YomTov, Vol. I, # 65
Tu B'Shvat, The New Year for Trees
by Rabbi Yehudah Prero
The first Mishna in the tractate of Rosh HaShanah tells us that there are
four "new years." One of these is the new year for trees. The Mishna tells us
that the school of Shammai said that the new year for trees is on the first
day of the month of Sh'vat, while the school of Hillel said that it is on the
15th day of Sh'vat. We follow the opinion of the school of Hillel, and we
therefore celebrate the new year for trees on the 15th of Sh'vat, which this
year is February 5. The holiday is called Tu B'Shvat because "Tu" is the
pronunciation of the numeral 15 when spelled out (the letter "tes" and the
letter "vav."). Hence, Tu B'Shvat means the 15th of Sh'vat.
What significance does a new year have for trees? For what purposes does the
year start on the 15th of Sh'vat for trees? The new year for trees can be
analogized to the beginning of a fiscal year. There are a series of
commandments relating to crops, produce, and harvests that are only
practiced in the land of Israel. (Nowadays, when the Temple is not in
existence, we observe some of these commandments differently than that which
will described here. However, the observance of these commandments is still
mandatory.) After grains and fruit are gathered, there is a mandatory gift
called "Terumah" that must be given to any person who is a Kohain, a
"priest." After this gift is given, there are then a series of gifts that can
be generalized under the term "Ma'aser," meaning "a tenth." The first of
these gifts is called "Ma'aser Rishon" - The First Tenth. This gift,
consisting of 1/10th of the harvest, is given by the farmer to any member of
the tribe of Levi after the "Terumah" has been taken. After this gift has
been given to the Levi, there are two other Ma'aser gifts, only one of which
is taken in a any particular year. (There is a system that dictates which
Ma'aser is given in which year). The first of these "gifts" is called
"Ma'aser Sheni" - The Second Tenth. This "gift" consists of 1/10 of the
remaining crops, and it is to be taken by the owner of the field to Jerusalem
to be eaten there. The other "Ma'aser" is "Ma'aser Ani" - The Tenth of the
Poor. This "gift" consists of 1/10th of the remaining crops, and it is to be
given to poor people.
We have taken for granted that when these gifts are given, they consist of
wholly formed, ripened, and harvested produce. We all know that the
agricultural seasons for planting and harvesting do not usually coincide with
the beginning and end of our calendar. As these gifts are gifts of produce
which depend on a yearly cycle (as each "year's" harvest is subject to these
gifts, in addition to the fact that the gift may differ from year to year, as
mentioned above), a definition of a "year" is needed so we know the cut-off
point for inclusion of the produce in a specific year, and hence subject to a
specific year's gift requirement. The beginning of the agricultural year for
trees as far as these gifts go is the 15th of Sh'vat - the New Year for
Trees. For example: The present Jewish year is 5756. If a fruit was formed on
the tree before the 15th of Sh'vat 5756, it is included with all fruits that
were formed from the 15 Sh'vat 5755 until 15 Sh'vat 5756. If the fruit was
formed after Sh'vat 15, 5756, it is included with the fruits formed from 15
Sh'vat 5756 until 15 Sh'vat 5757 for purposes of determining to which year's
gift it will be subject. This is the significance of the New Year for Trees.
Another question still remains: Why is this new year in the month of Sh'vat?
The Gemora in the tractate of Rosh HaShanah tells us that by this point in
the year, the majority of the rainfall to come during the year has already
arrived. Therefore, the trees have already started to grow, and this is the
time when fruits begin forming on the trees. Because the fruits begin to
grow at this time, it is fitting that we start the New Year for trees (which
has significance to the fruits produced and the gifts the fruit are subject
to) at this time.
In Shulchan Aruch Orech Chayim 131, which discusses the days on which we do
not say Tachanun (a special prayer of supplications which is not recited on
joyous days), we find that Tu B'Shvat is one of those festive days on which
we do not recite the Tachanun prayer. Commenting on this law, the Magen
Avraham writes that "The custom in Ashkenaz is to increase the consumption of
different types of fruits on this day," in honor of the significance of the
day to trees and their fruits. This is a custom which many people keep
nowadays, using fruits which the Torah mentions in conjunction with the land
of Israel: grapes, figs, pomegranates, and dates.
The B'nai Yesaschar writes of another custom which is alluded to in the
Mishna which tells us about the New Year for Trees. The Mishna calls the new
year "Rosh HaShana L'Ilan," The New Year for a Tree. Why did the Mishna refer
to "tree" in the singular rather then in the plural? Why wasn't the new year
called "Rosh HaShana L'Ilanot," The New Year for Trees? The answer, the
B'nai Yesaschar writes, stems from something our sages have told us: On Tu
B'Shvat, we should pray that come next Sukkot, we are able to acquire a
beautiful and kosher Esrog, so we can fulfill the commandment of taking that
one on the Four Species to the fullest. (For more information on the taking
of the Four Species on Sukkos, see Vol. I, # 47 ). This is alluded to by the
Mishna's use of the word "tree" in the singular: THE tree that we need in
order to fulfill a commandment begins its new year, and in order to assure
that we can obtain the fruit of THAT tree, we should pray for it on this day.
Check out all of the posts on Tu B'Shvat. Head over to
http://www.torah.org/learning/yomtov/ to access the YomTov Page.
Then click on the icon for the holiday of your choice.
For questions, comments, and topic requests, please write to Rabbi Yehudah Prero.
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