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What’s So Special About Shevat? Between Shemita and Ma’aser

Tevet 5781 | January 2021

Shevat seems inherently important. Contained within it is Tu b’Shevat, the new year for trees, which has the power to change the halakhic status of fruit grown in that year. Any fruit grown before Tu b’Shevat is considered to have the legal status of the previous year (i.e. before Rosh Hashanah), and any fruit grown afterwards has the status of the new year. This is the case for ma’aser (when we switch which tithes we give on our fruit) and orlah (when the fruit of the fourth year becomes permitted to eat in Yerushalayim). However this is to overstate the importance of Shevat.

The Yerushalmi (Rosh Hashanah 1:2) gives two reasons for why the new year for trees is in Shevat.
1. Most of the rain for this year has already fallen (כבר יצאו רוב גשמי שנה), and therefore the trees have begun to grow fruit. It is designated as the date of the beginning of a new agricultural season, giving inherent, albeit arbitrary significance to the month of Shevat.
2. Up until this point in the year we can assume that any fruit grown was forced to use some stored water from the previous year since there has not yet been enough water this year (since Rosh Hashanah is in Tishrei) to grow new fruits. Therefore the fruit is regarded as the produce of the previous year’s water. This gives no inherent significance to Shevat, since the calculation is entirely based on the rainfall from Rosh Hashanah.

According to which reason do we paskin? In order to find out, let us analyze a potential nafka minah between these opinions – is there a difference between shemita and maaser/orlah as to when the fruit is considered the product of the new year? According to the first opinion, there should be no difference since Tu b’Shevat is the arbitrary date of the new halakhic year for fruit. This is indeed the psak of Rabbeinu Chananel. However, according to the second reason there is a difference between shemita and ma’aser/orlah. During shemita the kedusha on the land takes effect from Rosh Hashanah. Therefore any growth at all using the water from the shemita year would endow the fruit with kedusha, even if it was not enough to fully grow the fruit. This is the psak of the Rambam (Hilchot Shevi’it v’Yovel 4:9).

However the Bavli (14a) quotes only the first opinion from the Yerushalmi, “כבר יצאו רוב גשמי שנה”. Generally, in any machloket between the Bavli and the Yerushalmi we paskin like the Bavli, for a variety of reasons including halacha k’batrai (the later halakhic opinion wins). Why is the Rambam ruling like the second opinion in the Yerushalmi, if it is not quoted in the Bavli? He is ruling like the Yerushalmi rather than the Bavli!

I think that the answer can be found in Tosfot (d”h “b’echad”) who explain the language of the Bavli differently. They explain that most of the rain for the year has fallen since Tishrei implying not an arbitrary season change (as explained above in the first opinion in the Yerushalmi) but rather a date predicated on the amount of growth since Tishrei. This sounds a lot like the second opinion in the Yerushalmi! In other words, Tosfot assume that the Bavli is a fusion of the two opinions in the Yerushalmi; it has the words of the first opinion but the idea of the second. Therefore when the Rambam ruled that fruit should have kedusha from Rosh Hashanah rather than Tu b’Shevat, he is really ruling like the Bavli after all!

Halacha lma’aseh, we rule like the Rambam (Rav Kook and the Chazon Ish). Therefore for ma’aser we calculate from Tu b’Shevat, saying that the fruit is only considered this year’s fruit when it has fully grown from the rains from this year. However for shemita we calculate from Rosh Hashanah because the fruit has kedusha from even a small amount of growth from the rain that fell from Rosh Hashanah itself.

By analyzing the machloket about shemitta, we are left at the end of the day with one understanding of why Tu b’Shevat is in Shevat, and it is one which gives Shevat no inherent significance. Tishrei is the month when everything is dated and decided: whether our fruit will grow plentifully, whether the rain will fall and whether we will live and whether we will die.

But Shevat is the month when the judgement from Rosh Hashanah has begun to be revealed. We only know when to switch our ma’aser when the majority of the rain which we prayed for has fallen and when the fruit has begun to grow purely on the strength of this year’s water and this year’s prayer. The effectiveness of our prayers in Tishrei begins to be revealed in Shevat.

Four months on, Tu b’Shevat reminds us to look back at what we davened for in Tishrei and notice the first buds of the beginning of the flowering of our tefillot.

Hannah Abrams

Hannah has an MA from the Graduate Program for Advanced Taludic Studies in Yeshiva University, and is currently learning in the second cohort of Hilkhata, Matan’s Advanced Halakhic Institute.