TU B’SHEVAT: THE NEW YEAR FOR TREES!
In the middle of the Hebrew month of Shevat is Tu B’Shevat. Tu B’Shevat marks the new year for trees. While this may strike us as an unusual concept, the day was first established to help determine which fruits would be eligible for tithing throughout the upcoming year. That is, Tu B’Shevat is directly connected to the land of Israel and the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
The Hebrew calendar notes four separate new years! We read about the four distinct new years in the opening paragraph of Talmud Tractate Rosh HaShana:
"They are four days in the year that serve as the New Year, each for a different purpose: On the first of Nisan is the New Year for kings; it is from this date that the years of a king’s rule are counted. And the first of Nisan is also the New Year for the order of the Festivals, as it determines which is considered the first Festival of the year and which the last. On the first of Elul is the New Year for animal tithes; all the animals born prior to that date belong to the previous tithe year and are tithed as a single unit, whereas those born after that date belong to the next tithe year. Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Shimon say: The New Year for animal tithes is on the first of Tishrei. On the first of Tishrei is the New Year for counting years, as will be explained in the Gemara; for calculating Sabbatical Years and Jubilee Years, i.e., from the first of Tishrei there is a biblical prohibition to work the land during these years; for planting, for determining the years of orla, the three-year period from when a tree has been planted during which time its fruit is forbidden; and for tithing vegetables, as vegetables picked prior to that date cannot be tithed together with vegetables picked after that date. On the first of Shevat is the New Year for the tree; the fruit of a tree that was formed prior to that date belong to the previous tithe year and cannot be tithed together with fruit that was formed after that date; 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 [Tu B'Shevat]."
Concerning the new year for trees, Jews follow the ruling of Beit Hillel: the new year for trees is on Tu B’Shevat.
The 15th of Shevat is not an arbitrary date, but is predicated on the deep mystical notion that it marks the beginning of the revitalization of arboreal life in Israel. Tu B’Shevat is the day that the sap begins to rise and the very first stirrings of not yet formed buds begin to be felt. It is nature’s first anticipation of the upcoming springtime. Of course, all life, whether in trees or in humans, finds its source in G-d’s benevolence, and, in maintaining faith with Deuteronomy’s statement that “Man is a tree of the field" (20:19) our sages have come to recognize that Tu B’Shevat not only marks a rebirth for trees, but also for us human folk! Somewhere in the dead of winter, when skies are grey and days are bitter cold, a spirit goes out, informing tree and man alike, that new life, new hopes, new dreams and new beginnings beckon us! In Israel we celebrate Tu B’Shevat by blessing and partaking of the seven symbols of the land’s bounty mentioned by Torah: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates. Some of a more mystical bend turn their Tu B’Shevat repast into a Seder, reminiscent of the Passover Seder, replete with special blessings, prayers and the reciting of Torah verses. It is considered a propitious moment for making prayers concerning the year ahead, and many people do so.
- With the mass ingathering of the Jewish exiles which began during the second half of the 19th century, and the reintroduction of Jewish agriculture in the land of Israel, new Tu B’Shevat customs sprang up. Tu B’Shevat became a day to celebrate the land of Israel coming back to life after long centuries of barren neglect. In the Talmud Tractate Sanhedrin our sages are discussing what will be the heavenly signs that the redemption of Israel is near. “Rabbi Abba says: You have no more explicit manifestation of the end of days than this following phenomenon, as it is stated: “But you, mountains of Israel, you shall give your branches, and yield your fruit to My people of Israel, for they will soon be coming” (Ezekiel 36:8). When produce will grow in abundance in the Land of Israel, it is an indication that the Messiah will be coming soon!” The pre-state kibbutzim (agricultural collectives), while mainly secular in nature, nevertheless imbibed the spirit of Jewish redemption and marked Tu B’Shevat with colorful celebrations, parading the bounty of the fields on tractor drawn wagons.
Another modern day observance of Tu B’Shevat in the land of Israel is the planting of trees, (with the exception of shemittah - sabbatical - years). Israel is the only nation on earth today that contains more trees upon its territory than it did 100 years ago. Today we know how essential trees are for the preservation of life on earth.
Quoted above is the verse from Deuteronomy 20:19 stating that “Man is a tree of the field." Like a tree, a man is strongest whose roots are deepest and most wide spread, so that he can endure the storms in life that would lay low a lesser man. Like a tree man reaches upward, aspiring heavenward toward our Creator, basking in His life giving light and seeking His salvation. Like a tree man blesses his fellow man with the fruits of his labors, and with these fruits likewise makes offerings unto HaShem.
Tu B’Shevat is the new year for trees, but truly it is a new year for all of us. This year Tu B’Shevat begins on Sunday evening, January 16th and concludes Monday evening, January 17th. This Tu B’Shevat, in the spirit of rebirth and rejuvenation, say a heartfelt prayer for a good year ahead, and let the cosmic energy of Tu B’Shevat lift you up! Tu B’Shevat sameach – happy Tu B’Shevat!
TITHING OF FRUITS IN THE LAND OF ISRAEL
The following tithes apply to fruit grown in the land of Israel:
Ma’aser Rishon - the first tithe: a tenth of one’s crop is brought to the kohanim and Levi’im.
“And to the descendants of Levi, I have given all tithes of Israel as an inheritance, in exchange for their service which they perform-the service of the Tent of Meeting.” (Numbers 18:21)
Ma’aser Sheni - the first tithe: One brings his tithed produce (and livestock) to Jerusalem to eat them in purity in the Holy Temple:
“You shall tithe all the seed crop that the field gives forth, year by year. And you shall eat before HaShem, your G-d, in the place He chooses to establish His Name therein, the tithes of your grain, your wine, and your oil, and the firstborn of your cattle and of your sheep, so that you may learn to fear HaShem, your G-d, all the days.” (Deuteronomy 14:22–23)
Neta Reva'i: the Torah commandment to bring fourth-year fruit crops to Jerusalem as a tithe:
"When you come to the Land and you plant any food tree, you shall refrain from harvesting its fruit for three years, not to be eaten. And in the fourth year, all its fruit shall be holy, a praise to HaShem." (Leviticus 19:23-24)
Ma’aser Ani - tithe to the poor: Ma’aser Ani was a tithe given to the poor and to the Levites, who had no portion in the land, on the third and sixth year of every seven year sabbatical cycle::
"And as for the Levite who is in your cities you shall not forsake him, for he has neither portion nor inheritance with you. At the end of three years, you shall take out all the tithe of your crop in that year and place it in your cities. And the Levite because he has no portion or inheritance with you and the stranger, and the orphan, and the widow, who are in your cities, will come and eat and be satisfied; so that HaShem, your G-d, will bless you in all the work of your hand that you will do." (Deuteronomy 14:27–29)
These commandments of ma’aser (literally, tithing) are still observed today in Israel, albeit in a fashion that takes into account the current reality of no Holy Temple.
The prohibition of eating from the fruit of tree less than a full three years old, known as Orlah is also observed today by many in Israel.