The Jewish calendar contains four new years. The most well-known is Rosh Hashanah. A less well-known new year is the first of Nisan, which is the new year for kings. Instead of measuring the reign of a king from his coronation date, Jewish law counts one year every time that the first of Nisan comes round.
The other two new years concern taxation. In Jewish law, livestock and fruit are subject to annual taxation. Animals born before the first of Ellul belong to one tax year; animals born afterwards belong to the next year. The first of Ellul is therefore a new year for livestock. Fruit harvested before Tu Bishvat (the 15th of Shevat) belongs to one tax year. Fruit harvested afterwards belongs to the next tax year. Tu Bishvat is therefore a new year for fruit.
Tu Bishvat is a regular working day. Its significance shouldn’t be too different from the start of the British tax year in April. And yet, unlike the new year for livestock, we elevate its status to a day of tree-planting, school-trips to the forest and special columns in the JC. It has even inspired a kabbalastic ritual called a Tu Bishvat Seder, echoing the Seder of Passover. Why?
I’m not sure. But here’s what makes Tu Bishvat meaningful to me.
Tu Bishvat distinguishes between this years’ fruit and last year’s fruit. But there’s a large window of time in which its date could have been set. Why specifically the month of Shevat?
The Talmud says the date was carefully calibrated. It falls in the winter, before any fruit trees have blossomed, but, after the winter’s main rainfall. That’s why the month of Shevat was chosen (tractate Rosh Hashanah 14a).
The barren trees of the midwinter have what they need, right now, to bear whatever fruit they’re going to bear this year. Our challenge is to look at these seemingly barren trees, that show no sign of spring, and to recognise, and celebrate, the dispositions that they’re hiding.
God is perfect. He has no room to grow; no room to improve. In that sense, God has no potential. He’s already maxed-out every possible value that a being could have.
But even if God has no “potential”, God can have something similar, called a “disposition”. A wine-glass has the disposition to shatter when — for example — knocked off a table to the floor. But a wine-glass isn’t shattering all the time. A tree with sufficient water has the disposition to blossom in the spring, but (global warming to one side) no sooner.
Likewise, God has the disposition to forgive, if and when a person sins and repents. God isn’t constantly forgiving. He won’t forgive when there’s no sin. Rather: God has the disposition to forgive.
Ultimately, it isn’t how we act, but who we are that matters
The Christian philosopher Richard Swinburne argues that the God of Jewish theology cannot have been perfect before creating the universe. The Jewish God would have been alone before creating the world; all alone, He couldn’t have experienced inter-personal love. But a God who isn’t perfectly-loving isn’t a perfect God. So, the God of Jewish theology wasn’t perfect before creating people to love.
Most Christians believe that God Himself is more than one person — He is a Trinity of people. For the Trinitarian, God really did experience inter-personal love within Himself, even before creating anything else. The God of Christian theology was always perfect. Not so, the God of Jewish theology, according to Swinburne.
But Swinburne’s argument fails to recognise the value of a disposition. What makes God perfectly loving isn’t that He’s always loving someone.
It’s that He’s disposed to love, if and when there’s anybody there for Him to love. God’s dispositions are part of what makes Him perfect.
Raoul Wallenberg saved up to 100,000 lives during the Holocaust. Had there never been a Holocaust, we wouldn’t know that Wallenberg was a hero of unspeakable bravery. Saving those lives didn’t make him a hero. He was a hero already, because he was disposed to save that many lives, and to risk his own life, if called on to do so.
Ultimately, it isn’t how we act, but who we are that matters. It’s just that we don’t often know who we really are until called on to act, and we can’t positively shape our character without acting in virtuous ways. To realise how important our dispositions are is to realise that we don’t merely have to observe the commandments. We must also allow their observance to shape our character; our dispositions.
The date of Tu Bishvat was calibrated to encode a message. The message is that we have to absorb all of the rain that falls, all of the experiences that shape us into better people, and allow the process to elevate our character.
Even if we never get an opportunity to manifest the positive dispositions that we cultivate; even if we can never really know what those dispositions are, we trust that, if we’ve worked on ourselves, God will celebrate and cherish our dispositions, just as we cherish His dispositions and cherish the ungrown fruit of the midwinter trees.