A Weekly Message from Rabbi Sam Levine 1.14.22

January 14, 2022

Tu BiShvat, the 15th day of the month of Shvat, falls this coming Monday. The “New Year of the Trees” is a minor holiday – according to the Mishna, it serves as the “birthdate” of a tree for the purpose of collecting tithes. In Israel, it was (and still is) forbidden to eat the fruit of trees that were less than three years old; this “premature” fruit is called orlah, meaning “uncircumcised.” In the fourth year, the fruit was to be taken to Jerusalem to be “inaugurated.” Only in the fifth year was it permitted to be eaten. The whole business is rather complicated – calculating the age of the tree, tithing the produce, etc., but most sources agree that this procedure is sound agricultural practice.

Tu BiShvat is often referred to as the “Jewish Arbor Day.” In Israel, it came to be a day of planting trees over a hundred years ago – it was coopted by the chalutzim – the pioneers – as a uniquely Jewish approach to re-foresting the land. In recent decades, Tu BiShvat has taken on a greater ecological and environmental flavor, and for many Jews in Israel and in the diaspora, it is a day for raising awareness about the natural world, the earth, the land, climate change, and so on.

So Tu BiShvat was, in a certain respect, an administrative event on the Jewish calendar, and today is a day for us to connect to the land. But there is another layer to Rosh HaShanah laIlanot – the New Year of the Trees – that gives it its uniquely religious bent. This may be best understood by the reference to the young fruit being called orlah – “uncircumcised” and may be well-illustrated by an edifying story about Rabbi Akiva’s encounter with Quintus Tineius Rufus, the notorious Roman Provincial Governor:

Tineius Rufus the Wicked asked R. Akiva: Which works are the more beautiful? Those of the Holy One or those of flesh and blood? Akiva said to him: Those of flesh and blood are the more beautiful. Tineius Rufus the Wicked said to him: Look at the heavens and the earth. Are you able to make anything like them? R. Akiva said to him: Do not talk to me about something which is high above mortals, things over which they have no control, but about things which are usual among the children of Adam. Tineius Rufus said to him: Why do you circumcise? He said to him: I also knew that you were going to say this to me. I therefore anticipated your question when I said to you: A work of flesh and blood is more beautiful than one of the Holy One! Bring me wheat sheaves and white bread. [They brought him what he asked for.] Akiva said to him: The former is the work of the Holy One, and the latter is the work of flesh and blood. Is not the latter more beautiful? Bring me bundles of flax and [fine linen] garments of Beth-She’an. [They brought him what he asked for.] He said to him: The former are the work of the Holy One, and the latter are the work of flesh and blood. Are not the latter more beautiful? Tineius Rufus said to him: If God finds pleasure in circumcision, why does no one emerge from his mother’s belly circumcised? Rabbi Akiva said to him: And why does his umbilical cord come out on him? Does not his mother cut his umbilical cord? So why does he not come out circumcised? Because the Holy One only gave Israel the commandments in order to purify them. (Tanchuma Buber, Tazria 7)

If Akiva’s point is not clear, another Midrash (this time it’s Rabbi Oshaia debating a pagan philosopher, again talking about circumcision) makes it plain. In Oshaia’s punchline to the cynical pagan, he says: Observe that everything that was created during the six days of creation needs finishing: mustard needs sweetening, vetches (a bitter legume) need sweetening, wheat needs grinding, and even man needs finishing (Genesis Rabbah, 11:6).

Circumcision, then, is a partnership between God and (in this case) man. God creates, but it’s human activity that perfects. Likewise, God grows the wheat, but we process it and bake it into delicious and nourishing bread. Tu BiShvat, the three-year wait, tithing, and the “circumcision of the trees” are reminders of this partnership. At the same time as the holiday reminds us of our connection to the land, it also rearticulates the bond between us, who rely on the things that grow, and God, who provides them.

So this coming Monday, as you’re chewing your carob pod and enjoying delicious dates from the Land of Israel, don’t forget to look down and thank the land, and look up to thank the provider.

Tu BiShvat same’ach, and, as always,

Shabbat shalom um’vorach – a peaceful and blessed Shabbat.

Rabbi Sam Levine