Rosh Hodesh Shevat Torah Essay
On the fifteenth of the month of Shevat we celebrate Rosh Hashana laalinot (the New Year for the trees) or Tu B’Shevat. Tu B’Shevat is a time of renewal; it is the Jewish equivalent of Arbor day (celebration of the trees and planting). It is celebrated during this time of the year because early winter rains are mostly over and the period of blooming begins.
In the 16th century, Kabbalists began the tradition of creating a seder in honor of Tu B’Shevat. Inspired by the Pesach seder, the Tu B’Shevat seder also has four cups of wine, paralleling the four seasons of the year. Accompanying the four cups, fruit of the seven species and grains from the land of Israel are traditionally served and select chapters of Psalms are read. Some contemporary Tu B’Shevat Haggadot include songs about fruit, trees and the theme of renewal such as tzadik katamar, hashkediah porachat, and atzei zeitim omdim. As a special touch, each of the four cups of wine becomes a shade darker for each of the four seasons of the year.
In some seders, one will even have their own version of the four questions, Tu B’Shevat style, of course! Questions may include: on other new year’s celebrations, we honor events and people, why does this new year honor trees? Or on other days, we eat many kinds of foods, why today do we especially eat fruits which grow in Israel?
Tu B’Shevat can be especially educational and impactful for the youth. Just like we use the Passover seder to inspire children, the Tu B’Shevat seder enables children to be creative and inquisitive about the holiday of trees. The seder provides an interactive and fun experience for asking questions and learning more about nature and renewal through a Jewish perspective.
A story I would like to share touches upon the importance of expressing gratitude for the past, as well as looking to the future and the next generation. By planting trees, we place both trust in and hope for the future.
In Masechet Taanit we read the story of Honi Hamaagel.
אמר ר’ יוחנן כל ימיו של אותו צדיק היה מצטער על מקרא זה (תהלים קכו, א) שיר המעלות בשוב ה’ את שיבת ציון היינו כחולמים אמר מי איכא דניים שבעין שנין בחלמא
Rabbi Yoḥanan said: All the days of the life of that righteous man, Ḥoni, he was distressed over the meaning of this verse: “A song of Ascents: When the Lord brought back those who returned to Zion, we were like those who dream” (Psalms 126:1). He said to himself: Is there really a person who can sleep and dream for seventy years? How is it possible to compare the seventy-year exile in Babylonia to a dream?
One day, he was walking along the road when he saw an elderly man planting a carob tree. Ḥoni said to him: This tree, after how many years will it bear fruit? The man said to him: It will not produce fruit until seventy years have passed. Ḥoni said to him: Is it obvious to you that you will live seventy years, that you expect to benefit from this tree? He said to him:
עלמא בחרובא אשכחתיה כי היכי דשתלי לי אבהתי שתלי נמי לבראי
That man himself found a world full of carob trees. Just as my ancestors planted for me, I too am planting for my descendants.
Honi retired to a shady resting place and fell asleep for 70 years. Upon waking up he saw a full grown carob tree and an elderly man picking from it. Honi asked:
את הוא דשתלתיה א”ל בר בריה אנא
are you the man who planted? No, that was my grandfather.
What can we learn from this story? First we are reminded of the importance of Hakarat HaTov (gratitude). We must be grateful to our ancestors and the members of their generation for their efforts in ensuring a better life for us. We also learn the importance of “paying it forward.” While it is important to enjoy the fruits of our own labor today, we must realize that many of the fruits of our labor won’t be ripe for many years. Therefore we must look forward and be mindful to secure a future that, perhaps, may only be enjoyed by our progeny. Planting trees also teaches us the attributes of patience and foresight. These are some of the messages taught to us by Honi Hamaagel, trees and their special holiday — Tu B’Shevat.