Tu B’Shvat, 5771 / 2011

Tu B’Shvat, 5771 / 2011

Sarah Yehudit Schneider

tree_of_life2The Mishna informs us that there are actually 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[2]; the 15th of Shvat (Tu B’Shvat) marks the New Year for budding trees[3], and on the 6th of Sivan (Shavuot) the fruitage of the year’s harvest receives its heavenly reckoning.

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—though a plural form would have been more correct.

In this way, says R. Tsadok[4] 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 tree that is called the Tree of Life. The dense network of channels and tributaries (on the inner plane) that circulates life force to all created things is the corpus of this Tree of Life. The pith of every person is a stalk connected to a branch connected to the trunk connected to the roots of this cosmic Tree with roots above and fruits below whose branches reach to every corner of the universe.

The Tree of Life has as many fruits as there are creatures (and moments) in the world. The Shekhina is its gardener and she daily plucks its ripened yield. Every spark (including our very own soul) will eventually mature into a fully mellowed fruit whose final (and coveted) milestone is to be eaten with delight by the holy Shekhina. A spark must labor lifetimes to be worthy of this privilege. The Shekhina only dines on fruits that are edible through and through. In the course of its “growing season” the spark must dissolve all barriers to the light—both skins without and kernels within. By the Shekhina’s standards, an edible fruit is an enlightened fruit—whose boundaries are transparent, whose kernals of potential have been fully actualized, and whose will always aligns with spiritual law.

But this is not an all or nothing affair. The Torah informs us that “Man is a tree of the field.” Each of us is simultaneously a fruit on the cosmic Tree of Life, and a mini-tree in our own right, producing fruits of varied sorts, that are simply the deeds of our lives. The goal is to find the most spiritually productive option and to choose it with a whole heart. The sparks that enliven those perfectly ripened moments are plucked by the Shekhina and savored by Her.[5] Conversely, our imperfect deeds, with shells and pits that resist the light, require rounds of tikun before they are done.

Tu B’Shvat is New Year’s Day for the cosmic Tree of Life. And on that day the Shekhina prays for all her holy fruits (i.e., us) that our lives should yield a bumper crop of ripened sparks this year. And we align our prayer with hers and strive for the same thing: that every step we take and every choice we make should bear fruits that are only good. And bringing it down another notch to include our branched and rooted friends, may it be a year of abundant rain, nutritious soil, conscious pruning, right temperatures, successful pollination, disease and pest resistance, and bountiful harvest for the fruit trees of the world.


[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] For counting orlah years.

[3]For counting trumot, maserot and shmitot.

[4] Pri Tsadik Vol. 2 (Shmot), Tu B’Shvat.

[5]The Shekhina is called the behema who consumes the produce of a thousand hills each day. Also R. Shlomo Elyashuv, HDOH 2:3:20; HDOH 2:4:16:3

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  • Randy Settenbrino

    Beautifully and artfully written. Yisroel Settenbrino

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