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Tu B’shvat: The What and Why

When do we mark the ראש השנה לאילנות, New Year for Trees? Why do we have a “New Year for Trees? What is the philosophic import of this New Year’s recognition? Let me dispel a common notion right from the start. It has nothing to do with planting trees. The first Mishnah in the Talmud Rosh Hashanah begins with a list of “New Years” throughout the Jewish calendar year. Regarding the New Year for Trees, necessary for determining when fruit are fit for giving תרומה and מעשר, Terumah and tithings, there is a rabbinic debate by our Talmudic sages. Beit Shammai holds the date as the 1st of Shevat while Beit Hillel says it is on the 15th of Shevat. The law follows Beit Hillel, so we mark טו בשבט, Tu B’shevat, as the “New Year for Trees.”

On page 14a, the Talmud Rosh Hashanah offers the following explanation. “What is the reason the New Year for Trees is in Shevat? R. Elazar said in the name of R. Oshayah, because most of the rain days of the year have passed but most of the winter is yet to come.” The comments of Tosefot note: “according to Beit Shammai the time of budding from this year’s rain is the 1st of Shevat, while Beit Hillel holds that any budding before the 15th is due to rain from before Tishray but it doesn’t come to the trees after Tishray.” According to Beit Shammai, the date of the 1st of Shevat reflects the earliest time rain after Tishrei is involved with the production of new fruit. According to Beit Hillel, the 15th of Tishrei reflects the exclusive effect of the rain after Tishrei with no admixture of rain from before Tishray to produce the new buds.

What is the philosophy behind Tu B’Shevat? Both Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel agree to one thing. Tishrei is at the center. Tishrei, of course, stands out. It is the month we celebrate the “New Year for Years.” On Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate and reflect upon the ideas relating to God’s kingship. One of those ideas is that a king is responsible for the welfare of his subjects. God, King of the Universe, established laws that regulate care for his subjects, humanity, by ensuring that food will be provided to those who don’t have food. The requirement to give Terumah and various tithings of fruit grown each year is a central component of Hashem’s kindness, welfare, and support system for His subjects.

There is a beautiful psalm we recite every ראש חודש, at the beginning of the new month, Psalm 104. Composed over 3,000 years ago by King David, it reads as though it was written by a modern-day ecologist. The psalm eloquently describes the harmony of the various natural systems that take place every day on Earth.

In chapter 5 of פרקי אבות, Ethics of our Sages, the first Mishnah states:  “With 10 utterances the world was created. What does this come to teach us? Could it not have been created with one utterance? This was taught to exact punishment from the wicked that destroy the world that was created with 10 utterances and to reward the righteous who sustain the world that was created with 10 utterances.” What is the takeaway from this Mishnah?

The Torah begins with the creation of the universe. A strange choice of subject matter since the Torah’s purpose is to instruct us on the proper  דרך החיים, “ the path of life.” Furthermore, man can only know the physics involved with the operation of the world post the “Big Bang.” How God created the universe will always be unknowable to man.

This Mishnah is teaching us that the Torah includes some details about creation not to tell us about science but rather to give us an ethical lesson. Most people want to do the right thing for self-perfection. This is OK but there is a higher motivation, a motivation based on an objective framework, on reality. We can’t permit the destruction of the Earth to take place regardless of the benefit any person gets out of it. At the same time, Torah doesn’t side with ecologically minded people who maintain we can’t disturb or use the physical world. In that mindset, the Earth is regarded as a museum, look but don’t touch.

The Midrash says, “God took the first man through גן עדן, the Garden of Eden, and tells him, ‘I created a beautiful world, don’t destroy it!’” Many ecologically minded people maintain the benefit of the Earth is the physical per se. Torah holds that the benefit in the physical world is as a means to bringing a person closer to God. Exploring and using the creations of the world, we come to understand the ideas behind how they exist and function. These ideas should cause us to reflect on the Creator of the Universe and His infinite wisdom. They should drive us to see more of His wisdom, the means by which we can come close to God.

Every mineral, every species of animal, every type of plant life, every cell reflects incredible wisdom in their individual construction and in the harmony of how they all work together on Earth. It is this wisdom of God, on display right here on Earth, that is attainable by man through the study, use, and protection of the Earth and all that it contains. If a species of animal life like the dodo bird becomes extinct for example, it is an objective loss for mankind in so far as we lose another physical object that we can study and see in it the wisdom of God.

After extolling God for the harmony of the natural systems operating on Earth, King David ends Psalm 104 with a harsh rebuke: “ Let the sinners cease out of the Earth and let the wicked be no more. Bless the Lord, my soul. Hallelujah!” Why does he end the psalm with this request to God? The answer, I think, is precisely as we have said. This fantastic place that we live on, Earth, is designed for a certain type of person, to achieve a particular goal. It is created for someone who sees and appreciates in its existence, the wisdom of God in all His creations. Such a person will strive, out of an objective motivation, to maintain it in a way that succeeding generations will have the same world by which they can attain a full recognition of God’s wisdom displayed right here on Earth.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan