Why does Jewish tradition celebrate the New Year for trees when nothing is growing?
For us Canadians, this time of year 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, do we Jews celebrate Rosh HaShanah L'Ilanot – the New Year for trees?
The 15th day of the Jewish month of Shevat - Tu B’Shevat - is not the Jewish version of Arbor Day, but is considered the “New Year for Trees,” with real implications for Jewish law.
In the times of the Temple in Jerusalem, the 15th of Shevat served to separate one year from the next with regard to the laws of bringing one’s tithes of produce and orlah (the fruits of the first three years, which are forbidden for consumption) to the Temple as a recognition of thanks to God for the bounty of the earth. For the Jewish farmer, calculation of which produce or fruits could be brought to the Temple was important and Tu B’Shevat provided the timeline.
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.
One reason given in rabbinic sources is that since most of Israel’s rainy season is over by the 15th of Shevat, this date is considered the New Year for Trees.
Another explanation given by the famous rabbinic commentator, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchaki), is 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. 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.
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!