Why the mystics connected Tu Bishvat with a bucket
Tu Bishvat is famous as the New Year for Trees. It falls on the fifteenth of the month of Shevat when the moon is full and the month is considered to be at its height. But what is Shevat itself all about? And what does it have to do with trees? One of our most ancient mystical works, the Sefer Yetzirah, traces a connection between each Jewish month and its mazal. Mazal means conduit, referring to the channelling of a particular heavenly influence down to us from the heavenly realm.
Perhaps we can understand this to mean that God’s interaction with the world changes with the passage of the months and the mazal for each month gives us a hint as to what our priorities are for that time.
The mazal for Shevat is the dli, a bucket for drawing water from a well. This is the context for Tu Bishvat, the celebration of the New Year for trees. There is another important connotation for the
mazal of dli. Various commentators on the Sefer Yetzirah (such as Rav Hai Gaon and the Ra’avad) understand that dli is also the mazal for the Jewish people.
What is the connection between a bucket, Shevat and us Jews?
The Chasidic master, the Bnai Yisaschar (Rabbi Zvi Elimelech Spira, 1783-1841), explains that the bucket is the mazal for the Jewish people because a bucket is used for drawing water and water is a biblical metaphor for Torah. Our mission as Jews is to study Torah and bring it to the world, like a bucket drawing water from a well.
We see this in the prophecy of Isaiah who depicts the Jewish people bringing water, symbolising Torah, for themselves and others (55:1–3): “Ah! You that are thirsty, come to the water… Incline your ears and come to Me, listen that your soul may live, and I will establish an eternal covenant with you…”
This association between the bucket and the Jewish people explains why drawing water features so often in our early history. Rebecca was identified as a wife for Isaac when she drew water for a servant’s camels (Genesis 24). When Jacob first met his future wife Rachel, he drew water for her sheep (Genesis 29: 10). After leaving Egypt, Moses drew water for the daughters of Jethro (Exodus 2:15–21).
These incidents can be understood metaphorically. The act of drawing water shows a readiness to draw on the real source of life, the Torah and pass it on to others. The leaders of our people were interested in learning and disseminating Torah teachings and this was the proper context in which the Jewish people would take their next step.
We understand the link between the Jewish people and the bucket. But what is the connection between Tu Bishvat, at the top of the month, and the bucket?
A deeper understanding of the New Year for Trees will help us. The Torah states that a human is like a tree of the field (Deuteronomy 20:19). Like trees, we are rooted in the earth but we stretch heavenward. Like trees, some people bear the fruit of knowledge and goodness, while others offer nothing. Just as trees take the goodness of the earth and transform it into fruit which sustains life, so people can take the physical things of the world and turn them into wisdom and a lifestyle that brings new hope and inspiration to others.
So on Tu Bishvat, when we give thanks for trees and eat their fruit, we are actually celebrating ourselves, our diversity and our good deeds.
The mazal of dli is eminently suitable as a backdrop for this celebration, because trees depend on water. Tu Bishvat reminds us that just as a tree needs water, so a human, symbolised by the tree, needs the water of Torah. Just as a tree withers and dies without water, so the human soul becomes parched and moribund without the spiritual nourishment of God’s word.
This idea is of such moment in Judaism that it opens our most stirring national heirloom, the book of Psalms: “Happy is the man who does not walk in the council of the wicked… but his delight is in God’s Torah, and he meditates in His Torah by day and night. He will be like a tree planted on streams of water, which gives its fruit in its time” (Psalm 1:1-3).
The convergence of Tu Bishvat and the dli exhorts us to bring more Torah into our lives, as a subject for study and as a guide for life. It is the realisation of this vital idea which will make our celebration truly fruitful.
Just as a tree needs water, so a human needs the water of Torah ’