David Walk

Tu B’shvat–It’s a Date!

I love fruit! My first bite everyday is into a seasonal fruit, peaches in the summer and oranges in the winter. As a matter of fact, my first drink everyday also is a tree derivative, oh those coffee beans! So, it is with great appreciation that I commemorate Tu B’shvat, New Year for the trees.

Tu B’shvat is a bit of a chameleon. It has changed its character many times throughout Jewish history. Its story began, apparently, during the period of the Men of the Great Assembly, as the calendar date for dividing our TERUMOT and MA’ASAROT into fiscal years. A tree crop appearing before this date was part of last year’s reckoning, afterwards any fruit is for the next year’s gifts.

Sadly, over the centuries there were fewer and fewer Jewish farmers in the Holy Land, and this once proud date could have faded from our attention if it weren’t for the mystics of Tzfat. In the closing years of the sixteenth century, these great Jewish thinkers reinvented Tu B’shvat. They inaugurated a mystical Tu B’shvat Seder, which celebrated the holiness and spiritual significance of the different types of fruit. 

But Jews started returning to Eretz Yisrael in the nineteenth century, and began rediscovering the importance of agriculture in the Holy Land. So, on Tu B’shvat in 1890 a religious educator in Zichron Ya’akov, Reb Ze’ev Yavitz, took his students out to plant trees. A totally new view of Tu B’shvat emerged! JNF (or KKL) jumped on that bandwagon, and tree planting then became the most popular Tu B’Shvat activity. 

However, Tu B’shvat wasn’t done changing its image. Today, many view this day as our Jewish version of earth day. There may be more young people cleaning parks and beaches than planting trees on Tu B’shvat nowadays.

Phew! That’s quite a few incarnations, but I’d like to focus on a famous debate about the date for this celebration of fruit bearing trees. Here’s the Mishneh:

There are four days in the year that serve as the New Year, each for a different purpose…On the first of Shevat is the New Year for the tree; this ruling is in accordance with the statement of Beit Shammai. But Beit Hillel say: The New Year for trees is on the fifteenth of Shevat (Rosh HaShana 2a).

So, what are those eternal disputants, Beit Shmai and Beit Hillel, debating? The most popular answer is that they were discussing rainfall. By which date had the majority of that year’s precipitation fallen? Was it the beginning of the month or the middle? However, once the ownership of this commemoration had passed to the mystics, more esoteric answers were demanded. I’d like to share the idea of the Pri Zadik (an appropriate name for the occasion), Reb Zadok of Lublin.

Reb Zadok affirms that Hillel and Shamai come from totally different starting places when observing this world. Shamai begins from the side of DIN (judgment or justice, left side in Kabbalah); Hillel’s perspective begins from RACHAMIM (compassion, perhaps empathy; the right side). Hillel is viewed as a member of Avraham Avinu’s Chesed (kindness) team, and Shmai belongs to the Yitzchak Gevurah (strength) squad. Both are impressive groups, but fundamentally observe the world in different ways.   

These radically different perspectives dictate why Beit Shamai tends to be MACHMIR or strict in his interpretations of Jewish Law, Halachah. Likewise, this phenomenon explains why the Beit Hillel side favors a MEIKIL or lenient approach to Halachah.

This also explains why Beit Shamai prefers Rosh Chodesh, when the moon is barely visible, and suggests a more apprehensive approach to the world. The darkness is scary and requires strict adherence to protocols, otherwise danger could ensue. 

On the other hand Beit Hillel prefers the fifteenth of the month when the moon is full, and light permeates the entire night. We don’t appreciate the power of the Full Moon in our light polluted modern world, but I’ve done night hikes in the desert, both in the army and just for fun. It is remarkable how much light the full moon provides when we are distant from the city’s bright light. It is possible to read most texts by the glow of a full moon.

In these differing approaches, Beit Shamai and Beit Hillel chose their New Year for Trees date not based upon technical hydrological measurements of rainfall, but on spiritual, mystical approaches to the world around us. The beauty and power of the trees around us derives from the spiritual roots and branches our trees spread forth.    

We metaphorically declare that ‘a human is the tree of the field’ (Devarim 20:19). In the PESHAT or literal approach that statement is a question, but in the Midrashic and Mystical world it is a statement: Trees and humans share important characteristics. So, Beit Shamai demands the care and concern which we feel when the nights are darkest; Beit Hillel prefers the security and joy engendered by the bright, full moon. It is no coincidence that the happiest days of our calendar all occur on the 15th of the Hebrew month: Sukkot, Pesach, Purim, Tu B’Av and, of course, Tu B’Shvat 

In Kabbalistic circles, our consumption of fruit from trees on the Rosh Hashanah for Trees is a TIKKUN (repair, improvement) for Adam and Eve’s sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. How do we achieve this TIKKUN? Beit Shamai says through the awe and fear experienced on Rosh Hashanah the YOM HADIN (day of judgment) when the moon is dim; Beit Hillel says through the joy and sense of security which the full moon engenders in those romantics who gaze upwards to the heavens.

It should come as no surprise that we call this commemoration of nature by its date. It combines a celebration of the full moon with the appreciation of trees and their fruit.

The world of Jewish Law has followed the teaching and philosophy of Beit Hillel. Enjoy Tu B’Shvat and joyously appreciate the fruits of God’s world around us. Celebrate nature! And eat some fruit, too.

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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