QUESTION: I am intrigued by the fact that the New Year for trees is in the middle of the month and not at the beginning of a month, as all the other New Years. Even the gentiles begin their New Year at the start of a month. Do you have an explanation for this?
ANSWER: Our reader is obviously referring to the first Mishna in Tractate Rosh Hashana (2a), which lists the various New Years, each falling on a Rosh Chodesh ? lit., the head or beginning of the month ? with the [textual] exception of the New Year for trees, which falls on the 15th of Shevat.
In actuality, the New Year for festivals (regalim), the second of the New Years listed (which is also used to reckon the years of a king's reign), does not fall on a Rosh Chodesh either. The Gemara (ibid. 4a) asks, “How can the New Year for the festivals be on the first of Nissan, when surely it is on the 15th of Nissan? [The Torah states (Numbers 28:16-17), “In the first month, on the 14th day of the month, is the Passover [offering] to G-d. On the fifteenth day of this month is a festival; for a seven-day period matzot shall be eaten.”] Thus the festival that occurs in the first month of the year marks the New Year for festivals.
We also find two additional New Years not enumerated in our Mishna, and these do not fall on the first of the month either.
The Gemara (ibid. 7b) lists the New Year related to the omer ? the sacrifice that permitted one to partake of the newly harvested grains of the five species throughout the land ? as occurring on the 16th of Nissan, and the New Year for the shetei halechem (lit., the Two Loaves), brought on the 6th of Sivan, to permit the use of flour from newly harvested grains for the meal-offerings in the Beit HaMikdash.
The Gemara explains that these were not included in the Mishna as the Tanna only listed those that start on the previous evening.
Thus we see that Tu- BiShevat is not that unique. However, perhaps it appears to be so because it is the only New Year actually listed in the Mishna that does not occur on the first of the month, according to Beit Hillel, whose ruling we follow. Beit Hillel's reasoning is that sufficient rain has fallen by this time to enable trees to blossom. Therefore we set the New Year fortress at that point.
For a more esoteric understanding of the significance of the 15th of Shevat as the New Year for trees, we turn to the author of the hasidic work Ohev Yisrael, R. Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apta, who discusses this matter. We glean from his words:
“Regarding the 15th of Shevat, we must know and understand why it is stated specifically there (in the Mishna), 'The New Year of the tree, according to Beit Hillel, is on the 15th of Shevat, while according to Beit Shammai ? it is on the first of Shevat.' It is also important to understand the reference to 'tree' in the singular, when it should have stated [the New Year of the] trees, in the plural.
“We must answer that it states in the Torah (Deuteronomy 20:19), 'For man is the tree of the field.' (Here the author is alluding to the Gemara in Ta'anit 7a.) Just as the tree possesses roots, branches, leaves and fruit, so does the Jew possess all these because of his good deeds. How are these drawn to man? They stem from their source, the root of the Jewish soul, which is the Holy Tree ? the Tree of Life under which all Creation's animals and birds of the skies seek shelter. It is the tree that is [heavenly] blessed so that all its shoots are like it.
“The word ilan, tree in Hebrew, is numerically equivalent to the two Holy Names, Havaya and Adnut (their combined total is 91). This is in accordance with the hidden meaning of 'Tzaddik katamar yifrach ? A righteous man shall blossom as the date tree…' (Psalms 93:13). Just as the palm tree has the means of propagating itself, so, too, do the righteous bring forth those that will propagate themselves.”
R. Avraham Yehoshua Heschel continues with a comparison in Tractate Rosh Hashana (10b-11a): There is a dispute between R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshua. R. Yehoshua says that the world was created in Nissan, and R. Eliezer says that the world was created in Tishrei. (Each of these two months is at the beginning of a different half of the year). He points out that both these statements are “the living words of G-d” ? both are truthful.
The explanation in Ohev Yisrael is: “On [the first of] Tishrei the thought came to His mind to create the world, as the paytan notes (in our Rosh Hashana liturgy), 'Hayom harat olam ? Today You have conceived the world.' However, the actual creation was in Nissan.”
He then goes on with a lengthy explanation, comparing the tree to the original Creation by presenting the month of Shevat as a microcosm of the 12 months of the year, and he divides Shevat into two parts.
The first half of the month, starting with Rosh Chodesh, is compared to the conception of the tree, the part of creation that is hidden. This is the essence of Beit Shammai's opinion, whose rulings hold sway in the Heavenly Court.
Beit Hillel, on the other hand, represents that which is revealed like the blossoming of the trees. For the most part, the blossoms appear on the first day of the second half of the month, the fifteenth day ? Tu-BiShevat.
In this, the revealed world, we usually follow Beit Hillel. That is another explanation for celebrating the New Year of the trees on the 15th of Shevat.
About the Author: Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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