Why people are like trees

Tu Bishvat had special significance for the mystics


By Dr Ben Elton, January 12, 2014
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Tu Bishvat in my Jewish primary school was celebrated as a largely Zionist festival, emphasising the importance of planting trees in the state of Israel. That was not an inappropriate slant; after all, Tu Bishvat was originally concerned with the trees and the produce of the Land of Israel.

During the centuries of exile, however, when this perspective seemed to be less relevant, other meanings took its place. Indeed, for centuries, Tu Bishvat was thought about by many in kabbalistic terms. Although some of us have moved back to a more grounded approach to the day, these mystical insights should still be treasured.

Originally, Tu Bishvat was the conclusion of the agricultural and financial year for certain ritual purposes. There are other such dates spread across the year. In fact, the first mishnah in Rosh Hashanah names four new years.

The reigns of kings were calculated from the first of Nisan, which was also the beginning of the festival cycle of Pesach, Shavuot and Succot. The animal tithe was based on the first of Ellul (or according to others, the first of Tishri).

All agreed that the first of Tishri was the new year for years in general, the reckoning of sabbatical and jubilee years (shemittah and yovel) in particular, and for several other agricultural laws.

Finally the Mishnah gives us a date it calls Rosh Hashanah Le’ilan, the New Year for a Tree. According to the house of Shammai, this falls on the first of Shevat, but the house of Hillel held that it occurs on the fifteenth of Shevat, Tu Bishvat.

There is something strange about the Mishnah’s description of the four new years. The first three are described in relation to categories. This date is the new year for kings, that date is the new year for tithing, a third date is the new year for observing shemittah. When it comes to Tu Bishvat, the language changes. In the Mishnah’s formulation, Tu Bishvat is not the new year for trees or for tithing from a tree, it is the new year for a Tree. The subject is no longer a collective, not trees in general, but each individual tree.

This shift was noticed by one of the great, early Chasidic masters, Rav Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apt, known as the Ohev Yisrael (Lover of Israel) after the title of his book. He pointed out the spiritual connection between people and trees. Man is called a “tree of the field” in Deuteronomy 20:19, and in Psalm 92 a tzaddik (righteous person) is compared to a date palm and a cedar.

Not only does a tree symbolise a person, their very existence is linked. There is a view that the formation of the first human in the Divine Mind began on Tu Bishvat and was completed on the first of Nisan. The ilan referred to in the Mishnah’s Rosh Hashanah Le’ilan, is not a tree at all; it is a person. In the mystic mindset, Tu Bishvat is primarily a new year for every individual, and the regulations of the day regarding trees and their fruit are only a symbol for something deeper about Torah and Jewish life.

As any accountant will tell you, we have financial years so we can separate earnings and expenditure and consider them in convenient bundles. The same is true of different years in the Jewish agricultural calendar. Tu Bishvat marks the cut-off point for determining to which year produce belongs, so it can be tithed appropriately. We want to be able to say “This crop belongs to year X and will be kept with the product of year X, while another crop belongs to year Y and will be counted with other produce of year Y.”

The Ohev Yisrael taught that the same is true of Torah and the Jewish people. We do not learn Torah and perform good deeds along an unbroken continuum of time. Each year has its own needs. New insights into the Torah will emerge this year, because this year is unique and certain ideas are required now, as they never were before. They come into the world rooted in and relevant to a particular time. Acts of goodness and kindness must also be seen in the context of consecutive years, so that each year can be a step towards higher and better fulfilment. Only if we have distinct years can we ask “Was this year better than last year?” and strive to make it so.

For the mystics, Tu Bishvat, is not about trees but about men and women. The tithing laws associated with it are only a reflection of a greater truth about how timeless Torah and mitzvot interact with a time-bound world.

Dr Elton is a rabbinic student at Chovevei Torah Yeshivah in New York and an intern at Lincoln Square Synagogue

Last updated: 11:45am, January 12 2014