By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
Most people know very little about Tu B’Shvat. We know it as the Rosh HaShana for trees. This is based upon the first Mishna in the tractate Rosh HaShana, “Beis Shammai is of the opinion that Rosh HaShana for trees is the 1st of Shvat. Bais Hillel says that it is the 15th.”
Let us try to examine what the term “Rosh HaShana” in this context means. We often associate Rosh HaShana with Day of Judgment. But are trees actually judged on this day?
The consensus of Rabbinic thought is that there is a Rosh HaShana for trees, but it is not Tu B’Shvat – it is Shavuos. The Gemorah in Rosh HaShana (16a) states clearly trees are judged on Shavuos. This is also how the majority of commentators understand this Gemorah.
What then is the nature of the Rosh HaShanaism of Tu B’Shvat as discussed in the tractate of Rosh HaShana (2a)?
It is more like a fiscal year – beginning of the year. In regard to all Mitzvos associated with trees, Tu B’Shvat begins the year and ends the previous year. Maaser, for example, cannot be taken on fruits from one year to the next year. The same is true for the laws of Orlah – until it sees its third and fourth Tu B’Shvat (with one other proviso according to the Rambam) it is still forbidden to be consumed.
The laws of Trumah, Shviis, are also affected by the date of Tu B’Shvat. In short, it is a technical Rosh haShana – the date that is crucial for all the agricultural halachos.
This approach, however, is not so simple. The Shulchan Aruch rules (OC 572:3) that a community that wishes to establish a communal fast on a Monday or Thursday, and it happened to fall on Tu B’shvat – the fast should be pushed off until the next week. The Shulchan Aruch references the Hagaos Maimonius, but the question was first posed to Rabbeinu Gershom MeOhr HaGolah.
The problem is that this seems to show that there is much more than a “fiscal year” nature to Tu B’Shvat. No fasting means that there is something other than technical details of the agricultural halachos going on here.
Another halacha brings out this point as well – a Chosson should not fast on his wedding day if it falls out on Tu B’shvat (See Mishna Brura 573:7).
If it is only fiscal – then why do we not fast? The answer is that there must have been some dimension of ruchniyus- spirituality here.
The Mogain Avrohom (131:16) writes that the Minhag among Ashkenazim is to eat fruits of trees on this day.
It is interesting to note that all of the Tu B’Shvat holiness minhagim are traced to Ashkenaz Jewry. It seems that they were privy to traditions not found in the Talmud Bavli. These traditions were not passed down to Sefardic schools or the writings of the Sefardic Rishonim. There is also no mention of Tu B’shvat practices in the writings of the AriZal either.
Throughout the Rishonim and the early Achronim – only these three halachos were mentioned.
Then, historically, a bomb shell erupted. The Sefer Chemdas Yamim, an anonymous kabbalistic work written in the late 17th century on mystical aspects of Shabbos and the Yamim Tovim appeared. It was not limited to mysticism. It mentioned halacha, mussar, and many of the Minhagim of the Arizal.
Initially, the great Acharon Rav Yaakov Emden believed that it was written by a follower of Shabtai Tzvi. Since then, however, it has been accepted by many various groups in Klal Yisroel. Chassidim and Sefardim use it as a source for many Kaballah minhagim.
This sefer has in it something called the Tu BeShevat Seder (see Vol. 2, Shovevim Ch. 3, p. 108-110), which has become very popular among many various groups of Jews. Indeed, a whole Seder of events was described with psukim recited for each of some thirty different fruits.
Sefer Chemdas Yamim was originally published and edited in 1732 by the great Rabeinu Yaakov Ben Yom Tov Algazi, the father of the Maharit Algazi, who was a friend of the Chida. This gave the sefer great credibility and authenticity. The hesitations of Rav Yaakov Emden were soon forgotten.
Whether or not they were to adopt the Tu B’Shvat Seder (most people did not) – the Chemdas Yamim pointed the way for the great Baalei Machshava to see and describe the spiritual essence of Tu B’Shvat.
The author of the Chemdas Yamim was unaware of something that was to be discovered in the late 1800’s in Egypt. This was the Cairo Geniza where well over half a million items placed in Shaimus in a shul in Cairo for over a thousand years were discovered. In the Cairo Genizah were special piyutim that were apparently recited with the Shmoneh Esreh in Eretz Yisroel during the times of the Gaonim.
What were in these piyutim? They described a spiritual dimension to Tu B’Shvat that clearly demonstrated to all that Tu B’Shvat was a deep spiritual experience for the Torah community in Eretz Yisroel.
Unfortunately, the Yiddishkeit of Eretz Yisroel’s Gaonim was soon to be utterly destroyed with the advent of the Crusades. Jewish blood flowed in the streets like rivers. Those Jews were viciously murdered. It seems, however, that some remembrance of the “holiness” practices remained with Ashkenazic Jewry.
So what was the spiritual dimension of Tu B’Shvat? Where did the holiness emanate from? What is it that these three halachos allude to?
The Apter Rav, author of the Ohaiv Yisroel (end of Parshas Shlach) (1748-1825) zatzal explained that the month of Nissan is when the Jewish nation will ultimately be redeemed in the future. Forty days or so before this time is an “aschalta degeulah,” an awakening of the time of Bias HaMashiach – the arrival of Mashiach.
Chazal, therefore, established this time as a holiday with aspects of the sparks of the redemption that will occur in Nissan. It is this day, Tu B’Shvat, which is imbued with the holiness of the Aschalta – beginnings of the Geulah.
Therefore, all the halachos of Trumah, Maaser, Orlah, will begin on the day imbued with the holiness of the impending redemption.
Even though the redemption did not yet occur, the holiness is still inherent in the day. The Klausenberger Rebbe points out (Drashos 5741) that Avrohom Avinu baked Matzos on the day of Pesach even before it happened according to the Midrash (BR 48:12). Why? Because the holiness is part of the very day – even before it transpired. The same is true for Tu B’shvat.
We may ask, however, why is there a special minhag of eating the fruits of Eretz Yisroel on this day? And what is the further or deeper connection between the Rosh HaShana for trees and the future redemption?
We find in the Mechilta (BeShalach chapter 3) that Rabbi Yishmael tells us that the Red Sea was split through the merit of Yerushalayim. At first glance this seems bizarre. What does the redemption from Mitzrayim have to do with Yerushalayim?
The Midrash tells us (Esther Rabbah 1:9) that Yerushalayim is the way that Eretz Ysiroel is often referenced because it is the center of Eretz Yisroel. We find, therefore, that this Mechilta is telling us that the merit of Eretz Yisroel brings about Geulah – redemption.
Tu B’Shvat in its primary role highlights the trees and fruits of what Eretz Yisroel is blessed with. It is the merit of Eretz Yisroel, that brought about the past Geulah from Egypt according to this Mechilta. It would seem very appropriate that the merit of Eretz Yisroel will bring about the future Geulah as well.
It would seem that these are the reasons for our halachic minhagim as well. We eat the fruit of Eretz Yisroel on Tu B’Shvat so that the Aschalta of the Geulah will materialize through the merit of Eretz Yisroel.
The uthor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org