Day­ofeat­ingfruit—and en­joy­ing a lit­tle taste of Eden

The Jewish Chronicle - - JUDAISM - BY RABBI DAVID LIS­TER

THE MONTH of She­vat is a month of end­ings. Nisan was the first month in the Jewish cal­en­dar (Ex­o­dus 12:2), and Tevet was the tenth month. Ten in Ju­daism in­di­cates com­plete­ness, as in the Ten Plagues, Ten Com­mand­ments, Ten Days of Pen­i­tence. So She­vat, the eleventh month, seems to be the month of re­tire­ment, a time to look back on work done but not a time to do more. The weather for this time of year seems to com­ple­ment this sen­ti­ment. Jan­uary, when She­vat falls, is the middle of the cold­est spell of the year in the north­ern hemi­sphere. Gar­den­ers can­not cul­ti­vate at this time and sim­ply take de­fen­sive mea­sures against frost dam­age, wind, a lack of light, heavy rain and snow. Many mam­mals and in­sects are in hi­ber­na­tion. In She­vat, the liv­ing world it­self seems to be tak­ing a rest.

Yet the Jewish ap­proach to She­vat is ac­tu­ally con­flicted. Tu Bish­vat, the fif­teenth of She­vat, is fa­mously not an end­ing but a be­gin­ning: the New Year for Trees. Ex­actly which tithes are of­fered from Is­raeli pro­duce is de­ter­mined by whether fruit ripens on the bough be­fore or af­ter Tu Bish­vat, the fif­teenth of She­vat.

Fur­ther­more, Rashi says (in his com­men­tary on Rosh Hashanah 12a) that on Tu Bish­vat the sap be­gins to rise in the trees.

How do we rec­on­cile th­ese two phe­nom­ena? How can the month of ces­sa­tion be also a month of new be­gin­nings?

The an­swer lies in the ques­tion it­self, be­cause there is a de­lib­er­ate am­bi­gu­ity here. She­vat presents us with a choice about end­ings. What do we do when we fin­ish a task?

It may be as sim­ple as putting away the fi­nal cup af­ter wash­ing the dishes, or as mas­sive as re­tir­ing at the end of a suc­cess­ful ca­reer; as joy­ous as a fam­ily wed­ding, or as heart-break­ing as bury­ing a loved one.

One ap­proach is to look back with sat­is­fac­tion or fond re­gret on the com­plete­ness of what has been ac­com­plished and then sim­ply stop. This is the She­vat of the eleventh month, of the iron grip of win­ter. It is a time of con­clu­sion.

An­other ap­proach is to see ev­ery end­ing as an­other be­gin­ning. What new pro­ject will build on the tri­umphant ac­com­plish­ment of its pre­de­ces­sor? Buoyed by the vigour and hap­pi­ness of suc­cess, what can we now at­tain? What courage can we sum­mon to build a new fu­ture with­out a loved one by our side?

As a rule, Jews choose life. Moses said: “I call heaven and earth to wit­ness against you this day, that I have set be­fore you life and death, bless­ing and curse; there­fore choose life… to love the Lord your God, to hear­ken to His voice and to be close to Him; for that is your life, and the length of your days” (Deuteron­omy 30:19 – 20).

The tra­di­tional cel­e­bra­tion of Tu Bish­vat nudges us in this di­rec­tion in the most beau­ti­ful way.

Kab­bal­ists have long marked Tu Bish­vat by eat­ing dif­fer­ent fruits on the day. This can be taken sim­ply as an ex­pres­sion of the He­brew date com­bined with fruit from trees be­cause Tu Bish­vat is the new year for fruit trees. But we can un­der­stand this more deeply.

Let us think back to the ul­ti­mate mo­ment of hu­man youth. Adam and Eve had just been cre­ated. They stood in the most pris­tine pu­rity, fash­ioned by God Him­self, poised to do His bid­ding in the Gar­den of Eden. God wel­comed His chil­dren to His ta­ble and in­vited them to en­joy His bounty: “From ev­ery tree in the gar­den you may surely eat” (Gen­e­sis 2:16).

In fact, the num­ber 15 de­notes plen­i­tude. It is bor­rowed from the fif­teenth of the month, when the moon is com­pletely round and its del­i­cate sil­very ra­di­ance is most bril­liant, de­not­ing the cul­mi­na­tion of the di­vine gifts of­fered to us in that month. Suc­cot and Pe­sach also be­gin on the fif­teenth of their re­spec­tive months and the Pe­sach Seder has 15 stages. There are 15 Shir Hama’alot, Psalms of As­cent (Psalms 120–134).

So 15 fruits re­ally means fruit granted with a full hand, as in the Gar­den of Eden.

Per­haps when we eat the 15 fruits on Tu Bish­vat and marvel at their dif­fer­ent colours, shapes, tex­tures and shapes, we are trans­ported in a small way back to Eden.

We cel­e­brate and savour the mo­men­tary un­sul­lied youth of hu­man­ity it­self, and pro­claim to our­selves and all who will lis­ten that we choose life, that we have great things to achieve still be­fore us, and that we will move on from the aged­ness to the youth­ful spirit of new achieve­ment. By that choice we claim for our­selves the prize of eter­nal youth even in ex­treme old age.

Tu Bish­vat is upon us. What will you choose?

Kab­bal­ists have long marked Tu Bish­vat by eat­ing dif­fer­ent fruits

David Lis­ter is rabbi of Edg­ware United Syn­a­gogue

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