Happy New Year!
ByDr. Ronald A. Brauner
Jewish tradition has long held to the understanding that the calendar contains multiple New Years. The Mishnah, the first codification of Jewish law after the Bible (and finally edited around 225CE) records this tradition:
There are four new years: (1) the first day of Nisan is the new year for kings and festivals; (2) the first day of Elul is the new year for tithing cattle. R. Eleazar and R. Simeon say, "It is on the first day of Tishre." (3) The first day of Tishre is the new year for the reckoning of years, for Sabbatical years, and for Jubilees, for planting [trees] and for vegetables; (4) the first day of Shevat is the new year for trees, in accord with the opinion of the House of Shammai. The House of Hillel say, "On the fifteenth day of that month [is the new year for trees]." (Rosh Hashanah 1:1)
 
The House of Hillel differed from the opinion of the House of Shammai with respect to when the New Year of the Trees began: by the first day of Shevat (January 18th, this year) when the smallest buds begin to appear on branches or the fifteenth of Shevat (February1) when the first almond blossoms open. As in many other matters, Hillel and Shammai and their students differed on numerous elements in the tradition. It is instructive to reflect however, that despite their differences, they had profound respect for each other and always spoke from a common ground. Herein lies a powerful model for our own times, times in which the virtue of pluralism in Israel is being severely challenged. Hillel and Shammai argued over the proper date for commemoration but agreed that Shevat was indeed the proper month, that Israel was the proper place and that trees were the proper focus of celebration – as they did so often, they acknowledged the commonality of their concern, the legitimacy of the discussants and the necessity of arriving at a validated standard of practice.
Every New Year is the occasion for revitalizing our vision and refreshing our hopes and anticipations for the future. This is certainly evident in our celebration of the calendrical New Year, Rosh Hashanah and, for those who know and understand, a central theme in the national New Year, Pesah. No less the New Year for TREES.
The tree, of course, is also a symbol, a rich emblem of Torah in terms of sustenance and nurture ("It is a tree of life for those who hold fast to it" [Proverbs 4:2]) and a metaphor for the actively loyal Jew (". . . like a tree planted by waters . . . its leaves are ever green, untroubled by drought" [Jeremiah 17:8].)
But the tree is even more - it is the token of the vision of a redeemed Jewish people AND a perfected Jewish state. In essence, it is a celebration of the Eretz Yisrael that is and the Eretz Yisrael yet to be - "Rabbi Hiyya, in the name of Rav Ashi, in the name of Rav said: `In the future all the shade trees of Israel will bear fruit . . .'" [Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot, 112b].
That's the message for Tu B'shvat: Every tree contains within itself the potential to become a fruit tree . . .the fruit trees of Hillel and Shammai.


1999, Foundation for Jewish Studies, Inc. Ronald A. Brauner has written numerous articles on Bible, religion, education, and Semitic studies; he has edited four books of essays dealing with all aspects of Jewish civilization through the centuries. His newest volume, BEING JEWISH IN A GENTILE WORLD: A SURVIVAL GUIDE has recently appeared and has enjoyed enthusiastic reviews. Dr. Brauner has directed the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in southern California and the Hebrew Institute of Pittsburgh. Currently, Dr. Brauner serves as President of the Foundation for Jewish Studies, Inc. and Professor of Judaic Studies at the Cleveland College of Jewish Studies. Dr. Brauner is a member of the faculty of The Wexner Heritage Foundation and a lecturer for the United Jewish Appeal and Israel Bonds. Dr. Brauner is listed in WHO'S WHO IN RELIGION.