Friday, February 02, 2007

Welcome to Tu b'Shevat

UPDATE: You know, here in North America, we have our own late-winter thing, known as Groundhog Day. It doesn't involve trees or the planting thereof, but instead a large rodent named Phil :D

Happy Groundhog Day!
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What is Tu b'Shevat? It's the 15th (Tet-Vav = Tu) of the Hebrew month of Shevat. It's the middle of winter here, but in Israel, the first almond blossoms are starting to show. Tu b'Shevat is one of the four new years in Hebrew calendar, the new year for trees - a kind of Jewish Arbor Day. It's common to plant trees on Tu b'Shevat, especially in Israel.

In ancient times, the new year for trees marked the first year of tree's life for the purposes of tithing. (Fruit from a tree couldn't be tithed until the tree's fourth "birthday" and couldn't be used for normal use until its fifth year: Leviticus 19.) Later, the Kabbalists of Tzfat (Safed) gave a mystical interpretation to the holiday and created for it a mini-seder, modeled on the seder of Passover, but with fruits and nuts instead. A modern interpretation links Tu b'Shevat to protection of the environment.

The tradition is to start with fruits and nuts with hard exteriors (pomegranates and nuts with hard shells), then move on to fruits with rinds, and eventually to completely soft fruits. Late winter will give way to spring in the same way, and the learning of Torah progresses from the difficult first encounter to the eventual enjoyment of the essence - when it all seems easy - but only after a lot of hard work first :)

Since Tu b'Shevat falls on shabbat this year, many observed the holiday this year a day early.

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