A winter’s tale: why Tu Bishvat falls at this time

When others grumble and despair at winter’s length, we look ahead to a new year of life and growth


A photo shows a snow-covered tree at the Kahler Asten in Winterberg, western Germany on January 27, 2023. (Photo by INA FASSBENDER / AFP) (Photo by INA FASSBENDER/AFP via Getty Images)

In the Collected Writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, he ponders the timing of Tu Bishvat, the Jewish New Year for the Trees. 

It seems a bit premature, he remarks, to be celebrating the rejuvenation of nature in January or February, when winds are still biting and rainstorms hammer the earth in a chilly deluge.

The mood of winter is a mood of death, not life.

Indeed, an ancient Anglo-Saxon poet finishes a bitter reflection on the ephemeral nature of life with these sobering lines:

“My transient friends are gone, their souls have fled,

My shield alone holds back the turning page.Hardship is here; my rosy world is dead,

Bitter winter snows my hair with age”
(from The Last Warrior, translated by Ian Blake). 

So what are we to make of Tu Bishvat coming when our breath still clouds the air and our ears burn with cold? 

Rabbi Hirsch’s answer, founded on an ancient Hebrew word, vests in Tu Bishvat the power to correct a skewed perspective on life. The word is in Job 29:4, where Job refers to his youth as chorfi. The root of chorfi is choref, which means “winter”.  

How can Job refer to the prime of his life as“my winter”. Rabbi Hirsch explains that this is an early instance of the inveterate Jewish habit of seeing life in terms not of miserable endings but hopeful beginnings. 

With his choice of this word Job vouchsafed to us a beautiful insight: winter is not only an end, but also a beginning.  

How should we see this time when all of nature is asleep?

From the Anglo-Saxons to our own time, many see winter as the doom of the year. They look back with a jaundiced eye on the halcyon days of spring and summer, when every breeze blew gently, every flower blossomed in a blaze of colour and a dazzling array of living creatures frolicked in the warmth of the sun.

Gloomily they recalled that all this beauty was to perish, crushed in winter’s iron grip, and the ensuing dark and the cold merely proved them right.  

Yet Job showed us another way. Winter is not just an end; it is also a beginning. The ice, snow and frost are not a shroud but a blanket, allowing nature to rest before it awakens to new glory.  

Tu Bishvat is our calendar’s insistence on this gentler perspective. When others grumble and despair at winter’s length, we look ahead, seeing this barren time not as a death sentence but as the preamble to a new year and new life.

Thus Rashi explains that the New Year for Trees is fixed on Tu Bishvat because this is when the sap begins to rise in the trees (Rosh Hashanah 14a). 

In fact, this idea does not just help us to look at the seasons in a more positive way. It is actually the very cornerstone of the Jewish worldview, since the Torah says that a tree is a metaphor for a person (Deuteronomy 20:19).

As much as we see the chill of winter as a new start in disguise, so we see our own hard moments as portals to new goodness.

Thus, God challenges us to see our spiritual remoteness from Him as an opportunity to return to Him: “When you are in distress and all these [punishments] befall you [for your sins], you will return to Lord your God and you will listen to His voice” (Deuteronomy 4:30). 

Likewise, at the end of our Sabbaths and festivals, we say havdalah, declaring our faith in God as the One who wisely demarcates the sacred and the secular for our benefit and instruction.

And we do so holding a cup of wine, the time-honoured symbol of blessing and celebration, expressing our gratitude for the good things that the new week will bring even before we have received them. 

And so too in our most tragic moments, in the grief of bereavement, the first food we eat after the funeral of our loved one is an egg because it is a symbol of new life.

As we eat this humble food, we recall that our departed relative has moved on from the short and confusing life on this earth to a clear and meaningful life with God in the next world. They have not just died. They have been reborn. 

In these dark times especially, when our economy is faltering and war rumbles on our doorstep, it is our sacred mission as Jews to serve as the custodians of a more hopeful ethos. We look to the future with a resolute and faithful heart.

We recall and affirm that, with God’s help,  the desperation of poverty and the heartbreak of conflict will pave the way to a brighter time just as surely as winter is the harbinger of spring.
David Lister is rabbi of Edgware (United) Synagogue

READ MORE: Tu Bishvat's symbolism is about more than trees

My sadness at a missed eco-opportunity

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