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Home February 2023 Is It Spring Yet?

Is It Spring Yet?

The New Year of Trees kicks off the holiday season this month.

T. S. Eliot may have thought that April was the cruelest month, but if I had been asked, I might have voted for Shevat. Here we are, in the dead of winter, being tantalized by the celebration of trees—fruit trees, no less—when foliage is long in the future and fruiting is almost beyond imagining. Yes, the holiday responds to the climate of the Middle East, not Central New Jersey, but even in the Land of Israel, it is still winter, albeit a somewhat milder variety. So, why do we celebrate the New Year of the Trees, Rosh HaShanah L’Ilanot, now? For that matter, why do we celebrate it at all?
    Originally, in the time of the Mishna, the New Year of the Trees—one of four New Years, the others being the first of Tishrei, the first of Nisan and the first of Elul—was not celebrated so much as observed. The purpose was to determine the age of trees for the purposes of Jewish law, as benefitting in any way from the fruit of a tree during its first three years is forbidden (Lev. 19:34), and the tithes for different years of the seven-year Shemita (sabbatical) cycle were treated differently (Deut. 14;22; 14:28). Selecting a date near the end of winter, after most of the rains have fallen and trees are ready to emerge from dormancy and their fruits to ripen, proved the clearest line of demarcation to determine just how old a tree was. But that doesn’t tell us why we celebrate it as a festive occasion now. For that we need to turn from the Rabbis of the Mishna to the late Middle Ages, when a group of Kabbalists, expelled from Spain, settled in Tzfat in Northern Israel.
    Trees had always had mystical significance in Kabbalah. The trees of the Garden of Eden appeared in Kabbalistic thought and imagery as the Tree of Life, representing all of existence. Against the tree are set forth an interlocking set of sefirot, usually translated as “emanations,” which are the channels through which the Divine attributes may descend from the roots of the tree in Heaven through the branches and leaves into the world at large. With the arrival of the Kabbalists in the Land of Israel, the physical schema of the Tree of Life came to be mirrored in the land that bore earthly trees. By the 17th century, the resultant celebration had been formalized into a seder under the title Pri Etz Hadar, The Fruit of the Tree of Splendor.
The seder itself is divided into four sections, each of which, as at the Passover seder, is marked by a cup of wine. The first cup is white wine, the second is mostly white with a little red mixed in, the third is half and half white and red and the fourth, red with a small amount of white added. These symbolize the four seasons, beginning with the colorless wine of winter, as well as the four worlds of the Kabbalah: action (asiyah), formation (yetzirah), creation (beriah) and nobility or elevation (atzilut), in ascending spiritual order. Each world corresponds to a category of fruit: Asiyah fruits are those with hard, inedible shells, such as nuts; Yetzirah fruits are those with soft, edible exteriors, but hard pits, such as stone fruits; Beriah fruits are entirely edible, such as berries; and, Atzilut fruits are so spiritually pure that they are enjoyed only as fragrances.
    During the seder, fruits, preferably thirty (!) varieties, are eaten in the prescribed order, but if all thirty are not available, there should be at least twelve, especially including the seven species for which the Land of Israel is praised (not all of which come from trees): wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates. (Deut. 8:8). In addition, citron and carob are particularly traditional, citron because it is described as hadar, as is the Tree of Splendor and carob because, unlike most fruits, it is tithed with the following year even though it buds before Tu Bishvat, thus straddling it.
    Yes, it’s only February, but, if Passover is the most widely observed Jewish holiday, Tu Bishvat can be considered the opening act. Maybe Shevat isn’t such a cruel month after all. Sue Kleinberg is a contributing writer to Jlife magazine from Monmouth County.

 

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