Looking behind Tu Bi’Shvat to find a message of moderation

This photograph of an almond tree's first buds was taken in Jerusalem by Yair Haklai on February 2, 2013. Photo released for public use via Wikimedia Commons.

This photograph of an almond tree’s first buds was taken in Jerusalem by Yair Haklai on February 2, 2013. Photo released for public use via Wikimedia Commons.

FEBRUARY 3 at sundown—Readers across the northern states may chuckle to learn that a “New Year of the Trees” falls in the first days of February, this year. But consider the shape of the planet for a moment: Israel’s latitude is in line with Tallahassee, Florida, and Huston, Texas, in the warmer regions of the U.S.

This year, we asked Joe Lewis—Jewish author, translator and head of the Singlish Publication Society—to give us his perspective on the holiday. Joe writes:

No, it’s not an important holiday; it’s not Biblical, nor does it commemorate a great historical event; it’s a tax day, as mundane as April 15 in the U.S. national calendar. But one aspect of this day is fundamental to Jewish belief and practice.

Leviticus 19:23-24 forbids the fruit of a tree in its first three years, and assigns fourth-year fruit as a tithe—in effect, a tax. Ancient scholars in Israel determined that this day is the best for counting the age of a tree, so we know which year’s fruit is on the tree.

Two schools of thought differed over the best date. The school of Shammai favored the first of Shevat, while the school of Hillel chose the 15th and won the agreement of all the leading scholars of the time.

The disputes between Shammai and Hillel are scattered throughout the Talmud, and the law follows Hillel in most cases. Shammai’s rulings were more severe; Hillel’s more moderate.

Choosing the 15th as the New Year for Trees is a sign that moderation, not severity, is the true nature of Judaism. Such a religion deserves respect and not ridicule, and this is one lesson of the 15th of Shevat.

Care to read more?

Joe Lewis’s wife, Bobbie Lewis, is the creator and frequent columnist for our FeedTheSpirit department. This week, she also writes about Tu Bi’shvat (English spellings vary and you’ll find a second spelling in Bobbie’s column). Enjoy.

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