By Adam Eliyahu Berkowitz
Before I became religious I did not take public celebrations seriously, but all of my energy went into New Year’s eve. Unfortunately, that usually meant drinking to excess and little else. So when I found out that Judaism has FOUR new year’s days, I thought it would kill me.
But then I found out what New Year’s really meant. In Judaism, New Year’s is not about wild celebrations and getting drunk. The New Year is a recognition of God’s constant caring for His Creation. The New Year is about renewal.
When I heard that that one of the four new year’s in Judaism was a New Year’s day for the trees, my mind was totally blown. Tu B’Shevat, the 15th day of the month of Shevat, is also called the birthday of the trees because it is the day when we consider the trees in the Land of Israel to be a year older.
What does it mean that there is a New Year’s for trees. How can a tree be considered a year older, even if it had been planted only a few days or months earlier? What exactly is the meaning of this day?
For 2,000 years, very few Jews were able to perform the special commandments that are only performed inside the land of Israel. We would read about them in the Torah, but they had no practical relevance. One such commandment is called Orlah. Orlah is the commandment not to eat fruit from a tree during the first three years after planting. As it says in the Bible:
When you enter the land and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden for you, not to be eaten. In the fourth year all its fruit shall be set aside for jubilation before Hashem; and only in the fifth year may you use its fruit—that its yield to you may be increased: I Hashem am your God. Leviticus 19:23-25
When people think about kosher food, they usually think of animal products. But Orlah is fruit that is forbidden from consumption. For three years after planting a tree in the Land of Israel, any fruit that the tree produces is Orlah, forbidden, as unkosher as pork. In the fourth year, the fruit is classified as Neta Revai and could be brought to Jerusalem to be eaten inside the walls of the city. It is only in the fifth year that the fruits may be eaten normally.
When do you start counting the years? Of course, the tree’s ‘birthday’ is when it is planted. But do you have to remember the birthday of each individual tree in the orchard? The answer is no. For these purposes, the Torah gave the trees a collective birthday on the 15th of Shevat. Every year on Tu B’Shevat, every tree in Israel gets one year older for the purposes of the biblical commandments related to their fruit.
In Israel, you can pack away your raincoat and umbrella for about six months of the year. But in the winter, the rain can fall for a week at a time, though snow is rare in most of the country. Tu B’Shevat actually falls out in the middle of the rainy season.
Why would the Torah set the birthday of the trees in a dark and dreary month. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to celebrate trees when they are in full bloom?
This odd timing has a practical purpose. Shevat is when trees are beginning to wake from their slumber and the sap is beginning to flow. Though the fruit on the tree are still not visible, the first signs of spring are starting to appear.
By celebrating Tu B’Shevat, the new year for the trees, in the winter, we celebrate the belief that in a short period the trees will yield their harvest. This has a practical message for us as well. In life, circumstances may not always appear favorable. But if we trust in God’s plan we can rest assured that everything works out for the best in the end.
This is all very interesting and important but, as a writer and storyteller, I naturally think in analogies and allegories. The Torah actually compares trees to men:
Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? Deuteronomy 20:19
The Torah is certainly not suggesting that someone would expect trees to pick up their roots and walk into the city (J.R.R. Tolkien’s depiction of the Ents notwithstanding). But there is an awful lot that man can learn from trees.
Here are four lessons that man can learn from trees:
1. Like a tree, a man grows from a seed. In order to grow, we need sustenance. Trees can be watered but they also draw sustenance from deep sources that have hidden origins. A man can be sustained by material things but in order to grow, flourish, and bear fruit, we need to access deeper sources which we access by studying God’s word. And growth is essential. A healthy person must continuously grow spiritually in order to stay alive.
2. Even a healthy tree can be choked and die if weeds surround it and cut off its source of water. Weeds (i.e. sin) have to be constantly removed from a person’s life or he will be cut off.
3. Anyone who has planted an orchard knows that young trees need support until they are strong enough to stand on their own. For man, this is a reference, of course, to our parents who nurture and support their children and educate them in the ways of God.
4. Many healthy trees that appear strong are easily toppled in strong winds. A tree needs strong roots to weather difficult times, just like a man needs to be rooted strongly in his belief in God.
5. The beauty and worth of a tree are in the fruit that it produces. For man, our fruit are our good deeds. The more good deeds we perform, the more beautiful we are.
The analogies are endless. As we celebrate the birthday of trees on Tu B’Shevat, take some time to meditate on how man is like a tree in the service of God.