Dear Jew in the City,
How is Tu b’Shevat connected to the land of Israel?
Thanks for your question. We discussed Tu b’Shevat a few years ago, so let’s make a quick recap.
The first mishna in tractate Rosh Hashana tells us that there are four “new years,” as follows:
You’ll note that a lot of these “new years” have to do with tithes. What exactly is a tithe (“maaser” in Hebrew)?
To tithe something means to give 10% of it, be it to God, to the poor, to the church (in some religions), or what have you. In Genesis 14, Avraham tithed the spoils of war to Malki-Tzedek, who was a priest to Hashem (see verses 19-20 and Rashi on verse 20). In Genesis 28:22, Yaakov commits to set aside a tithe from everything that God gives him. We continue to tithe today. The 10% that we’re encouraged to give to charity is called “maaser kesafim” – the tithe of profits – though it’s generally accepted as a rabbinic enactment, and not a Torah obligation.
When we speak of tithes in the Torah sense, we are referring to the portion that was given to the Levites. (The portion that was given to the kohanim is called terumah, and we won’t get into that here.) Specifically, the Levites were given maaser rishon (first tithe); there was also maaser sheini (second tithe), which was eaten by its owners in Jerusalem, and maaser ani, which was given to the needy. (Maaser sheini and maaser ani were given in different years.)
So why were the Levites given 10% of everybody else’s produce? For a very simple reason: all the other Tribes were given hereditary lands. The Levites weren’t because, as Numbers 18:20-21 says, “In their land you shall not inherit and you will not have a portion among them. I (God) am your portion and your inheritance among the children of Israel. And to the children of Levi, behold I give all the maaser in Israel for an inheritance in exchange for their service that they perform, the service of the Tent of Meeting.”
In other words, the Levites didn’t have farms, flocks or herds. They were the religious functionaries in the Temple. Their wages were the tithes that the farmers, vintners, cattlemen and shepherds paid them in exchange for their services.
Now, you asked what Tu b’Shevat has to do with Israel, so why am I talking to you about tithes? Because these tithes only apply in Israel. It was in Israel that the Tribes had ancestral fields and it was in Israel that the Levites worked in the Temple. Elsewhere in the world, anyone could be a farmer, or a barber, or a rabbi, or a used-camel salesman, or whatever. There’s no need for all other Jews to support the Levites in Mumbai or in Michigan.
Since the reason for Tu b’Shevat only applies in Israel, the question might become why the holiday is recognized at all in other countries. The answer, I think, is apparent: because Israel in important to us. Tu b’Shevat was observed throughout the centuries when we didn’t control Israel, and all the more so now that Israel has been returned to us.
So yes, Tu b’Shevat is inextricably linked with the land of Israel. It’s appropriate to mark the occasion by reciting blessings to God over the fruits He has created, especially those fruits for which Israel is particularly praised, such as dates and figs. (See Deuteronomy 8:8 for the complete list.)
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
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