Febuary 8th the Jewish people mark Rosh Chodesh, the New Moon, and we begin the Hebrew month of Shvat. It was on this day, the first day of Shvat, that Moses began to recite the book of Deuteronomy to the people of Israel – "on the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses began to explain this Torah…"
This process continued for 37 days, until his death on the seventh day of the month of Adar. Moses rebuked the Children of Israel for their acts of rebellion against G-d during their forty- year desert sojourn. He taught them once again about many of the commandments that had already been stated at Mount Sinai and at the Tent of Meeting, as well as new commandments. He also presented Israel with the blessings and curses, and prepared them to inherit the land of Canaan, blessing them before his death.
The sages have taught that the first day of Shvat – is a day equal in greatness to the day that the Torah was given on Mount Sinai; every year, this day is especially conducive for the hearts of the people to be opened to the word of G-d.
About the festival
Tu bi-Shevat, the fifteenth day of the month of Shevat, is known as the "New Year for Trees." This date determines the end of the "fiscal year" for trees for tithing purposes; in the time of the Temple, fruit that ripened before the fifteenth of Shevat was taxed for the previous year, fruit that ripened later, for the following year.
In Hebrew: Rosh Hashanah la'Ilanot. The Mishnah (1:1) mentions four different new years during the Jewish cylical year, the New Year for the trees (for purposes of tithes and similar laws) being one.
In the community
Tu bi-Shevat actually marks the early beginnings of the spring season in Israel, at the time of the almond tree blossom. Through the Keren Kayemet l'Yisrael (Jewish National Fund) organization which is responsible for planting trees in Israel, Israeli school children plant trees on this day. In recent years, Tu bi-Shevat is becoming a day of environmental awareness in Israel. Jewish children abroad purchase Jewish National Fund certificates for the planting of trees in Israel, sometimes in honor or in memory of friends and relatives.
The mystics of Safed saw profound esoteric meaning in the verse: "For man is like the tree of the field" (Deut. 20:19).
In some Sephardi communities the men remain awake all night studying Biblical, Talmudic and Kabbalistic sources relating to the fruits of the land, stopping every so often to eat a different kind of fruit. In some communities a Tu bi-Shevat "seder" is held, a custom which emerged under the influence of the 17th-century Kabbalists of Safed.Modeled on the Passover seder, this ceremonial meal involves eating fruits and nuts and drinking four cups of wine with varying proportions of red and white wine, representing the shifting of the seasons. The Seder also includes readings on trees and fruit from a range of Jewish literary sources.
One of the earliest published texts for such a Tu bi-Shevat Seder — Peri Etz Hadar (Fruit of the Citrus Tree) — was published in Salonika in 1753.
Many Jewish communities observe Tu bi-Shevat by eating fifteen different kinds of fruit, especially the new fruits of the season. A popular custom is to eat the five fruits mentioned in the biblical description of the land of Israel - grapes, pomegranates, figs, dates, olives, and bokser (St. John's bread) which is the fruit of the carob trees.
"...a land of wheat and barley, of vines, grapes, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey [dates]" (Deut. 8:8).
How a Person is liken unto Trees in Scripture
- "A person is like the tree of a field..." (Deut. 20:19)
- "For as the days of a tree shall be the days of my people." (Isaiah 65:22)
- "He will be like a tree planted near water..." (Jeremiah 17:8)
Why the comparison?
A tree needs the four basic elements in order to survive -- soil, water, air, and fire (sun). Human beings also require the same basic elements. Let's examine these, one at a time:
A tree needs to be planted firmly in the earth. The soil is not only the source through which nourishment is absorbed, but also provides room for the roots to grow.
This is true of a person as well. The Talmud explains:
"A person whose wisdom exceeds his good deeds is likened to a tree whose branches are numerous, but whose roots are few. The wind comes and uproots it and turns it upside down.
But a person whose good deeds exceed his wisdom is likened to a tree whose branches are few but whose roots are numerous. Even if all the winds of the world were to come and blow against it, they could not budge it from its place." (Avot 3:22)
A person can appear successful on the outside, with full branches and a fancy car. "But if the roots are few" -- if there is little connection to one's community and heritage -- then life can send challenges that are impossible to withstand. "A strong wind can turn the tree upside down." A person alone is vulnerable to trends and fads that may lead to despair and destruction.
But if a person -- irrespective of wealth and status -- is connected to community and heritage, then "even if all the winds of the world were to come and blow against it, they could not budge it from its place."
Humans require a strong home base, where values and morals are absorbed, and which provides a supportive growth environment. In a world rife with negativity; we need a "filter," a safe haven to return to and refresh. A community provides an impervious shield -- the "soil" where we can be ourselves, make our mistakes, and still be accepted, loved and nourished.
Rain-water is absorbed into the ground and -- through an elaborate system of roots -- is carried throughout the trunk, branches and leaves of the tree. Without water, the tree will whither and die.
The Torah is compared to water, as Moses proclaims: "May my teaching drop like the rain" (Deut. 32:2). Both rain and Torah descend from the heavens and provide relief to the thirsty and parched. The Torah flows down from G-d and has been absorbed by Jews in every generation. Torah gives zest and vitality to the human spirit. A life based on Torah will blossom with wisdom and good deeds.
Deprived of water, a person will become dehydrated and ultimately disoriented, even to the point where they may not be able to recognize their own father. So too, without Torah, a person becomes disoriented -- to the extent they may not even recognize their Father in Heaven, the Almighty G-d of Israel.
A tree needs air to survive. The air contains oxygen that a tree needs for respiration, and carbon dioxide for photosynthesis. In an imbalanced atmosphere, the tree would suffocate and die.
The Torah (Genesis 2:7) states "G-d breathed life into the form of Man." The Hebrew word for "breath" -- nesheema -- is the same as the word for "soul" -- neshama. Our spiritual life force comes, metaphorically, by way of air and respiration.
We use our senses of taste, touch and sight to perceive physical matter. (Even "hearing" involves the perception of sound waves.) But "smelling" is the most spiritual of senses, since the least "physical matter" is involved. As the Talmud says (Brachot 43b): "Smell is that which the soul benefits from, and the does body not."
In the Holy Temple, the incense offering (sense of smell) was elevated to the once-a-year Yom Kippur offering in the Holy of Holies. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 93a) also says that when the Messiah comes, he will "smell and judge" -- that is, he will use his spiritual sensitivity to determine the truth about complex matters.
A tree also needs fire -- sunlight -- to survive. The absorption of energy from the light activates the process of photosynthesis, a chemical reaction that is essential for the growth and health of the tree.
Humans also need fire -- warmth -- to survive. This is the warmth of friendship and community. People absorb the energy of peers, friends, family, neighbors and associates -- and channel that into identity and actions. All the essential observances and ceremonies of Judaism are based on family and community -- from the celebration of birth, through the attainment of maturity, marriage, education, and even death.
The power of community is illustrated in the following Talmudic story:
An old man was planting a tree.
A young person passed by and asked, "What are you planting?"
"A carob tree," the old man replied.
"Silly fool," said the youth. "Don't you know that it takes 70 years for a carob tree to bear fruit?"
"That's okay," said the old man. "Just as others planted for me, I plant for future generations."
A TIME TO GROW
This year on Tu B'Shvat, as you're gnawing that slab of carob, ask yourself:
Am I getting the spiritual food and shelter I need to survive, or is my tree being blown down by the forces of information overload and rampant materialism?
Am I part of a strong community, providing a warm and nurturing environment? Or am I cast into the pale bleak anonymity of urban life and cyberspace?
Am I looking to future generations knowing that I am providing them with the proper foundations for their lives?
The Messianic idea and the Tree
What do the two trees in Paradise represent [in the Kabbalah]? Already in biblical metaphor wisdom, identified by Jewish tradition with the Torah, is designated as the Tree of Life (Prov. 3:18); thus opening the whole realm of typology. The trees in Paradise are not merely physical trees; beyond this they point to a state of things which they represent symbolically.
In the opinion of the Jewish mystics, both trees are in essence one. They grow out into two directions from a common trunk. Genesis tells us that the Tree of Life stood in the center of Paradise, but it does not indicate the exact position of the Tree of Knowledge. The Kabbalists took this to mean that it had no special place of its own but sprouted together with the Tree of Life out of the common matrix of the divine world. The two trees are different aspects of the Torah, which have their common origin in revelation.
The Tree of Life represents that aspect which has hitherto been unrealizable because, due to the sin of Adam, it remained virtually hidden and inaccessible, and we do not know the taste of its fruits. The law, which is concealed in the life of this tree, is that of a creative force manifesting itself in infinite harmonies, a force which knows no limitations or boundaries. The paradisaic life under this law never came into being. The sin of Adam was that he isolated the Tree of Life from the Tree of Knowledge, to which he directed his desire.
Once the unity of the two trees in men's lives were destroyed, there began the dominion of the Tree of Knowledge. No longer did unitary gushing, unrestrained life prevail, but the duality of good and evil in which the Torah appears in this aspect of revelation. Since the expulsion from Paradise, in the exile in which we all now find ourselves, we can no longer percieve the world as a unified whole. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil under whose law the world now stands corresponds to a condition of this world in which distinctions must be made before the unity of life can be regained: the distinctions between good and evil, commandment and prohibition, holy and profane, pure and impure.
For the author of those sections of the Zohar the two trees were not only, as they were for other Kabbalists, symbols of the sefirot (manifestations of G-d in Creation), the Tree of Knowledge representing the tenth and last sefirah. Beyond this they were models for two possible forms of life in the light of revelation. Of course, at the present only the one is tangible and capable of fulfillment. Precisely out of those very distinctions and limitations, man is to restore the lost form and the violated image of the divine in himself and thus bring the Tree of Knowledge, with which he is mystically associated, to its full development.
This Torah of the Tree of Knowledge is, however, nothing other than the world since the expulsion from Paradise. Only the redemption, breaking the dominion of exile, puts an end to the order of the Tree of Knowledge and restores the utopian order of the Tree of Life, in which the heart of life beats unconcealed and the isolation in which everything now finds itself is overcome. Thus the inner logic of this conception of the dominion of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil as the legitimate form of revelation in an unredeemed world had to regard the redemption itself as a return home to Paradise, where all things will again be in their true place.
Although it is not a matter of a physical return to a geographical Paradise, it is in any case life in a state of the world which corresponds to that of Paradise or in which Paradise, for its part, expands into the world. The Torah of the Messianic age will then be that of the Tree of Life, which no longer knows any of all those separations and limitations. This Torah is still revelation and, in Kabbalistic terms, an evolution of the divine name; but it has nothing further to do with the form under which we have known it until now. It is a utopian Torah for a utopian state of the world.
From: Gershom Scholem. The Messianic Idea in Judaism. New York: Schocken books 1971. pp.69-70. Excerpted by permission of Schocken Books