A few years ago, I received an email from Dinah in the UK who heard my Tu B’Shvat shiur on Torah Anytime. Reacting to my analogy of a child’s growth, to the fact that a tree regenerates even in the winter when you can’t see it growing, she wrote, “I wanted to let you know how much your shiur on Tu B’Shvat touched me deeply. I’ve been going through parenthood challenges, not ‘seeing’ any fruits of my efforts and at times feeling disheartened. Just knowing that there is growth that can’t be seen gave me hope – I never knew this about Tu B’Shvat.” Today, I need to thank Dinah, who inspired me to delve deeper into the enigmatic yom tov of Tu B’Shvat.
Tu B’Shvat is listed in the Shulchan Aruch as one of the ‘days of happiness’ when the prayer of tachanun is not recited. The Magen Avraham says it’s a happy occasion since Tu B’Shvat is the New Year (Rosh Hashanah) for trees. What’s so special about the New Year for trees? What is this mysterious holiday about?
To understand Tu B’Shvat, we need to understand the Jewish calendar. Although the calendar year starts from Tishrei, the order of the months starts from Nissan. There are two halves of the year: Nissan – Elul, Tishrei – Adar. The Bnei Yissaschar tells us that Yaakov and Eisav divided control over the months of the year. Eisav was supposed to receive dominance over the second half of each year. Eisav’s dominance over his half of the year results in Hashem relating to the world with the prism of din – justice – for those months. This is evident in the terrible calamities the Jews suffered through the millennia in the months of Tammuz and Av – the months of the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash. However, Yaakov was able to “snatch” the month of Elul and the second half of the month of Av, starting from Tu B’Av, from Eisav’s control. Why was he allowed to do so? Those time periods were necessary to prepare for the upcoming Yamim Noraim – the days of rachamim (mercy) – when Hashem relates to the Jewish people with compassion.
In addition, Rav Moshe Wolfson explains that while Eisav was supposed to control the months of Teves, Shevat, and Adar, Yaakov was able to “snatch” the month of Adar along with the second half of Shevat, starting from Tu B’Shvat. Why? Because those time periods are needed for the preparation of the upcoming days of compassion/redemption, from Pesach through Shavuos.
Tu B’Av (15th of Av) is also listed in the Shulchan Aruch as a day when tachanun is not recited. Tu B’Av is the mirror day of Tu B’Shvat, in that both represent a transition from a period of din to a period of compassion.
The Mishna lists Tu B’Shvat as the Rosh Hashanah for the Tree, in the singular tense. Rav Avrohom Yehoshua Heschel explains that the Mishnah is referring to a specific tree! The Torah refers to a person as a tree – ki adam eitz hasadeh (for man is a tree in the field). If we divide a person’s body from head to toe into three segments, the person’s heart is at the start of the second third of the body — the same positioning as Tu B’Shvat in the calendar.
The Gemara tells us that on Tu B’Shvat, the sap rises up in the tree, bringing nutrients to the branches to start the annual process of growing leaves and fruits. Tu B’Shvat is the ‘heart.’ It pumps the blood (nutrients) through the entire body.
On Rosh Hashanah, we accept the sovereignty of Hashem and dedicate ourselves to Him. We have great plans for our personal growth at the start of the New Year, but our growth is not necessarily apparent at the beginning. Growth is a process and fruits are not seen until a much later time! It can be compared to a pregnancy, where the baby is growing during the first trimester but is not very noticeable. The first trimester after Rosh Hashanah is a time when Hashem’s relationship with Am Yisrael is somewhat concealed. Only later, in the second trimester, does the growth in our relationship with Hashem and his mercy towards us start to be noticeable. I found this “hidden growth” evident when observing boys learning in yeshiva. Those who dedicate themselves to intense Torah learning might not realize how much they are growing initially. It’s in the month of Tu B’Shvat that we start to recognize their accomplishments.
Even if we have not made any significant growth up to this point in the year, we have a tremendous opportunity now at the start of the ‘days of compassion.’ The second trimester – the heart of the year – is beginning. We can pump love, excitement, and passion into our Avodas Hashem.