Tu BeShevat and the Message from the Trees

    February 2009            
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Tu B'Shvat is here

By Avi Lazerson

In the tractate of the Mishnah called Rosh HaShanah mention is made of four Rosh HaShannahs. The first one is the Rosh HaShanah for the holidays and for kings; this is the first of Nissan. It is the Rosh HaShanah for the counting of the Jewish holidays; Passover is the first in the sequence of counting. It is also the beginning for kings, meaning that documents dated in a year of the reign of a king are numbered according to the first of Nissan.

The first of Elul is Rosh HaShanah for tithes and new born animals. The first of Tishre is the Rosh HaShannah not only as we know for the numbering of years, but also for the Sabbatical years – this is the seventh year of rest and also for the fiftieth year, which is the year of the Jubilee.

According to the academy of Shami, the first of Shevat is the Rosh HaShanah for trees; the academy of Hillel says that it is on the fifteenth of Sh'vat. They argue as to the time that a tree is considered to gain another year from its planting. The importance of this date concerns orlah, the ban on eating fruits from a tree during the first three years of its growth and also in regards to tithes of the fruits. We, of course, follow the teaching of Hillel.

Yet Tu B'Shvat does not stop there. There is a comparison between a tree and a man as it is written in the Torah, "For (is) man like a tree of the field…" (Deuteronomy 20:19) We see that indeed, men are like trees in several ways and that there is something very important we can learn from trees.

Man is the most prominent and impressive of the animal world, these beings that breathe and move about on the earth; the tree is the most prominent and impressive of that which grows from the earth. Trees are constantly growing – even when it looks as if they are in hibernation in the winter; the tree's roots are absorbing water and drawing it into the tree in order that the tree can give fruit later in the year.

A man must be like a tree in this respect. Even when he appears at rest, even if he is finished with schooling, he must continue to grow; he must continue to become greater than what he is. He must strive to improve.

Man's fruits are his good deeds. His good deeds are only in accord to the Torah that he learns and absorbs in his being. After a person learns what is good and what is evil, then he can be good and avoid evil. His good deeds are his fruits.

Fruits on trees have pits and it is from these pits come more trees and, of course, from these pits come more fruits – with the condition that the tree takes on water; with out water the tree will die. The same is true of man, without water, which is for man Torah, he can not grow. Without Torah there can be no good deeds. But when a man studies the Torah, even though at the time we see no change, the change will come. Like the tree the change is barely perceptible, but change comes. With the Torah there are good deeds, these good deeds cause others to do good deeds, there is an increase of good deeds in the world, and there is an increase in goodness in the world.

Just like a tree grows each day, a man must grow each day. Each day he should set aside time for learning. Like a large trees expands and provides shade for others, so too, one who has learnt much should give from his learning to others.

On the fifteenth of Shevat, it is customary to eat lots of fruits – especially the fruits that recall the praises of the Land of Israel. These fruits are: grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates.

Remember to honor the Torah and G-d by making a blessing before and afterwards too. Many people have also the custom that on the fifteenth of Sh'vat to eat carobs, which are called in Yiddish boxen. Stories are told of sages who lived their life eating carobs and learning Torah. We are fortunate that we live at a time of plenty, but we remember their self-sacrifice by tasting the carob and thanking G-d that we can eat other foods also.

Another custom that came from Europe is that on the fifteenth of Sh'vat the teachers would take their children out to the fields to see the trees and look to see if they were budding yet. In Israel there is a custom of planting trees to build up the land.

Either way, what ever you decide to do, make certain that you take with you the message of Tu BeShavat and share it with some one else. It is a good thing that only gets better when it is shared.


from the Februrary 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine