From the Rabbi’s Desk

 From the Rabbi’s Desk January 2021

Rabbi Carla Freedman


After a furious flurry of Jewish holy days in the fall…September or October on the secular calendar…there comes the lull of the late fall, with no holy days (other than Shabbat each week, of course) or even holidays until Chanukah, this year occurring in the middle of December. But
it is worth noting that Chanukah is not a Torah-mandated holiday, since the events it celebrates (167-164 BCE) took place after the Torah was deemed closed, somewhere in the mid to late 400s BCE.

Neither, for that matter, is Purim a Torah mandated occasion; the events it celebrates occurred…if at all..during the Persian period, between 538 BCE and 330 BCE, approximately.

So, in the Biblical period, there was in fact no observances from the end of Sukkot to the beginning of Pesakh. Of course, Shabbat occurred weekly, but we have no idea how Jews observed Shabbat before the Rabbinic period (formally beginning after the destruction of the
Temple in 70 CE); all of our contemporary Shabbat observances are rabbinic in origin.

Why no events on the calendar from fall to spring? Keep in mind that the rainy season in Israel begins as Sukkot ends, and lasts until Pesakh begins (proof? Check the special line  prayerbook, Mishkan T’filah). And in ancient times, there were no paved roads in Israel. The Torah-mandated religious practice of bringing animals for sacrifice to the Temple in Jerusalem was a very
unpleasant and dangerous undertaking during the rainy season. Accordingly, Jews were not required to make that trek during the winter.

Chanukah and Purim are minor festivals, requiring no trip to Jerusalem. The only obligation to cease work applies to the Shabbat that might coincide with these festivals. So it is possible that these occasions, now clearly part of annual Jewish observance, became widespread because the winter months are dreary and people need a little joy both to look forward to and to practice.

Tu B’Shvat is another minor winter event on the Jewish calendar, which  of the trees”. Leviticus 19:23 says that we are not permitted to eat fruit from a tree until it is 3 years old. To make it
possible to know the age of a tree, the rabbis taught that on the 15th day of the month of Shvat, we add a year to the age of a tree, regardless of exactly when it was planted. Fruit that ripens on a tree before its third TuB’Shvat is forbidden, while fruit that ripens after that date is
permitted. Further, the rabbis used this same date, the 15th of Shvat as the payment date for certain tithes (taxes).

In Israel, people actually plant trees on TuB’Shvat. They also enjoy the specific fruits that are identified with Israel (dates, figs, pomegranates, almonds, prunes, apricots, oranges, olives, raisins, carob). A Hasidic custom, which is now fairly widespread, is to eat those fruits
and drink four cups of wine in a specific order (ring a bell??), as part of a TuB’Shvat sed flesh but not the skin (oranges), fruit of which we eat the flesh and the skin (olives, dates, etc.) but not the seeds; fruits of which we eat only the seeds (pomegranates); fruit of which we eat the
7 flesh, skin, and seeds (figs). And the wine or juice is consumed to call attention to the growing season: white for winter (when seeds lie dormant); white with a tiny drop of red for early
spring; white and red, 50/50 for late spring; red for summer.

Also in Israel, this date is associated with the environmental movement, and projects to protect the environment are often begun or highly publicized on Tu B’Shvat.

For our more recent ancestors who lived in places like Poland and Russia, Tu B’Shvat must have seemed a fantasy; in places like the Canadian prairie and upstate New York or the Midwest, tree
planting in January is impossible. But even in those places, we have been connected to this Israeli observance by paying for the planting of trees there. Many of us remember buying a leaf on a on a tree every week at Hebrew school, for 5 cents a leaf, till we’d paid for a whole tree ($1.50, I think). That project paid for the trees that reforested Israel after hundreds of years of destruction of the forests and orchards of the Biblical period.

Tu B’Shvat is the first of three holidays that begin on the 15th day of the month: Purim begins on Adar 15, and Pesakh begins on Nisan 15. All of these are occasions of the full moon, because the Jewish calendar is largely related to the cycles of the moon. This gives us an easy way to see that the winter does come to an end, as we celebrate the first two of these occasions, both
non-Toraitic, as moments of joy in an otherwise long haul between fall and spring, in anticipation of Pesakh, which is both Torah-mandated and explicitly identified with spring (the month now called Nisan was originally called Aviv, spring).

We will celebrate Tu B’Shvat on Wednesday, January 27 in the evening (via Zoom) with a special brief seder…by email you will receive instructions about getting the fruits and wine or grape juice needed…and we will begin our trek toward spring and Pesakh together! Do join us!

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