When you send forth your breath, they are created,
and you renew the face of the earth.
I remember the first time I heard about Tu Bi-Shevat. I was walking through the basement of Woollen Gym with my friend Aaron on the way to do laps in the indoor pool, a few weeks into the second semester of my first year at UNC. Aaron mentioned that he was celebrating Tu Bi-Shevat later that evening. I had never heard of Tu Bi-Shevat. My knowledge at the time of even major Jewish holidays was very limited. But I did know that the weekly day of rest was pronounced Shabbat in Hebrew. When I attempted to pronounce “Tu Bi-Shevat,” I invoked the image of tired tubas taking a day off more than the actual Jewish festival of the new year of the trees. Laughing, Aaron explained that the pronunciation of the second syllable is more “bih” than “buh” and that the day was not, in fact, a chance for bulky brass instruments to get R&R, but rather, a minor holiday which takes place annually on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Shevat. The name, Tu Bi-Shevat, follows the day-month holiday naming format, like the Fourth of July and Cinco de Mayo, but in Hebrew (2). As I mentioned, it celebrates the New Year of Trees.
Why do the trees need their own new year? Because, for the Hebrews in ancient Israel, the fourth year of a fruit tree’s production was supposed to be given over as a tithe to supply a festival of thanksgiving for God (Leviticus 19:23-24 contains this instruction, as well as a prohibition against eating the fruit of a new tree for three years. So, in a sense, the fruit tithed amounts to the first fruits of the tree). Since most of the annual rain in the country fell before the 15th of Shevat, that date was chosen to divide the year for the purpose of the measurement of the age of trees (1). This division would work like this: if a tree that had lived through 3 Tu Bi-Shevats bore fruit 2 days before its 4th, that fruit would still be counted as under the prohibition. But if it bore fruit 3 days later, that fruit would go towards the tithe (2). Theoretically, then, after the next Tu Bi-Shevat, the tree’s fruits were free from religious obligation.
Over the centuries, traditions developed around the festival. According to the Encyclopaedia Judaica, “it was customary [among European Ashkenazi Jewish communities] to eat 15 different kinds of fruits on the the 15th of Shevat… The eating of fruits was accompanied by the recital of Psalm 104 and of the 15 ‘ascending’ psalms (nos. 120-34).” Entirely different and more elaborate traditions sprung up in Sephardic communities. In more recent times, the state of Israel has funded plantings of trees on Tu Bi-Shevat (1).
I know you’re thinking: “This is great and all, Will, but why are we talking about minor Jewish holidays?”
Well, first of all, I love holidays. A former priest at my home parish used to say that Catholics are a party people, and I embrace that element of Catholicism wholeheartedly: the many feasts of the Church are one of its warmest elements. As I see it, Tu Bi-Shevat is another great feast, a time to appreciate the gifts of God and nature with your friends and loved ones. Aaron, his girlfriend Rachel, and Alex have made me feel extremely welcome in having me celebrate the holiday–complete with delicious fruits and nuts provided by Rachel–with them over the last few years.
But I’m also talking about Tu Bi-Shevat because it’s January 24th. And while Blue Monday (the pseudo-scientific saddest day of the year) may have come and gone a week ago, late January can still be a disheartening time. The energy and resolve of the new year have been ground harshly against a couple of weeks of wintry weather and the return to routine after the holidays. Marching through the metaphorical and material muck of dirty slush can be wearying. It’s a time of year when my workouts, writing sessions, and temper all grow shorter. I begin to long for a freshness of hope.
And then, in the middle of this dreary time, with spring not even in sight, Tu Bi-Shevat comes along: a chance to start again. A new year. For the trees, I know. But that doesn’t detract anything from its human helpfulness. In fact, I think it adds something. If a being as solid and unwavering as a tree can get a fresh start on Tu Bi-Shevat, then I think its follows that something as changeable as you and I can, too.
So as you sit down this evening with your fruits and nuts and prayers for the new year of the trees, give yourself a new start, too. Maybe most of your life is going well, but you’d like a fresh start in a relationship. Or an exercise plan. Or a project at work. Start fresh along with the trees.
I know, I know, more than likely, you are not celebrating Tu Bi-Shevat tonight. Probably, you are just enjoying your Sunday, and–like the tubas on my favorite malapropismic holiday–getting some well-deserved rest.
Either way, Tu Bi-Shevat or no, I’d urge you read the words–from a wise and ever-optimistic woman–which conclude this newspaper article.
Because I think she’s right. January 1st isn’t the only day to begin afresh, and neither is Tu Bi-Shevat. The Chinese New Year is good, too. So is the summer solstice. And every Monday morning. And every Tuesday afternoon. And every Saturday evening. The start of every day is a chance at a new beginning. The top of every hour is an opportunity to start again. Every moment–every breath of God renewing the face of the earth–is a chance for a new year.
Happy Tu Bi-Shevat.
(1). Ydit, Meir. “Tu Bi-Shevat.” Encyclopaedia Judaica. Ed. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik. 2nd ed. Vol. 20. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007. 167. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 24 Jan. 2016.