls this Wednesday, and is sometimes referred to as the Jewish Arbor Day). Like many, our shul celebrates with the fruits and foods of Israel. But this year, in preparing this celebration, we had to be careful that none of these foods actually come from Israel. Because this Jewish year is Shmittah – a Sabbatical Year. In Israel this year, the Torah tells us we may not plant, we may not harvest to sell for profit, we must allow everyone to freely come and take what grows on its own, and what grows on its own is holy – it has Kedushat Sheviit, the sanctity of the Sabbatical Year – and may not be exported out of Israel.

In Israel, many rely of the Heter Mechirah, the year-long sale of the Land of Israel to a non-Jewish person arranged by the Chief Rabbis, which then removes all trace of these laws (similar to selling Chometz to a non-Jew for Passover). In Israel today, the Halachic basis of this sale is complicated and controversial, with different scholars taking different positions and suggesting different solutions.

But outside of Israel, most Halachic authorities agree that for us, we may not make use of the leniency of Heter Mechirah, and we must refrain from all Israeli produce that is not grown in accordance with Shmittah laws. So this year, of course we must support Israel by visiting Israel, buying homes and moving to Israel, buying Israeli appliances, investing in Israeli companies and Israel Bonds, and many other ways – just not with Israeli fruits and vegetables subject to the laws of Shmittah. It’s ironic.

But there is actually a very deep connection between Tu B’Shvat and Shmittah that we should be aware of which is very relevant to us wherever we live.

The origin of Tu B’Shvat is a passage in the Mishneh, stating that the fifteenth of Shvat is the New Year for trees. Why do trees need a New Year? Because of the requirements of Maaser. (There is also Terumah, Maaser Sheni, etc. Here I will over-simplify and just refer to the 10% of Maaser by which I mean to allude to all the agricultural gifts with each of their amounts. How these Mitzvot are actually practiced in Israel today is a fascinating, lengthy topic for another time.) When a farmer in Israel gathers his/her crop, s/he is required to take 10% to support the Tribe of Levi (public servants) and the poor (social policy). The 10% must be taken from produce that grows in the same year as the rest of the crop. Thus, a fiscal year is needed to establish the beginning and end of the year, from whose crop Maaser must be taken. Tu B’Shvat is an accountant’s holiday.

But there is an interesting detail in the laws of taking Maaser. You might think, if you are a farmer in Israel, you gather your crop and it’s yours; you planted it, you harvested it, fresh raw fruits and vegetables are inherently Kosher – so you can eat it. And you also have an obligation to give the 10% – just like income tax.

But that is not correct. When you harvest fresh fruits and vegetables in Israel, right away they are Treif (the technical term is Tevel, but it has the same consequence) until you separate Maaser. If you would take this food and cook it in a pot, the pot would become Treif, and any other food cooked together with it would become Treif – just like pork and lobster.

(Parenthetically, this is very important for us to know when we visit Israel. Outside of Israel we know that fresh, raw, uncut fruits and vegetables are inherently Kosher and may be eaten without any Kashrut supervision. But in Israel even if it is not a Shmittah year, even fresh, raw, uncut fruits and vegetables need Kashrut supervision to make sure the laws of Maaser are fulfilled.)

The message of Maaser is: it may be your field, that you planted, and you harvested. But it’s not really yours. It belongs to God. Only after you do with it what God commands, for example by taking Maaser, does God give you permission to enjoy the rest. Before that, it’s Treif.

And that is precisely the message of Shmittah, about which God tells us in the Torah: “Ki Li HaAretz – The earth is Mine.” And once every seven years we have a year-long reminder that God created the earth, it belongs to Him, and He allows us to use it and enjoy it – with conditions. The underlying message of Shmittah is precisely the same as the underlying message of Maaser, which is the reason for Tu B’Shvat. The deepest, most authentic way to celebrate Tu B’Shvat is to reflect on that message, and let it affect the way we live our lives.

My grandfather used to quote President Abraham Lincoln: “Nearly all men can withstand adversity. If you want to test a man’s character, give him wealth.” This is the test and message of Shmittah and Tu B’Shvat – to understand where our wealth comes from and what responsibilities it places on us.

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Whitman is the spiritual leader of the ADATH (Adath Israel Poale Zedek Anshei Ozeroff Synagogue) in Hampstead, Quebec since August, 2001. He is also a Sessional Lecturer at McGill University Faculty of Law, and creator if its Talmudic Law Moot Court Competition. Rabbi Whitman serves on the boards of Auberge Shalom…pour femmes, Cote St. Luc / Hampstead / Snowdon Eruv, Westmount Eruv, Rabbinical Council Conversion Program, and (former Executive Board Member) Rabbinical Council of America. He is past president of the Rabbinical Council of Montreal and past president of the Greater Montreal Board of Rabbis. Rabbi Whitman served for fourteen years as the spiritual leader of Young Israel of New Haven, Connecticut, USA. During that time, he worked at Yale University Hillel and taught at Yale University Law School.
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