Talk­ing Tu Bish­vat

The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - JUDAISM - LEVI COOPER

Tu Bish­vat, the 15th of the month Sh­vat, is in­deed com­ing: hag la-ilanot (the hol­i­day of – or for – the trees). In Is­rael peo­ple will be busy plant­ing – or buy­ing cer­tifi­cates for – trees. Maybe it re­ally should be called “the hol­i­day of Keren Kayemeth [LeIs­rael],” the time when that in­sti­tu­tion takes the spot­light and ben­e­fits from in­creased con­tri­bu­tions. This plant­ing of trees is a mod­ern idea, a Zion­ist in­ven­tion that re­ally caught on and trans­formed Tu Bish­vat com­pletely. Some peo­ple may also be busy buy­ing fruits of the land to eat that day and may even have a Tu Bish­vat Seder – eat­ing fruits, drink­ing wine and some­how cel­e­brat­ing the land in a cus­tom that sprang up through the in­flu­ence of Kab­bal­is­tic writ­ings.

What is ac­tu­ally the ori­gin of this day – which is re­ally not a ‘hol­i­day’ at all, just a date on the cal­en­dar?

Tu Bish­vat is not men­tioned in the To­rah or else­where in the Bi­ble. It is found first at the very be­gin­ning of Mish­nah Rosh HaShanah where there is a list of four dif­fer­ent “New Year” times – a New Year on the first of Nisan for the reign of kings and for the fes­ti­vals, a New Year in Elul for the tithe given for cat­tle, the New Year for the year it­self in Tishrei, the New Year for trees on the first of Sh­vat, i.e. for tithing the fruit of the trees ac­cord­ing to the House of Sham­mai.

The House of Hil­lel says that it is on the 15th of Sh­vat. That date is un­usual, since all the oth­ers are on the first day of the month and re­quires some ex­pla­na­tion. Prof. Louis Ginzberg, the great Tal­mud­ist, sug­gested that this re­flected the eco­nomic sta­tus of the two houses. Hil­lel rep­re­sented the poorer peo­ple and Sham­mai the richer ones. The trees of the wealthy were planted in ar­eas where they blos­somed ear­lier, there­fore it made sense to start their year ear­lier on the first. Hil­lel’s fol­low­ers were lo­cated in places that were higher and colder and bloomed later, there­fore it was nat­u­ral for them to count them only from the 15th. The Mishna does not give any rea­son for their dis­agree­ment, how­ever, and some au­thor­i­ties, like Rabbi Akiva, were not even cer­tain which date was re­ally taught by the House of Hil­lel (see Tal­mud Rosh HaShanah, 14b).

In any case, it is ab­so­lutely clear that the new year for the trees in Sh­vat has noth­ing to do with plant­ing trees. It re­fers only to the date reg­u­lat­ing when we be­gin count­ing the year in which trees bear fruit and not with the eat­ing of the fruit. It is not even a hol­i­day, just a date for the de­ter­mi­na­tion of what year the fruit can be used for tithing. Akiva and the other Sages liv­ing in those times would not have known what you were talk­ing about if you sug­gested go­ing out to plant a tree at that time or sit­ting down to a spe­cial meal on that day. That par­tic­u­lar cus­tom was in­sti­tuted by the 16th cen­tury kab­bal­ists of Safed who taught, among other things, that eat­ing those fruits would nul­lify the bad ef­fects of Adam and Eve eat­ing the fruit from the Tree of Knowl­edge.

Plant­ing, as was al­ready men­tioned, was an in­ven­tion of early 20th cen­tury Zion­ism. The land of Is­rael was prac­ti­cally de­void of trees at that time and turn­ing Tu Bish­vat into a kind of Arbor Day was a great way to tackle that prob­lem and re­mains so even to­day.

Re­cently, at­tempts have been made by Jewish groups con­cerned with en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues – surely one of the most vex­ing prob­lems of our age even if some prom­i­nent lead­ers try to deny it – to use this day as a time to teach Ju­daism’s po­si­tion con­cern­ing care for the earth, for the en­vi­ron­ment, for na­ture. They stress the fact that when God places Adam in the gar­den of Eden, He does so that Adam – the hu­man be­ing – will “till it and tend it” (Ge­n­e­sis 2:15). The He­brew root for ‘tend’ is sh-m-r, which means to guard and care for.

That is what en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cern is all about – guard­ing and car­ing for this planet, which is our home. Is it a stretch to make that part of the ob­ser­vance of Tu Bish­vat? No more so than eat­ing fruit or plant­ing trees – and cer­tainly as im­por­tant.

What is re­ally cru­cial is not what we make of the day of Tu Bish­vat, but what we make of our world all year long – our care of this won­der­ful planet that sus­tains life but that can be ru­ined by our care­less­ness. Our planet is in dan­ger from the de­lib­er­ate ac­tions taken by com­mer­cial in­ter­ests who are more con­cerned with mak­ing prof­its from oil, coal, au­to­mo­biles, and so on than with the preser­va­tion of life on earth. Also prob­lem­atic are lead­ers who kow­tow to these in­ter­ests ei­ther out of ig­no­rance or out of greed.

So how will you cel­e­brate Tu Bish­vat this year? Plant­ing trees, eat­ing fruit, hav­ing a spe­cial seder, tend­ing to the en­vi­ron­ment – or per­haps all of the above? ■

[Tu Bish­vat] re­fers only to the date reg­u­lat­ing when we be­gin count­ing the year in which trees bear fruit – and not with the eat­ing of the fruit

The writer, a for­mer pres­i­dent of the In­ter­na­tional Rab­bini­cal As­sem­bly and the found­ing di­rec­tor of the Schechter In­sti­tute, is a mem­ber of the Com­mit­tee on Jewish Law of the Rab­bini­cal As­sem­bly. A pro­lific au­thor, two of his books have re­ceived the Na­tional Jewish Book Coun­cil Award as the best work of schol­ar­ship of the year. His most re­cent book is Akiva: Life, Leg­end, Legacy (JPS).

(Marc Is­rael Sellem)

DRIED FRUITS for sale at Jerusalem’s Ma­haneh Ye­huda mar­ket, in prepa­ra­tion for Tu Bish­vat.

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