The month of Shevat is a month of endings. Nisan was the first month in the Jewish calendar (Exodus 12:2), and Tevet was the tenth month. Ten in Judaism indicates completeness, as in the Ten Plagues, Ten Commandments, Ten Days of Penitence.
So Shevat, the eleventh month, seems to be the month of retirement, a time to look back on work done but not a time to do more.
The weather for this time of year seems to complement this sentiment. January, when Shevat falls, is the middle of the coldest spell of the year in the northern hemisphere. Gardeners cannot cultivate at this time and simply take defensive measures against frost damage, wind, a lack of light, heavy rain and snow. Many mammals and insects are in hibernation. In Shevat, the living world itself seems to be taking a rest.
Yet the Jewish approach to Shevat is actually conflicted. Tu Bishvat, the fifteenth of Shevat, is famously not an ending but a beginning: the New Year for Trees. Exactly which tithes are offered from Israeli produce is determined by whether fruit ripens on the bough before or after Tu Bishvat, the fifteenth of Shevat.
Furthermore, Rashi says (in his commentary on Rosh Hashanah 12a) that on Tu Bishvat the sap begins to rise in the trees.
Kabbalists have long marked Tu Bishvat by eating different fruits
How do we reconcile these two phenomena? How can the month of cessation be also a month of new beginnings?
The answer lies in the question itself, because there is a deliberate ambiguity here. Shevat presents us with a choice about endings. What do we do when we finish a task?
It may be as simple as putting away the final cup after washing the dishes, or as massive as retiring at the end of a successful career; as joyous as a family wedding, or as heart-breaking as burying a loved one.
One approach is to look back with satisfaction or fond regret on the completeness of what has been accomplished and then simply stop. This is the Shevat of the eleventh month, of the iron grip of winter. It is a time of conclusion.
Another approach is to see every ending as another beginning. What new project will build on the triumphant accomplishment of its predecessor? Buoyed by the vigour and happiness of success, what can we now attain? What courage can we summon to build a new future without a loved one by our side?
As a rule, Jews choose life. Moses said: "I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life… to love the Lord your God, to hearken to His voice and to be close to Him; for that is your life, and the length of your days" (Deuteronomy 30:19 – 20).
The traditional celebration of Tu Bishvat nudges us in this direction in the most beautiful way.
Kabbalists have long marked Tu Bishvat by eating different fruits on the day. This can be taken simply as an expression of the Hebrew date combined with fruit from trees because Tu Bishvat is the new year for fruit trees. But we can understand this more deeply.
Let us think back to the ultimate moment of human youth. Adam and Eve had just been created. They stood in the most pristine purity, fashioned by God Himself, poised to do His bidding in the Garden of Eden. God welcomed His children to His table and invited them to enjoy His bounty: "From every tree in the garden you may surely eat" (Genesis 2:16).
In fact, the number 15 denotes plenitude. It is borrowed from the fifteenth of the month, when the moon is completely round and its delicate silvery radiance is most brilliant, denoting the culmination of the divine gifts offered to us in that month. Succot and Pesach also begin on the fifteenth of their respective months and the Pesach Seder has 15 stages. There are 15 Shir Hama'alot, Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120–134).
So 15 fruits really means fruit granted with a full hand, as in the Garden of Eden.
Perhaps when we eat the 15 fruits on Tu Bishvat and marvel at their different colours, shapes, textures and shapes, we are transported in a small way back to Eden.
We celebrate and savour the momentary unsullied youth of humanity itself, and proclaim to ourselves and all who will listen that we choose life, that we have great things to achieve still before us, and that we will move on from the agedness to the youthful spirit of new achievement. By that choice we claim for ourselves the prize of eternal youth even in extreme old age.
Tu Bishvat is upon us. What will you choose?