This Shabbos Parshas Beshalach Is Tu B’Shevat

What is Tu B’Shevat?

Any answer ought to start from the same place that all of our Jewish tradition flows from: Torah and Gemara.

The Torah doesn’t mention the date, but it is a subject in Mesechtas Rosh HaShana. In fact, the Gemara opens up with the following words:

“There are four new years. On the first of Nisan is the new year for kings and for festivals. On the first of Elul is the new year for the tithe of animals. R Eliazar and R Shimon say on the 1st of Tishrei. On the 1st of Tishrei is the New year for the years, for the shmitta (Sabbatical) and Yovel (Jubilee) years, for the sapling and for the vegetables. On the 1st of Shevat is the New Year for the tree according to Beis Shammai, Beis Hillel say on the 15th.”

O.K. So it’s a new year for trees. What does that tell us?

Well, tithing is a pretty important concept regarding produce in Israel. Without getting into all the complications of it, suffice it to say that tithing is on a seven-year cycle (the seventh year is the “shmitta” year, where we are not allowed to grow anything in the land of Israel — btw, this year is a shmitta year), and different years require different tithes, and you are not allowed to pay the tithe of one year with produce from a different year.

Later in the Gemara (RH 14b), we read the following rule: “If one picked fruit from an esrog tree on the eve of the 15th of Shevat before the sun went down, and he then picked more of its fruit after the sun went down, we may not separate the tithes from one batch for the other… either from the new crop for the old or from the old crop for the new one…”

So, the 15th of Shevat marks the end and the beginning of the “fiscal year” for trees.

By the 11th century, we can read from the writings of Rebbenu Gershom (he is probably most well known as the one who issued the decree that a Jew may not marry two wives) that one may not fast on that day, just as we may not fast on Rosh HaShana.

By the 18th century we read in “Kaf HaChayim” that erev Tu B’Shevat there is a custom for special learning, for learning Mishna, Zohar, and to make blessings on fruits and eating it.

So, clearly, there is some religious significance to the day. But what is it?

Before we look into that question, we must digress and talk about Jewish holidays in general. Jewish tradition posits that time is both linear (we are progressing) and circular (that each time of the year has a spiritual similarity to the same point in the other years). And so, just like a place can be holy, a particular time, being simply another dimension, can be holy. Just like a place can have a certain attribute, a particular time can have a certain attribute.

To put it in larger terms, Jewish holidays are not a re-enactment of an event, or simly a memorial or remembrance of an event, but rather it celebrates an appropriate time for a particular aspect of human growth.

Let me give an example: The 10th of Tishrei (Yom Kippur), according to Jewish tradition, is a propitious time for atonement. In fact, that day is so spiritually full of atonement, that a Jew atones for his sins during the year simply by living through that day. (That doesn’t mean to blow off Yom Kippur, however — for Yom Kippur alone does not atone for sins committed onYom Kippur!) Thus, it is no coincidence that Hashem forgave the Jewish people for the sin of the golden calf on the 10th of Tishrei.

So now the question becomes: what is it about the 15th of Shevat and Trees that should relate to us?

Consider the following:

Trees are often a metaphor for humans. Many of us have heard the injunction that during war one may lay siege to a town, but one may not cut down the trees. The entire verse, Deut. 20:19, reads: “When you lay siege to a city for many days to capture it by making war against it, you shall not destroy its tree, wielding an axe against it; for you shall eat of it but not cut it down; for man is a tree of the field…”

Man is a tree?

(I should hasten to point out that halachically speaking, and you can see in this verse where it comes from, that one is only prohibited from cutting down trees that bear fruit!)

In Mesechtas Ta’anit (7a) we read: Rabbi Zeira explained the strange verse “Ki ha’Adam Eitz ha’Sadeh” (for a man is a tree in the field) with the seemingly contradictory verse there “Ki Mimenu Sochel, ve’Oso Lo Sichros” (for you shall eat of it and not cut it down) — that if he is a worthy teacher, then eat from him (learn from him). Otherwise, destroy him and cut him down.

Others consider the fruit of one’s “tree” as the mitzvos that we do.

And, indeed, trees are often a metaphor for Torah. The most famous expression of this is in Proverbs (3:18): “It is a tree of life for those who hold fast to it.”

I’d like to bring in one other tradition about Shevat:

In Jewish tradition, the entire book of Deuteronomy was Moshe’s last speech, and he gave it over the last 5 weeks of his life. Tradition posits that he started on the 1st of Shevat. It is said that the average person who was there and listening to it began to feel spiritual growth on the 15th of Shevat — Tu B’Shevat. (It occurs to me, I wonder if the dispute about the “new year for trees” between Beis Shammai (who asserted it was on the 1st) and Beis Hillel (who asserted it was on the 15th is related to this … ?).

So, tying it all together:

We see that the 15th of Shevat is an important growth period for trees. We also see that trees, in our tradition, are related to both Torah and to mankind, and that the 15th of Shevat was a time when there was major spiritual growth among Jews.

So, Tu B’Shevat is a time for Jews to focus on “the Tree” — the Tree of Torah and the Tree of our own spiritual growth, and our potential for growth.

And so, just as we enjoy the fruits of the trees and wish for a good year for trees, The Daily Vort wishes you a good year for growth in Torah (keep on studying!), and for your own spiritual growth.

The Power of Blessings

By:  Rabbi Yehudah Prero For

One custom associated with the 15th of Shvat is to consume those fruits which grow in the land of Israel. Our Sages decreed that before we partake of any food, fruits included, we must make a blessing. The Ben Ish Chai offers some insight about why we must make blessings before partaking of food.

In the book of Yeshaya (Isaiah 41:14) we find that an unusual expression is used to refer to the nation of Israel. The prophet writes Fear not, you worm Jacob, and you men of Israel; I will help you, said the Lord, and your redeemer, the Holy One of Israel.” Why is the nation of Israel called a “worm?” What qualities does a worm possess that Israel should be figuratively referred to as a worm?

The Ben Ish Chai explains (Parshas Pinchas 1) that the power a worm possesses is entirely in its mouth. What ever powers a worm can exercise, through eating or boring holes, for example, comes through its mouth. Similarly, the mouth of each individual in the nation of Israel is his or her source of power. Our mouths can accomplish great feats: our mouths speak words of Torah, they utter heartfelt prayers, and with our mouths we can elevate eating and drinking to the realm of spiritual. Because our mouths contribute so much benefit to the world, and they are clearly a source of strength, it is only fitting that the nation of Israel be compared to another creature whose mouth is its source of strength – the worm.

Because our mouths are so mighty, and with them we wage wars against the powers of impurity in the word, the Sages decreed that before every time we eat and drink we must recognize G-d. The Evil Inclination recognizes the great strength of the mouth, and therefore expends a tremendous amount of energy in trying to get the mouth to come to its side. Instead of learning Torah, the mouth can engage in idle chatter, and even worse, slander and gossip. Instead of eating permissible foods for the purposes of sustenance, the mouth can eat forbidden food in the pursuit of gluttony. Instead of engaging in prayer and expressions of thanks, the mouth can be utter disparaging and heretical comments. Because our mouths are capable of not only doing tremendous good, but tremendous harm as well, our Sages wanted to provide the nation of Israel with a mechanism that would not only prevent us from causing harm, but that would strengthen us as well. This mechanism is the blessing. The blessing before eating gives us strength so that we will be victorious in our battles with the Evil Inclination. Because of the inherent power of the blessings, the Ben Ish Chai writes that we must therefore be extremely careful when reciting blessings. We should say them with concentration on the meaning of the words, with the words properly annunciated, and in a way that is respectful. Then the power of the blessing will be exerted, benefitting the individual and the entire nation of Israel.

The Talmud (Brachos 35) discusses why an individual must make a blessing before partaking of food. It writes “Our Rabbis have taught: It is forbidden to a man to enjoy anything of this world without a blessing, and if anyone enjoys anything of this world without a benediction, he commits sacrilege.” The Talmud continues and relates that “Rabi Chanina bar Papa said: To enjoy this world without a benediction is like robbing the Holy One, blessed be He, and the community of Israel.” Why is eating food without reciting a blessing first considered theft? Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, the famed commentator known as Rashi, explains that by not reciting the benediction before eating, you are robbing G-d of a blessing. Furthermore, you are stealing from the entire nation of Israel because the fruits suffer when people fail to make the proper blessings. Therefore, when an individual refrains from making a blessing before eating fruits, the fruits will suffer, and the entire nation will not have the bountiful harvest that should have been forthcoming.

The making of a blessing, the simple expression of thanks to G-d for sending us sustenance, should logically be part of our everyday practices. Why should we not thank the hand that feeds us? When we make a blessing before eating, we acknowledge that G-d is providing for us. We thank G-d for His provision of nourishment. Because we make this acknowledgment, the fruits benefit, and in turn, the nation benefits from the fruits. In addition, when we make a blessing, we are expressing our desire to turn the seemingly mundane action of eating into something holy. We are sanctifying our mouths. We are strengthening them so that they remain a true vessel of holiness, capable of successfully defeating the Evil Inclination in battle. The blessing made before eating fruit, “Blessed are you Hashem, our G-d, King of the World, who created the fruit of the tree,” may seem simple. Yet we now know it is extremely powerful.

The New Year for Trees, Tu B’Shvat, is a day on which we pray that we continue to receive G-d’s blessing in the form of plentiful fruits. We ask that we be allowed to partake from the fruit of the trees in the year to come. It is also a day upon which we should recognize who provides us with fruit, and sustenance in general. It is a day in which we should illustrate that we use the sustenance provided to us for holy purposes. There is no better way of accomplishing these tasks than by taking out a fruit, and making the blessing upon it before eating.


A Gut Shabbos…

Filed Under: Torah


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