Tu B’Shevat (or Tu Bishvat) celebrates renewal of life

SUNSET WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 15, to SUNSET THURSDAY, 16: This week, we welcome two Jewish friends of ReadTheSpirit to tell the story of this minor-yet-fascinating holiday. First, we hear from scholar and author Joe Lewis, who many of our readers know as the husband of FeedTheSpirit columnist Bobbie Lewis. And, yes, Bobbie Lewis has contributed her own Tu B’Shevat column—with a delicious recipe!

Here’s Joe Lewis …

Tu B’Shevat is a mystery for American readers in northern states! How can we pretend that this is a new year for trees when the ground is frozen solid?

“Ahhh,” the Rabbi explains, “That’s a good question. But, in Israel spring has come, the northern hillsides are about to be carpeted with delicate wildflowers, and the trees are in bud.”

“But Rabbi, that’s nuts! How can you say the trees are in bud when the Hebrew calendar floats to and fro against the solar calendar by three weeks or so?”

Here the Rabbi avoids the question and says: “Hmmm, nuts?! Yes, we celebrate the almond blossoms which appear early, and we eat almonds and other fruits of the land of Israel. Even if (the Rabbi continues) spring has not arrived where we live, we mark the return of spring to the land we consider holy. And don’t forget that golden almond blossoms embellished the menorah in our wilderness sanctuary (Ex. 25:31-40), and almond blossoms budded overnight to confirm Aaron’s priestly authority (Num. 17:8).” (What student can persist against this sea of allusions?)

By the 15th of the month of Shevat, Israel’s winter rains are generally completed, and in ancient times this marked the end of one agricultural year and the beginning of the next. Since farmers were supposed to “tithe” each year’s produce, and to let a tree grow for three years before harvesting its fruit, they needed to know the start of the year: the fifteenth of Shevat was the date.

After the destruction of the Temple and the expulsion of most Jewish people from their ancient land, many countries did not allow Jewish people to own land or farm it. Unable to celebrate as farmers, our longing for our land was heightened. The land, its rituals and its fruits (the “seven species” of Deut. 8:8) accrued mystical significance. And when the Jewish people returned to the land and recovered their own state, our mystical yearnings bore reality, for now we could grow and enjoy the fruits of the land.

Today, many communities celebrate the day with a meal enjoying fruits such as nuts and dates. It’s called a Tu B’Shevat Seder, and it’s a time to consider our connection to and responsibility for the land of Israel and for the planet we share with every living being. (Remember to read Bobbie Lewis’s column about a Tu B’Shevat Seder.)

What about the “Tu” in “Tu Bishvat”? The ninth and sixth letters of the Hebrew alphabet form “Tu” and represent 15. Why not use the tenth and fifth letters? Oh, that’s one of the names of God, so in Hebrew counting 15 is 9+6 and never 10+5.

The Hebrew calendar has its own logic, though some might say that Hebrew dates are—well, nuts.

(If you like this piece, you can learn more about Joe Lewis’s work in producing Jewish guides to prayers and rituals written to include people who don’t speak or read Hebrew.)

Here’s Rabbi Bob Alper …

Bob is the author of our new book: Thanks. I Needed That. He added this Tu B’Shevat story:

To be perfectly honest, the minor Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shevat never spoke to me nearly as much as other Jewish holidays did.

Until I cut down a tree.

Last summer it was time to take down a huge maple in our yard. I had my old chainsaw sharpened, cleared brush around the tree’s wide base, and, just before pulling the starter cord, enticed our dog into the house. I realized that a dog who doesn’t understand “fetch” and “stay” probably doesn’t know how to respond appropriately and quickly to “timber.”

The tree went down smoothly—landing only 90 degrees from my carefully planned target area. Fortunately, we’re rural enough so there were neither wires nor buildings in the way.

Then commenced the clean-up, a task I thought I could handle fairly quickly. Here’s where I developed an unanticipated new respect for that simple tree. It took days. The lovely branches, for years just part of the beautiful scenery, required hours of chainsawing, dragging, and, at the last, splitting, before the lawn was once again empty, the branches piled behind the small cemetery on our property, and the large pieces split, transported, and added to our woodpile.

I gained a new perspective about why trees should be celebrated and valued in community events such as Tu B’Shevat or its secular parallel, Arbor Day. That maple provided decades of shade and beauty, many years of maple sugar, and now, at the last, fuel for our winter.

And throughout my days of toil, I continually thought of the words carved on a board above the dining hall fireplace at the camp I attended as a kid: “He who chops his own wood, warms himself twice.”

 (This column originally published at ReadTheSpirit, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)


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