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Why Is Tu B’Shevat in the Winter?

Why Is Tu B’Shevat in the Winter?

Why celebrate trees when nothing is growing?

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Question:

I just got an e‑mail about celebrating the New Year for Trees in January. I don’t know about where you live, but where I live, it’s freezing, with plenty of snow covering the trees. If you want to celebrate the trees, do it in spring. Why now, right in the middle of winter?

Reply:

The 15th day of the Jewish month of Shevat—or Tu B’Shevat, as it is commonly called—is not the Jewish version of Arbor Day, but is considered the “New Year for Trees,” with real implications for Jewish law. The 15th of Shevat serves to separate one year from the next with regard to the laws of maaserot (tithes of produce), orlah (the fruits of the first three years, which are forbidden for consumption) and sheviit (Shemittah, the Sabbatical year).

For example, the law of orlah is that the fruit of a tree may not be eaten during the first three years after its planting. The fruits of the fourth year are called neta reva’i, and are sanctified; they must be eaten in Jerusalem or “redeemed” with money.1 From the fifth year on, the fruits may be consumed in the normal manner.2

But how do we calculate when the tree has turned three and then four? From Tu B’Shevat.

Practically, this means that the fruit that grows after 15 Shevat of year four may be eaten in Jerusalem, and those grown after 15 Shevat of year five can be eaten at home.3

Why was this date chosen?

As is the case with many Torah laws, the halachah is based on what happens in the Land of Israel.4 So, since most of Israel’s rainy season is over by the 15th of Shevat, this date is considered the New Year for Trees.5 Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi) explains that at this point the ground has become saturated with the rains of the new year, causing the sap to start rising in the trees, which means that the fruit can begin to bud.

The Jerusalem Talmud records an alternative explanation. Until the New Year for Trees, all trees can survive on the water from the previous year. After their New Year, the trees derive their life source from the water of the new year.6

Light at the End of the Tunnel

If you are reading this in sub-zero weather, you may find the most comfort in the explanation of Rabbi Menachem Meiri (1249–c. 1310), who points out that the winter season extends from the month of Tevet until the month of Nissan. The 15th of Shevat is the midpoint between fall and spring. Once half the winter has passed, its strength is weakened, the cold is not as intense, and the budding process begins.7

So take heart. Yes, it may be smack in the middle of winter, but the 15th of Shevat marks a turning point, a time when under all that cold and snow the sap of the trees is rising, readying for spring. In a sense, the 15th of Shevat signifies that sometimes it is precisely from within the darkest and coldest moments of our lives that the new blossoms burst forth!

Footnotes
1.
The fruits of the fourth year can be eaten only when the Holy Temple is standing, by someone who is ritually pure. Unfortunately, today we do not have the Temple (a state of affairs we constantly plead with G‑d to change), and we are all considered ritually impure and do not have the means necessary for purification. Therefore, instead of bringing these fruits to Jerusalem, we “transfer” their holiness to (a small amount of) money, and we discard that money. See Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 294:6.
2.
The “years,” however, are not necessarily full years.

The count works like this: No matter how the tree started growing, whether through planting or grafting, the age of a tree is determined by when it was planted in relation to Rosh Hashanah. If it was planted by the 15th of Av (one and a half months before Rosh Hashanah), then it will be counted as one year old when it reaches that Rosh Hashanah. If, however, it was planted from the 16th of Av and onward, it is counted as being one year old only on the Rosh Hashanah of the following year. (Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 9b–10a; Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Maaser Sheni 9:10–12).

However, although Rosh Hashanah is the New Year for saplings, Tu B’Shevat is the New Year for trees. So the sapling becomes a tree (on Rosh Hashanah), but does not “age” as a tree for the purposes of orlah until Tu B’Shevat.
3.
Rashi on Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 10a.
4.
We start mentioning rain in the Amidah prayer on Sukkot based on the Land of Israel, and the Talmud tells us that G‑d allocated the best rains to Israel first, with the rest of the world getting the “leftovers” (Talmud, Taanit 10a).
5.
Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 14a and Rashi ad loc. See also Jerusalem Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 1:2.
6.
Jerusalem Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 1:2. See Pnei Moshe ad loc.
7.
Beit HaBechirah, Rosh Hashanah 1:1.
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi service.
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