Sunday, February 4, 2007

New Year of Trees: Tu B'Shevat, Changing Seasons

On Friday morning, February 2, (Groundhog's day) I took a picture of the sunrise from our front door. I took a similar picture on December 21, the winter solstice. On the solstice, the sun rose over the tree in the middle-right of the picture, in south-south-east of our view. On Friday, it rose in the south-east, about 22 degrees to the north of the solstice point. The days are getting longer! Groundhog's day comes from the pagan holiday that marked the coming of the spring-Imbolc. In the old calendar, this would have been the beginning of spring and the vernal equinox (around March 20) would have been mid-spring. Groundhog's day is known as Candlemas to Christians, who added a Christian gloss to the old holidays, assimilating them into the Christian calendar.

On the Jewish calendar, we have a holiday that comes near to this time of the year--falling sometime within two weeks of Groundhog's day. This is the Holiday of Tu B'Shevat--literally, the 15th of the month of Shevat--and it is Rosh Ha-Shannah ha-Ilanot--the New Year of the Trees. The holiday is based on the following commandment:

"When you come to the land and you plant any tree, you shall treat its fruit as forbidden; for three years it will be forbidden and not eaten. In the fourth year, all of its fruit shall be sanctified to praise Adonai. In the fifth year, you may eat its fruit." (Leviticus 19:23-25).

The Tenaim (Rabbis who wrote the Mishnah) wondered how you count the years? When do you start so that you have counted three years? They determined that the New Year for Trees must occur when the sap rising in the tree in spring is entirely from "new water"--that is water from the present year with no water from the previous year mixed in. They decided that that occurs four months after the New Year for Water. In the Mishnah (part of the Talmud) they said:

"There are four new years... the first of Shevat is the new year for trees according to the ruling of Beit Shammai; Beit Hillel, however, places it on the fifteenth of that month." (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:1)

The disagreement between the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel comes from a difference of opinion about when the New Year for Water occurs. Shammai says that it occurs on the Birthday of the world---Rosh HaShannah--which is the New Year for Creation, which is 1 Tishrei--making 1 Shevat four months later. Hillel says that the New Year for Water is on 15 Tishrei--the first day of Sukkot, because on the Sukkot the ceremony of water pouring occured in the temple and the prayers for the season were changed from summer to winter. This would make 15 Shevat four months later. The law always goes according to Hillel until the coming of the Messiah, when it will become according to Shammai.

So, on the full moon of Shevat, four months after the full moon of the Ingathering Harvest, we celebrate the New Year of Trees. In the land of Israel, it is a time to plant trees at the beginning of spring. In the 15th century C.E., the mystics of S'fat in the Galilee began the custom of a Tu B'Shevat Seder, connecting the the changing seasons to the Mystical Emmanations of Kabbalah--because these Emmanations are depicted in the form of a tree--the Eitz Chayyim--the Tree of Life. The Tu B'Shevat Seder has become a sort of Jewish Earth Day--a day to consider how we guard and protect Gan Eyden--the garden of Creation.

This year, N. and I collaborated on a simple ritual for the Tu B'Shevat Seder, based on several formats we found on the internet (the customs are still in flux since this is a relatively new ritual). There are four cups of wine (or grape juice), just as there are for the Passover Seder.

One cup is drunk for each season. The first is for winter (Atzilut, the divine energy of creation) and is all white wine. The second, for spring (Yitzirah, the divine energy of birth), is mostly white with a little bit of red. The third, for summer (Beriah, the divine energy of flourishing) , is mostly red with a little bit of white. And the last, for autumn, (Aysh, the divine energy of fire) is all red. N. led the blessing for each cup of wine.

We also different kinds of fruits for each season: Winter is hard on the outside, but nourishing on the inside (almonds), and reminds of the protective and healing power of the atmosphere. Spring is soft on the outside, but hard on the inside (olives and dates), reminding us of the life-sustaining power that emanates from the soil. Summer is soft throughout (figs and grapes), reminding us of our inextricable relationship with the Earth and the fullness of G-d's abundance that sustains the world. And autumn is tough on the outside with sweet fruit within (oranges, melons and avacados), which reminds us of the sweet fulfillment of harvest and the study of Torah--we must dig a bit to uncover the sweetness of the fruits of Torah.

Here is our table, set with the abundance of fruits we used in the Seder. The Pomegranite spice-box hangs from a tree shaped Havdalah candlabra. Since the Seder was done as the Seudah Shlishit (Third Meal) on Shabbat, we concluded the ritual with Havdalah, a ceremony for separation of the day of rest from the six days of work.

At the end of the Seder, we and our guests told the story of Honi ha-Maegel (Honi, the Circle-Drawer), who said: "Though I will not live to see the fruit of the carob trees I now plant, I plant them for those who will come after me." So we do not always see the fruits of our study and effort in our lifetime, but we must labor for those who come after us. As we ate our meal--Pizza made of whole wheat (another fruit of Israel) with cheese (milk) and vegetables, and our desert of honey (the land of milk and honey!), we talked seriously about the coincidence of the International Panel on Climate Change meeting in Paris and the conclusions they are soon to publish about it. We talked about the importance of having the moral strength to labor for those who will come after us. We all pledged to find a way to reduce our emissions in our families and to hound our government to find ways for us to do so as a nation.

After Havdalah, we had planned to plant parsley seeds in window gardens. In northern climes, there is often snow still on the ground, so it has become a custom to plant parsley, which will be ready to eat for the greens dipped in salt water at the Passover Seder. However, we got to talking about Global Warming, so we never did plant! N. and I will do it this week. We ended the evening by reading and discussing the following:

Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai taught: If you have a fruit-tree on your hands and someone says to you: Here is the Messiah. Go and finish planting your fruit-tree just the same, and afterwards go out and welcome the Messiah. (Avot d’Rabi Natan 31).

The Tree and the Mashiach by Danny Seigel

No matter what reasonable people or foaming enthusiastic youth tells you: that this messiah or that messiah is imminent –plant!

The Mashiach is in no rush.When you have planted down the last clods ofdirt, And watered your pines, your cedars,your gum trees and cypresses, he will still be wherever he is supposed to be,and more than happy to admire the sapling with you.

Messiahs don’t come to uproot things .

1 comment:

Megan Bayliss said...

WOW! Reading your entries is home schooling for me Elisheva. I love the information and I really appreciate the comparitive religious insight.
You are amazing woman. Keep up your excellent work.