Dear Jew in the City-
What is the meaning of having a birthday for trees?
Thanks for your question. Aside from the fact that “birthday” is something of a mistranslation, the idea of Tu b’Shevat is actually kind of a technical legal thing and not a day celebrating nature or agriculture per se. The very first mishna in tractate Rosh Hashana (1:1) tells us:
There are four new years: 1 Nisan is the new year for the kings and for holidays; 1 Elul is the new year for tithing animals, though Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Shimon say it is on 1 Tishrei; 1 Tishrei is the new year for counting years, Sabbatical years and Jubilee years, for planting and for vegetables; 1 Shevat is the new year for the trees according to Beis Shammai, though Beis Hillel say that it is 15 Shevat.
The idea of four “new years” isn’t so unusual as you might think. We do the same thing. For example, our secular calendar year starts in January but your company’s fiscal year might start in July, your child’s school year might start in September and, if you invest in commodities, your crop marketing year might start in April.
So what are these four “new years” mentioned in the mishna?
1 Nisan is the new year for kings and for holidays: The Torah tells us that Nisan is the first month for Jews because that’s the month in which God took us out of Egypt. (“This month will be the head of the months to you; it will be the first month of the year for you” – Exodus 12:2.) Accordingly, the reigns of Jewish kings and the dates of Jewish holidays are counted from this date. Examples include Isaiah 36:1 – “In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah’s reign” – and Leviticus 16:29 – “On the tenth day of the seventh month you shall afflict yourselves and not perform any labor” – among many, many others.
1 Elul is the new year for tithing animals, though Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Shimon say it is on 1 Tishrei: Leviticus 27:32 commands us to give a tithe (10%) of our herds and flocks to God. Animals cannot be tithed from one year for another; they must come from that same year’s stock. Accordingly, there has to be a cut-off point to determine what counts as last year and what counts as this year. The Sages chose 1 Elul as the cut-off because most animal births occur in the previous month, Av. (Rabbis Eliezer and Shimon thought it should be 1 Tishrei, to coincide with the cut-off point for the tithes of grain.)
1 Tishrei is the new year for counting years, Sabbatical years and Jubilee years, for planting and for vegetables: “Counting years” includes both the reigns of secular kings and the Jewish calendar years. While our “first month” is Nisan, Rosh Hashana – when the calendar changes from 5779 to 5780 – occurs in Tishrei. (This is why the “Jewish new year” occurs in the seventh month of the year!) This is also the turning point for agricultural milestones: the Sabbatical year (every seven years) and the Jubilee year (every 50 years) start on 1 Tishrei. One can’t use fruit from a tree for its first three years, using this date as the dividing line, and it’s also the deadline for which vegetables are tithed in which year.
1 Shevat is the new year for the trees according to Beis Shammai, though Beis Hillel say that it is 15 Shevat: Shevat, when the rainy season is mostly over, is the cut-off for in which year fruits are to be tithed. Beis Shammai selected 1 Shevat as the cut-off but Beis Hillel favored the midpoint of the month, 15 Shevat; we follow the opinion of Beis Hillel. In Hebrew, 15 Shevat is known as Tu b’Shevat, “tu” being the Hebrew letters tes and vav, whose numerical value equals 15.
It has always struck me as strange that we celebrate fruits on Tu b’Shevat but not vegetables on Rosh Hashana, or flocks and herds on 1 Elul, but there it is. If you don’t live in Israel and are not eating Israeli produce, agricultural tithes are pretty inapplicable altogether with the result that the only real halachic ramification of Tu b’Shevat is the omission of the Tachanun prayer from the daily services. There is, however, a nice custom.
The practice on Tu b’Shevat is to celebrate God’s creation by partaking of various fruits, with special emphasis on the species for which Eretz Yisroel (the land of Israel) is praised in Deuteronomy 8:8: grapes, olives, dates, figs and pomegranates. Some people have the custom to eat carob in accordance with a statement by Rabbi Nechemiah in Talmud Rosh Hashana (15b). When eating these fruits, we praise God by reciting the bracha of “Borei pri ho’eitz,” that God created the fruit of the trees. If one eats enough of the fruits of Israel, he recites the concluding bracha of “al ho’eitz.” (This is just like the “al hamichya” bracha recited after baked goods but for the fruits of Israel.) Finally, reasonable effort should be exerted to eat at least one fruit that one hasn’t eaten that entire season in order to be able to recite the bracha of shehechiyanu, that God has kept us alive to reach this occasion.
So, while Tu b’Shevat largely marks a legal deadline for which most of us have no practical application, it has been adopted as an opportunity to thank God in a most delicious way for one of the many gifts He has given us.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent
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