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Teaching of the Trees

by | Jan 14, 2011

The fifteenth
day of Shevat, Tu B’Shevat, is called the New Year for Trees. Strictly
speaking, this title draws a legal distinction related to the laws of
tithing in the Land of Israel. Tithes must be separated from any
produce grown in Israel before it may be eaten. In a given year, the
fruit taken as tithe from one tree may represent the owner’s other
trees of the same species. However one year’s fruit may not be tithe
for another year’s harvest.

Tradition teaches the new year for fruit begins on the fifteenth of
Shevat, because most of the winter rains will have passed and the sap
of the new growth has begun to flow: the dormant tree is waking from
its winter sleep. A tree that blossoms before Tu B’Shevat is considered
last year’s produce; if it blossoms after Tu B’Shevat, it belongs to
the new year.

Other than the day’s significance for tithing, there is no source in
the Talmud or Midrash for celebrating Tu B’Shevat. Yet from later
sources we find many customs regarding the celebration of Tu B’Shevat:
the practice of eating various fruits; the custom of dressing in one’s
Shabbos finery for the new year for trees, because the Torah compares
the human being to a tree (Deuteronomy 21:19).

Let us examine the comparison between man and trees in order to
understand the message on Tu B’Shevat for humankind.

The tree goes through cycles in its life. The heavy-laden tree of
summer empties itself of fruit in the autumn, and then slowly loses its
leaves, one by one. By winter time, the tree stands shorn of its
previous glory. For all purposes, it appears to have died.

But then comes Tu B’Shevat! In the midst of the cold winter days, when
all vegetation seems frozen or dead, the sap of the tree starts to flow
beneath the surface bark. Rising slowly from roots buried in the
hardened soil, the sap pushes its way up, pumping new life into
outstretched branches that reach towards the heavens.

In life, we too often go through cycles of growth. Periods of renewal
and growth may alternate with times of stagnation or dormancy. Rabbi
Shlomo Wolbe cites that this cycle is part of man’s nature. He adds
that a person must not become disillusioned when spiritual growth seems
halted; the “low” period will usually be followed by a “high” period
that will yield new opportunities for growth.

That is the message of Tu B’Shevat: Even when we feel lethargic, in a
rut, and seem to have lost the drive to achieve, we must not despair.
Just as winter is an annual hiatus in the life cycle of trees, so bouts
of lethargy and unproductivity are necessary phases in the human cycle.
Just as with the coming of spring, life-giving sap moves imperceptibly
through the trees to branches stretching to the sky, so we too will
have renewed energy from deep within our spiritual reservoirs, so long
as we set our goal heavenward.

There is another message in the New Year for Trees. Rabbi Gedaliah
Schorr points to a difference between trees and annual plants. Although
trees require some regular maintenance, they produce fruit each year
without any new planting. Plants and vegetables, on the other hand,
must be reseeded each year in order to grow.

If a tree is not given proper care, however, it will die. Man, says
Rabbi Schorr, is like the tree. With good maintenance, we need not
start over from the very beginning with each goal we set for ourselves.
We can build on past accomplishments to go even further. But, as with
the tree, we require the proper care to avoid spiritual damage and to
grow anew.

Tu B’Shevat inspires us to remember our similarity to the tree. We must
be careful to protect ourselves, in order to strive towards greater
achievements without having to constantly start over again from

Excerpted from “Power
Lines” – insights and reflections on the Jewish holidays. Published by:
Targum Press,
Reprinted with permission
from InnerNet