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What Makes a Holiday Important?

“There are four days in the year that serve as the New Year, each for a different purpose: On the first of Nisan is the New Year for kings; it is from this date that the years of a king’s rule are counted. The first of Nisan is also the New Year for the order of the Festivals. It determines which is considered the first Festival of the year and which is the last. On the first of Elul is the New Year for animal tithes. All the animals born prior to that date belong to the previous tithe year and are tithed as a single unit, whereas those born after that date belong to the next tithe year. Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Shimon say: The New Year for animal tithes is on the first of Tishrei. On the first of Tishrei is the New Year for counting years, as will be explained in the Gemara; for calculating Sabbatical Years and the Jubilee Year. For example, from the first of Tishrei there is a biblical prohibition to work the land during these years. When planting, for determining the years of orlah, the three- year period from when a tree has been planted, during which time its fruit is forbidden. For tithing vegetables, as vegetables picked prior to that date cannot be tithed together with vegetables picked after that date. On the first of Shevat is the New Year for the tree. The fruit of a tree that was formed prior to that date belongs to the previous tithe year and cannot be tithed together with fruit that was formed after that date. This ruling is in accordance with the statement of Beit Shamai. But Beit Hillel says, “The New Year for trees is on the fifteenth of Shevat.” (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:1)

According to the Mishnah, the treatise that analyzes through rabbinical discussions where passages of the Torah needed clarification to be fulfilled, there are 4 new years. One of them is the New Year of the trees, Tu biShvat, on the 15th day of the month of Shevat. On this date, the rebirth and flowering of the trees and the Jewish People is celebrated. According to Rashi, one of the leading biblical commentators, this date was chosen because most winter rains end on Tu biShvat. After several months of remaining in the roots, the sap moves up the tree and begins to travel down the tree trunk, the branches again and the fruits begin to ripen. Although in the month of Shvat we do not see the beautiful trees full of leaves, fruits or flowers. We can see, especially in Israel, the almond trees bloom suddenly, filling up with beautiful little buds that begin to open. We must remember, already in preparation for Passover, that the rods of Moses and Aharon were made of almond. These rods were endowed with miraculous power during the events of the Ten Plagues, the Exodus from Egypt, and Korach’s rebellion against Moses. According to the book of Numbers 17:8, “Aharon’s rod produced buds and flowers and gave ripe almonds.” The Torah compares man to a tree, and the Tzaddik (a just and holy man) to a flourishing palm tree. In an interesting statement from the Talmud, our Sages declare that the Tzaddik lives for eternity, …“just as his seed is alive, so he too is alive” (“seed” is used in this case as a concept of offspring, children, disciples). If we take the analogy of the seed and the trees to which we are invited, we can apply the idea of the wonderful growth process that transforms a small seed into a multiple reproductive agent of its kind, to our life as members of the People of Israel. Raising a child is like planting a seed. We must nurture “potential fruit trees,” which will bear fruit in the future with the awareness of a strong identity with the land. Although we do not find Tu biShvat as a holiday in the Torah, it was clear to our sages that this link with our surrounding world had to be celebrated in the spirit of what the Torah conveys to us. The human being is a tree of the field and there is an inescapable link and commitment to the care of nature and the environment. In 1949, it was the flourishing State of Israel who decided to establish the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, on Shevat 15. This was a sign of renewal and a new beginning. Between the Talmudic dates and the founding of the new state, the Jewish People did not inhabit the land of Israel except in some towns with strong roots. One of them was the city of Tzfat, where the Kabbalists concentrated on the search for study and spiritual elevation. It was these wise scholars who established customs which are deeply rooted as the Kabalat Shabbat ceremony and the Tu biShvat seder—a meal in which we must taste at least the 7 native species of Israel wheat, barley (cereals in general), grapes, figs, olives, dates, pomegranates and even 26 species of different fruits and vegetables, recalling the value of 26 in the sacred name of God. What makes a holiday important? Is it origin or its tradition?

Probably both. The Torah gives us the norms to fulfill those that we receive from the Lord. Our Wise Men of blessed memory are the ones who, through the study and search for the essence of the People of Israel, teach us that there are customs that accompany the laws to make us a People more united with our roots, with our Land of Israel and with a better and solid future as a People. Tu biShvat Sameach for all! And don't forget to plant a new tree to commemorate this beautiful Chag.


Rabbi Gustavo Geier

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