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January 14, 2011 / 8 Shevat, 5771

Tu B'shevat
Rabbi Charles Simon

Is Tu B'shevat really a holiday that is dedicated to the environment? Is that what we are supposed to learn when we particpate in a Tu B'Shevat seder? It's interesting how one can modify or magnify a festival by adding a specific overlay.

Tu B'shevat generally falls on the second full moon before Passover, or, in a leap year, the third full moon before Passover. In the 17th century, the kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchak Luria of Safed and his disciples instituted a Tu B'shevat seder and gave the fruits and trees of the Land of Israel symbolic meaning. The idea was that eating ten specific fruits and drinking four cups of wine in a specific order while reciting the appropriate blessings would bring human beings, and the world, closer to spiritual perfection. The origins of this minor festival are found in Tractate Rosh HaShana Chapter 1. The main source is the first Mishnah. But in order to understand it we need to learn the following:

According to Jewish Law one cannot harvest and eat the fruit grown from trees for the first three years they fruit. The fruit of the fourth year was eaten in the Temple and afterwards it was fair game. The fruit that was grown prior to and up to the completion of the three year cycle which took place on the 15th of Shevat was called Orlah. Orlah means “blocked” The fruit that was grown in the first three years was blocked (forbidden to be eaten). Orlah is still observed today.

A question arose when should the time for permitting fruit to be eaten occur? The organizers of the Mishnah determined that it should be the 15th of Shevat. The source for that decision is Masechet Rosh HaShana (the Talmudic volume Rosh HaShana) where we are told:

There are four New Years.

  1. The first of Nisan is the New Year for Kings and for Festivals;
  2. The first of Elul is the new year for the tithing of animals (Ma'aser) as reported in the name of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Simon ben Yohai
  3. The first of Tishre is the New year for the years, for Sabbatical Years, for Jubilee years, for planting and for vegetable tithing
  4. The first of Shevat is the New Year for Trees, according to the School of Shammai, but the School of Hillel claims, it should be the fifteenth of Shevat. (The School of Hillel wins)
rosh hashanah

Comments and explanation:

  1. There are four days in every year (counting both days of Rosh HaShana as one day) which are considered to be a “New Year's day.” Jewish Kings began their years on the first of Nisan. This means that the documents were dated from the beginning of Nisan. It also provided a context for people who need to fulfill vows and who counted the time between the three major Festivals, Sukkot, Passover and Shavout. For example, even though the custom of waiting for a year before one attends and recites the Yizkor prayer was instituted much much later, the idea of waiting until three festivals have been completed is a reflection of the way our ancestors accounted for time. Let's face it, when was the last time there was a Jewish King?
  2. One tenth of the animals born in any one year had to be separated as a tithe (Ma'aser). In Land of Israel most animals were born during the month of Av. Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Simon favored the first of Elul for counting the tithe. The tithe animals were taken by their owners and bar-b-qued by priests in the Temple in Jerusalem.
    Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Simon lived in the generation following the destruction of the Second Temple and were students of Rabbi Akiba. We can date them between 70 C.E. and 135 C.E. However, the Mishnah was organized approximately 75 years later, around 200 C.E. At that time their views were rejected and the time for calculating the tithes for cattle was changed to the beginning of Nisan. In other words the calendar year for Kings and documents and for tithes over a period of time came to be the same.
  3. The first of Tishre served as an agricultural high point. It was the time for the tithing of vegetables, grains peas, beans and any crops that had grown to at least one third of its projected height. Summer was ending and it was time to prepare for the Harvest. The harvest took place in Tishre.
  4. Finally a disagreement existed between the representatives of the House of Shammai and that of Hillel regarding the date for the New Year for Trees. Think Spring and consider that if fruit trees budded prior to the 1st of Shevat their fruit wouldn't be included in the tithe for that year and farmers had to wait for another year before they could use their fruit. It made more sense for both the priest and the farmer to wait as long as possible before including the fruit in a tithe and those favoring Hillel, who perhaps were farmers or more agriculturally connected, realized that it if the frost came late the fruit trees might bud later. Hoping for a better harvest they lobbied for an additional two weeks.

Tu b'shevat is gaining in popularity. It was envisioned by the mystics several hundred years ago and envisioned once again by our leaders who understood the need to forge a bond between the individual and the environment.

This lesson is an experiment. If you would like us to teach more mishnayot in this manner please let me know at rabbisimon@fjmc.org

This week's commentary was written by

Rabbi Charles Simon,
Executive Director of the FJMC and author of
"Building A Successful Volunteer Culture: Finding Meaning in Service in the Jewish" Jewish Lights Publishing

The opinions expressed in this Unraveller are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the FJMC.

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