Hillel and Shammai’s Dispute about the Fruit Tree’s New Year

tree.of.hebrew.lettersBy Sarah Yehudit Schneider

The first of Shevat is the New Year for trees, says the School of Shammai. Beth Hillel disputes this and rules that it falls on the fifteenth of the month. [Mishna RH 1:1]

The Mishna informs us that there are four New Year’s days in the Jewish calendar as well as four Judgment Days [1]. It then proceeds to explain the significance of each. There is a subtle quirk in the Mishna’s language that begs interpretation. Among these eight red-letter days, three apply to fruit trees. The 1st of Tishrei marks the New Year for saplings (נטיעה); the 15th of Shvat (Tu B’Shvat) marks the New Year for budding trees (אילן), and on the 6th of Sivan (Shavuot) the fruitage of the year’s harvest receives its heavenly reckoning (פירות האילן).

The Mishna lists each of these eight dates along with the cycle that begins anew when it comes around—the reign of kings, the tithing of vegetables, the years of creation, the new budget of spiritual resources available this year, etc. And in each instance, the Mishna uses a plural subject—kings, years, livestock, rain, etc.—except for the three times that it mentions fruit trees. On those occasions the Mishna employs a singular noun—tree or seedling—though a plural form would have been more correct.

In this way, says R. Tsadok[2] the Mishna presents both a literal teaching about how to apply our agricultural laws to the fruit harvest, and simultaneously directs our attention to the one-and-only-tree, the tree-that-embraces-all-trees, the tree that stands “at the Garden’s center,” the one that is called the Tree of Life…but which is also, equally, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The Torah mentions the “center of the Garden” twice. First it notes that the Tree of Life grows there.[3] But further on, Chava identifies that central tree as the one that is forbidden to her, which clearly brands it as the Tree of Knowledge.[4] How can both assertions be true?

Rabaynu Bechaya explains that the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge were actually fused together as one.[5] The Tree of Life embraced its higher canopy, while the tree of knowledge comprised its lower half. This ilan at the heart of our Tu B’shvat observance is two trees in one, a fact that is built into the language itself. The term ilan[6] (tree)—the singular noun that the Mishna employs when it mentions the New Year of the Tree—has the gematria of 91 which, Kabbalists note, is also the sum of two names of G-d—the four-letter (unutterable) Tetragrammaton and Adon-oi, the name that we speak when we encounter those letters in prayer and study. These two names (Havaya[7] and Adon-oi) refer to the masculine and feminine aspects of HaShem called Blessed Holy One and Shekhina—Transcendence and Immanence. In Jewish symbology the Tree of Life associates with the Blessed Holy One; the Tree of Knowledge with the Shekhina.

The Tree of Life corresponds to the Written Torah[8] עץ חיים היא…)) whose associations are always good. The written Torah does not permit tinkering or innovation. Before this holy writ we can only hear and obey; there is nothing to add. To “eat” from the Tree of Life is to partake of the world in a way that serves G d through self-nullification. At any moment one is willing to die for truth; to sacrifice one’s ego on the altar of divine service.

The Tree of Knowledge has more complicated associations and corresponds to the Oral Torah in its broadest sense. It includes all the wisdoms and insights pressed from the hearts of Jews striving for integrity on whatever level of halachic observance they currently practice. “There is no truth except Torah.”[9] A person who discovers a new insight, whether from a jail cell or beit midrash, generates a new piece of the Oral Tradition, for if it is true, then it is Torah. This Tree is called Knowledge of Good and Evil because it includes wisdom acquired through wrong choices as well as right ones (through the high road as well as the low). And since its “revelations” emerge from the inside out—as if they were our own ideas—the ego plays an active role in generating oral Torah. The danger is if the ego tries to claim these chidushim by squeezing G-d out of the picture. That turns the Tree of Knowledge of Good into the … Knowledge of Good and Evil.

The Written Torah (and Tree of Life) associates with the sun for it is the radiant source of light and wisdom in the universe. “There is no truth except Torah.” The Oral Torah (and Tree of Knowledge) associates with the moon for we reflect this sunlight back into the world through the lens of our personality and the fruits that we produce.
New Year is the time when channels align to maximize the power of prayer for all that begins its new cycle on that day. As the cosmic ilan approaches its new year Hillel and Shammai debate which of its two trees (עצים but also עצות) should drive the cycle. Which will produce the greatest abundance of quality fruit? By counting the year from the 1st of Shvat, Shammai picks the Tree of Life, the Written Torah, the pure and holy source of all. On rosh chodesh the sun is in its glory while the moon (or ego-self) is barely a sliver. That’s the posture we need to cultivate on this new year of trees, hints Shammai. We are servants of the Holy One and affirm our unqualified obedience to His Law. That humble starting point will assure our greatest success.

Hillel starts the count from mid-month, Tu B’Shvat, when the moon is in its fullness, equal and opposite the sun. That is HaShem’s goal: for the Shekhina and the Holy One to unite in consummate union—to meet and match from the crown of their heads to the souls of their feet. At that point HaShem is one not only in essence, but also in revelation. The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil becomes, again, the Tree of Knowledge of Good (alone), for evil will have ceased. And since, “The final outcome was the original thought” that vision of perfect union should be the rosh (or starting point) of the ilan’s cycle from Hillel’s perspective.

The halacha follows Hillel, and we celebrate the day by enjoying the full grown masterpieces of the ilan’s previous cycle. We eat fruits of all sorts and admire each one’s unique shape, colors, taste and style—each one’s Orah Torah so to speak—its unique way of combining nutrients and sunlight to produce viable fruit.

Let it be a year of abundant rain, nutritious soil, conscious pruning, right temperatures, successful pollination, disease and pest resistance, and bountiful harvest for our branched and rooted friends this year.
[1] 1st of Nissan – which starts a new year when reckoning the length of a king’s reign and for [establishing the order of] the festivals.
1st of Elul – which starts a new year for the tithing of animals.
1st of Tishrey (which is also Rosh HaShanna) – which starts a new year for the counting of years, Sabbaticals, Jubilees, the sapling, and vegetables.
15th of Shvat – which starts a new year for the tree.
In contrast, the four judgment days are:
Pesach (15th of Nissan) – when the world is judged concerning the grain harvest.
Shavuot (7th of Sivan) – when the word is judged concerning the fruits of the tree.
Rosh HaShanna (1st of Tishrei) – when the spiritual (and by extension, material) resources that will be available to each creature are determined for the coming year.
Sukhot (15th of Tishrei) – when Heaven decrees how much rain will fall in the coming year.
2 R. Tsadok HaKohen, Pri Tsadik Vol. 2 (Shmot), Tu B’Shvat.
3 Gen. 2:9.
4 Gen. 3:3.
5 Commenting on Gen. 2:9.
5 R. Tadok HaKohen, Pri Tsadik Vol. 2 (Shmot), Tu B’Shvat..
7 This is a rearrangement of the four letters of the Tetragrammaton that is permissible to speak aloud, so it is used to indicate the true arrangement of letters, the name itself, called the Shem HaEtzem, that should not be written or pronounced unless its sanctity will be properly guarded.
8 Proverbs 3:18.
9 TY Rosh HaShanna 3:8.

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