From the Rabbi’s Desk

 From the Rabbi’s Desk February, 2020

Rabbi Carla Freedman

A quick look at the Jewish calendar will show you that there are no Jewish holy days (other than Shabbat, of course) in February. This may have something to do with the reality that, in antiquity, when there were no paved roads, and people walked wherever they were going, the winter season often brought torrential rains which washed out the pathways and made travel very difficult and unpleasant. The major festivals of the Jewish calendar are clustered in the spring (think: Pesakh and Shavuot) and the fall (think: Sukkot. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur did not become the “high holy days” as we know them until after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, and during the time when the temple stood, they were not “pilgrimage festivals” which required all male Jews to bring offerings to the temple).

There is one occasion that will be observed in February this year, though it more often falls in January when there is no leap year (in order to keep the festivals in their appropriate seasons, our lunar calendar is adjusted seven times in a 19 year cycle, with the addition of a whole extra month). 5779 (last year) was a leap year, and all the dates on our calendar fall later on the secular calendar this year as a result.

The event I am referring to is Tu b’Shvat. This is an occasion created by the early rabbis, and is often referred to as “the new year of the trees.” The rabbis established this date for the purpose of counting the age of a tree, since the Torah forbids eating the fruit of a tree till that tree is more than three years old. After the third Tu b’Shvat of a tree’s life, the rabbis permitted eating its fruit.

There are 3 other “new year” dates on the traditional Jewish calendar: Nisan 1is the beginning of counting months (thus Rosh HaShanah falls on the first day of the seventh month). This date is also used to reckon the years of a king’s reign. Elul 1is the date for the cattle tithe. And, of course, Rosh HaShanah on Tishre 1, is the beginning of the cultural {theatre, music, etc.} season).

Tu b’Shvat is celebrated by eating various fruits that grow in Israel. We distinguish between those we eat whole (strawberries, figs), those whose pit or seed we don’t eat (peaches, dates, plums, olives, pears, etc.), those whose skin we do not eat (oranges, grapefruit), those of which we eat only the seeds (pomegranate). And it is traditional to accompany all this with four cups of wine, at a Tu b’Shvat seder (does this remind you of another occasion with food rituals?). The first cup is white wine or grape juice, symbolizing winter; the second is white with a couple of drops of red, symbolizing the earliest signs of spring; the third is 50/50, red and white, to symbolize spring; and the fourth is all red, to symbolize the full array of summer colors.

In Israel, and possibly in places like Florida, but not Russia or Poland (or Winnipeg!), Tu b’Shvat is celebrated with the planting of trees. Many years ago in Plattsburgh, on Tu b’Shvat, I planted some parsley seeds in a pot in my office (it was bigger than the office I have now!) and I nurtured them, under a grow light, so that we had our own home-grown parsley for the temple Passover seder!

This year, Tu b’Shvat will be observed on Sunday, February 9thin the evening and through till sunset on Monday, the 10th. I encourage you to get some of the fruits mentioned above and some grape beverages and to pay attention to how we eat different fruits, and how we think of the plant-growing seasons, as per the color of the beverage.

How nice, to break up the winter with this simple celebration of the earth’s bounty. Do it!



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