Walder Science Center

What is Tu Bi’Shvat?

Indeed, What is Tu Bi’Shvat?

Next week is Tu Bi’Shvat, the 15th day of Hebrew month of Shevat. We learn in school that Tu Bi’Shvat is ‘the New Year for Trees’. In Israel, many communities have Tu Bi’Shvat events with children planting trees and singing Tu Bi’Shvat songs.

What exactly is the significance of a New Year for trees? The trees don’t celebrate so why do we? And why is the new year on the 15th of Shvat and not on the 1st of Tishrei with the Rosh Hashanah holiday?

Every year in Israel, the Torah commands us to separate portions of crops to give to the Kohanim (Priests) and Leviim (Levites)2% (Terumah) is given to the Kohanim and 10% (Maaser Rishon) to the Leviim . In turn, the Leviim give 10% of the Maaser Rishon they receive, to the Kohanim (Terumat Maaser). There are many rules related to all these Terumot and Maasrot.

In addition to what the farmer separates and gives to the Kohanim and Leviim, she must separate from the produce another 10%. Sometimes it is given to the poor (Maaser Ani) and sometimes that 10% is Kodesh – holy (Maaser Sheni) and needs to be redeemed with money to be eaten.

Flowers in the Old City of Jerusalem (Image: CC BY SA 4.0 Djampa via Wikimedia Commons)
Flowers in the Old City of Jerusalem (Image: CC BY SA 4.0 Djampa via Wikimedia Commons)

Tu Bi’Shvat is important because it’s the day that makes the difference in deciding whether a 10% of the tree fruit is Maaser Sheni that needs to be redeemed or Maaser Ani that must be given to the poor. How is that?

In Israel, seven years cycles are counted just like weeks are counted with seven days each. Just like all over the world we work for six days and observe Sabbath every seventh; so, too, in the Land of Israel, we work the land for six years, and observe a Sabbath of the land during all of the seventh year. The seventh year is called Shemitta (שמיטה) or Shvi’it (שביעית), often getting the 7-year period the moniker ‘the Shemittah cycle.’

Tithing and the Shemittah Cycle

According to the Torah, the 1st, 2nd, 4th & 5th years are ‘Maaser Sheni’ years. That means that the 10% separated after Terumah and Maaser Rishon is holy and needs to be redeemed by money before one may eat it. This 10% Maaser Sheni belongs to the farmer.

The Jerusalem Shuk (Marketplace), where fruit must be tithed before it hits the shelves (Image: Public Domain)
The Jerusalem Shuk (Marketplace), where fruit must be tithed before it hits the shelves (Image: Public Domain)

However, the 3rd and 6th years of the Shemittah cycle are ‘Maaser Ani’ years. The 10% separated after Terumah and Maaser Rishon is to be given to the poor. But how do we know which year of the cycle it is?

That’s were Tu Bi’Shvat comes in. For anything that grows other than fruit trees, the date that separates the years of the Shemittah cycle is our regular Rosh Hashanah, the 1st of Tishrei. But fruit trees have their own special rule because of the manner in which the tree produces its fruit.

When winter is winding down and a fruit tree comes out of hibernation, the tree starts its new year of production by nourishing itself from the moist, warming earth. Branches sprout flowers which are pollinated by bees. After pollination in the springtime and new little forming fruit is revealed, after the flower falls off. This is termed in the Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 1:1) as חנטה. Depending whether the חנטה on a tee takes place before or after Tu Bi’Shvat will determine whether 10% of that tree’s fruit is Maaser Sheni or Maaser Ani.

Let’s say, for example, that the 1st of Tishrei signals the beginning of the 3rd year of the Shemittah cycle. Any fruit of a tree whose חנטה occurs between the 1st of Tishrei and the following Tu Bi’Shvat is still considered 2nd year fruit, even though its already the 3rd year! The 10% from that fruit is Maaser Sheni. But any fruit of that tree whose חנטה occurs after the following Tu Bi’Shvat is 3rd year fruit. And the 10% from that fruit is Maaser Ani.

That is why Tu Bi’Shvat is called “The New Year of the Trees.”

Next week we will talk about Tu Bi’Shvat during the Shemittah year. Shemittah is the sabbath of the land and no planting of trees is allowed by the Torah. Do we observe Tu Bi’Shvat during Shemittah? Do we separate and give Terumah and Maaser during Shemittah?

Stay tuned and next week we will continue the discussion!

Rabbi Heschel Weiner

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ח׳ בשבט ה׳תשע״ה (January 28, 2015)

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