1545 Bushkill Street
Easton, PA 18042
Phone: (610) 258-5343
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Thursday, 7:25 am
Minyan

Friday, 8:00 pm
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Saturday, 9:30 am
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BAS Rabbi's Message

Message from Rabbi Daniel Stein

January, 2011

The Mishna (ca. 2nd Century CE) teaches that on the 15th of Shevat (Tu Be’Shvat in Hebrew), we celebrate a New Year for trees:

There are four New Years: (1) On the first of Nisan the New Year for kings and for Festivals; (2) on the first of Elul the New Year for the tithe of animals. (3) on the first of Tishrei: on the first of Tishrei the New Year for years and for the sabbaticals and for the jubilees, for the planting and for the vegetables; (4) on the first of Shevat the New Year for the trees, according to Bet Shammai. Bet Hillel say, on the fifteenth thereof.

Why does the New Year for the Trees occur during the dead of winter? It is possible to think that perhaps in Israel winter is less severe, and spring starts earlier. While winters are milder in Israel, it is still very cold during the winter months, especially in the Judean hills. The real reason that this New Year starts in January is an economic one.

If we examine the list of New Years in the Mishna, we see that many of them deal with the agricultural cycle in Israel. The Torah teaches that every seven years the earth should lie fallow (the sabbatical) and that every fifty years debts should be returned and slaves set free (the jubilee). By setting the beginning of these special years in the autumn, the rabbis allowed farmers to collect and store one final year’s harvest before the economically challenging year began. Tu Be’Shvat also serves an economic purpose. In antiquity, Jewish farmers were required to bring the first fruits (bikkurim) of their produce as an offering to the Temple in Jerusalem. When the Temple stood, Jewish farmers would go out to the fields armed with ribbon and, spotting a new fruit on a tree, tie a bow around its branch, declaring “This is my first fruit.” Tu Be’Shvat establishes the fiscal year for this obligation. If fruits appear prior to this date, they belong to the past fiscal year—that is to say they are not new—and are not considered bikkurim. Fruits that appear after this belong to the current fiscal year and must be brought to Jerusalem on Shavuot. This time was chosen then, not because it was when new fruit would appear, but rather because it was the time when it was most apparent that all growth from the past year was over. Anything that grows after mid-winter must clearly be new.

Other rituals associated with Tu Be’Shvat come from a later historical period. It was not until the 16th century that the Kabbalists in the northern Israeli town of Safed created the Tu Be’Shvat Seder, the special holiday meal mirroring the Passover Seder. The holiday, though, was not widely practiced until the modern period. In the twentieth century, its practice was revived largely by the Jewish National Fund, which saw the holiday as an opportunity to promote its fundraising and land acquisition goals. School children in the Moshav (pre-state Israel) would plant trees, and American Jewish children would be encouraged to buy a tree in Israel. In the 1960s, many younger American Jews, while reclaiming their Jewish identities, revived the traditional Tu-Be’Shvat seder as a way to align Judaism with their beliefs in environmentalism. Today the holiday has become a multivalanced one, where Jews of different stripes celebrate it in ways that reflect their own unique values.

We will be observing Tu Be’Shvat at the Easton Area Religious School with a special Tu Be’Shvat seder. You might want to hold one of your own. The Jewish environmental education group Hazon has a guide available on its website http://www.hazon.org/food/tuBishvat/Seder_Manual.pdf) for those who wish to try it out. Also, Tu Be’Shvat is an opportunity to reflect on how we treat our own environment. At Bnai Abraham, we will be beginning a Community Supported Agriculture initiative this spring to help us support local farmers and bring farm-fresh produce to your home. Look for information in the coming months. On a final, unrelated note, we will begin a second adult education class on Thursday evenings. Our Thursday morning group is off to a great start—we have made it through 25% of the book of Genesis. Our evening class, beginning Thursday January 13, 2011, at 7:30 p.m., will focus on Rabbinic literature and the Talmud. Hope to see you then.

All the best,

Rabbi Daniel Stein