On Tu B’Shevat, even the Messiah has to wait!

In 2016, Tu B’Shevat begins at sunset on the 24th of January.

As the New Year of the secular calendar, January 1st, approaches, I find myself reflecting that we Jews are fortunate to have four religious New Years to celebrate as well. Together with the secular New Year, we have a chance to make new resolutions five times a year! In addition, with Rosh Hodesh celebrated at the beginning of every lunar month according to the Hebrew calendar, each month also marks a new beginning. Then, as Shabbat marks the peaceful end of every week, we return to the practical work week with renewed vigor. And every single day, as we thank God for the restoration of our souls, we begin again. A fresh start. Soulfully and practically.

Photo credit:JRC-Evanston.org

In the time of the Biblical Hebrews, each of the four special New Years also involved a practical consideration. Just as April 15th marks the deadline for tax returns to be filed with the U.S. government, the ancient Jewish New Years were connected to the timing of different types of tithing, different cycles of the year.

Despite the prevalent belief today that Rosh Hashanah represents the Jewish New Year, it was actually the first of Nisan that originally was considered the first month of the Hebrew calendar, So Spring time, the time of the barley festival (usually our April, primarily associated with Passover, the 15th of Nisan) marked the first Jewish New Year.  It was the occasion for calculating the reigns of kings and ordering the festivals. The first of Elul (the sixth month of the Jewish year) was the time for the tithing of animals, depending on whether the animal was born before or after the first day of Elul. The first of Tishrei (the seventh month of the Jewish calendar), which is when we celebrate Rosh HaShanah, which is used to calculate the year of the calendar (traditionally counted from the creation of Adam, although science tells us otherwise now). It is also when it is believed that God judges our behavior during the past year. Shevat is the 11th month of the Jewish year, and the Hebrew letters of Tu represent the number 15. So the 15th of Shevat (the rainy season in Israel, usually January of February) is when we celebrate the Birthday of the Trees.

It marks the time when trees could be harvested and tithed for the Temple service. For three years, the fruit could not be eaten. In the fourth year, it was consecrated to God. Only in the fifth year could farmers eat or sell the produce of their land. In fact, our reverent connection to

the planting of the land was considered so important that the sage Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai famously said that even if the Messiah comes, we should plant first and only then go to greet the Messiah!

Tu B’Shevat was largely forgotten in the centuries after the destruction of the Temple, when Jews were dispersed from their land. However, the holiday also had an essential mystical connection, which, in medieval times, was revived by the kabbalists. The tree became a metaphor for the divine relationship to both the physical and spiritual worlds, for the connection between God and humanity. Then, in the late 19th century, Tu B’Shevat became linked to the Zionist movement’s emphasis on the redemption of the land. Today this Birthday of the Trees is strongly connected to ecological concerns. Often a Seder feast similar to that of Passover is held – and, yes, drinking four cups of wine and eating 15 varieties of fruits are part of the festivities.