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Written by: Reb. Yehudah Shurpin
Edited & with Additions by: Rabanit K. Sarah Cohen
Have you ever wondered why it is that we celebrate the New Year of the trees in the dead of winter? If we want to celebrate the trees, why not do it in the spring?
The 15th day of the Jewish month of Shevat known as, Tu Be’Shevat, is not the Jewish version of Arbor Day. It is actually the “New Year for Trees,” with all the inferences for Jewish law. The 15th of Shevat serves to separate one year from the next with regard to the laws of maaserot (tithes of produce), orlah (the fruits of the first three years, which are forbidden for consumption) and sheviit (Shemittah, the Sabatical year).
The Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah (294:6) states for example, that the law of orlah is that the fruit of a tree may not be eaten during the first three years after its planting. The fruits of the fourth year can be eaten only when the Bet Hamikdash is standing, and by someone who is ritually pure. Unfortunately, today we do not have a Bet Mikdash and we are all considered ritually impure and do not have the means necessary for purification.
Therefore, instead of bringing these fruits to Yerushalayim, we “transfer” their kedushah to a small amount of money, and we discard that money. The fruits of the fourth year are called neta reva’i, and are sanctified; they must be eaten in Jerusalem or “redeemed” with money. From the fifth year on, the fruits may be consumed in the normal manner. The “years,” however, are not necessarily full years.
The count works like this: no matter how the tree started growing, whether through planting or grafting, the age of a tree is determined by when it was planted in relation to Rosh Hashanah. If it was planted by the 15th of Av (one and a half months before Rosh Hashanah), then it will be counted as one year old when it reaches that Rosh Hashanah. If, however, it was planted from the 16th of Av and onward, it is counted as being one year old only on the Rosh Hashanah of the following year (Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 9b–10a; Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Maaser Sheni 9:10–12).
However, although Rosh Hashanah is the New Year for saplings, Tu Be’Shevat is the New Year for trees. So the sapling becomes a tree on Rosh Hashanah, but does not “age” as a tree for the purposes of orlah until Tu Be’Shevat.
But how do we calculate when the tree has turned three and then four? From Tu Be’Shevat.
Rashi Ha’kadosh (a”h) explains that practically, this means that the fruit that grows after 15 Shevat of year four may be eaten in Yerushalayim, and those grown after 15 Shevat of year five can be eaten at home. But why was the 15th of the month chosen?
The Gemara of Taanit explains that just as we have with many Torah laws, the halachah is based on what happens in Eretz Yisrael. We start mentioning rain in the Amidah prayer on Sukot based on the Land of Israel, and the Gemara tells us that Hashem allocated the best rains to Eretz Yisrael first, with the rest of the world getting the “leftovers.”
Therefore, according to the Gemara of Rosh Hashanah, since most of Israel’s rainy season is over by the 15th of Shevat, this date is considered the New Year for Trees. Rashi explains that at this point the ground has become saturated with the rains of the new year, causing the sap to start rising in the trees, which means that the fruit can begin to bud.
The Yerushalmi Talmud records an alternative explanation. Until the New Year for Trees, all trees can survive on the water from the previous year. After their New Year, the trees derive their life source from the water of the new year.
Rabbi Menachem Meiri (a”h) points out that the winter season extends from the month of Tevet until the month of Nisan. The 15th of Shevat is the midpoint between fall and spring. Once half the winter has passed, its strength is weakened, the cold is not as intense, and the budding process begins. So although we are in the middle of winter, the 15th of Shevat marks a turning point, a time when under all that cold and snow the sap of the trees is rising, readying for spring.
In a sense, the 15th of Shevat signifies that sometimes it is precisely from within the darkest and coldest moments of our lives that the new blossoms burst forth!