Tu B’shvat: Actualization vs Potential

4 months ago Orli Richman 0

In Jewish teaching, we are taught about four new years. The first as we know is Rosh Hashanah but what are the others you may ask? Well the first is the first day of Nissan. This new year was the first commandment Hashem gave the Jewish people, to sanctify the new year. Additionally, it is considered the beginning of the year for calculating festivals and the reign of the Jewish kings. The next new year is the first of Elul. This day marks the new year for the giving of animals to the Cohanim during temple times. Finally, there is the new year for the trees better known as Tu B’Shvat which occurs on the 15th of the month of Shvat.

One of the main purposes of Tu B’shvat is to calculate the age of a tree. This is important because according to Jewish law, we are not allowed to eat the fruit of the tree for the first four years. In the first three years, the fruit is considered orlah which is forbidden fruit, from which one may not derive benefit. In the fourth year the fruit is considered holy and may only be eaten by a holy person (a person who is ritually pure that can only exist in the time of the temple). After waiting until the fifth year, an owner may eat their produce from their trees.

Another deeper purpose is recognizing actualization. In order to explain this purpose we must answer the question arises as to why all the other new years on the 1st of the month and Tu B’shvat is on the 15th. The origin of the argument comes from Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai. Beit Hillel says the 15th and Beit Shammai says the 1st. As with most other disputes we follow Beit Hillel. Beit Shammai’s reasoning is that most of the rain has fallen by this time so the land is prepared to begin to grow. While this is true Beit Hillel argues that the fruit needs more time to be able to grow successfully. The fifteenth of Shvat is the exactly in the middle on the winter period. Therefore, by this time, winter’s strength has weakened and the coldness has “gone away”, making this time most suitable for the successful growth.

Most of the debates between for the Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai are deeper than they seem. Beit Shammai is known to value potential while Beit Hillel is known to value the actualization of potential. If we take Shammai’s opinion of celebrating on the first day of the month, then it is still winter and there is primarily, only potential for the fruit to grow. However if we take Beit Hillel’s opinion, at the middle of the month the spring draws near, the fruits actually begin to grow and move towards their end goal of ripeness. This opinion recognizes that actualization is starting to take place.

Another source for the origins of the debate between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai over this issue can be seen in the month of Tishrei in which we celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot. Sukkot is seen as the judgement day for the water. Although Rosh Hashanah (the 1st of the month) is known to be the day of judgement for the entire world, this is a generalization. Sukkot (the 15th of the month) on the other hand is specific for the judgement of water. In this way Rosh Hashanah is like the potential and Sukkot is like the actual. This concept then reflects four months later when the new year for the trees starts. Tu B’Shvat is when the trees get a “new water” or nurturing. Here we once again see Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai’s actualization vs potential.