So, today was Tu B’shvat, that obscure little not-really-holiday that is the New Year for Trees. And despite the popular Tu B’shvat song I mentioned last year… the almond trees are not, in fact, in bloom. Actually, it’s supposed to snow in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas (possibly here) as of this afternoon. Jerusalemites and people in the higher regions of Gush Etzion have reported some flurries.
You see, Tu B’shvat is “early” this year. And when you start using words like “early” to describe something that is supposed to occur on the same date every year, you start to understand the complications of living with a solar-lunar calendar.
You see… the Muslims use a calendar that is 100% lunar. So for them there’s no such thing as an “early” or “late” Ramadan or Eid Al-Adha. These holidays fall whenever they fall; the weather has nothing to do with it.
But for us, it does, and here’s why. Passover has to fall in the spring: “You shall observe the festival of unleavened bread; for seven days you shall eat unleavened bread as I have commanded you, at the appointed time of the month of budding/springtime, for then you left Egypt, and they shall not appear before Me empty handed.” (Exodus 23:15) The seasons are dependent, obviously, on our position around the sun. So if Passover must fall in the spring, we need to manipulate our calendar to align, more or less, with the solar calendar.
So when Tu B’shvat falls in January, we have a bit of a problem. Passover falls on the 15th of Nissan, meaning exactly two months from Tu B’shvat. The end of March may technically be spring, but it’s pushing it, and next year it would certainly be too early.
What’s a Jew to do?
Well, we need another month.
So, we add another month.
And what better month to celebrate twice than the happiest month of the year: Adar!
Yup. This year there are going to be two months of Adar. That’s what we do on a Jewish leap year. In Hebrew they are called “shana me’uberet.” This is often literally translated as a “pregnant year,” which conjures up a pretty cute image; but it occurs to me that the root of the word “me’uberet” (מעוברת)–which is ע.ב.ר–means both “fetus” (“ubar”) and “passing” (“ma’avar”), so it could be that it actually just means “leap year.” But don’t quote me on that; I’m not a Hebrew scholar!
You may recall that we do have a holiday right in the middle of Adar: Purim. So you may be wondering, if we repeat the month, do we also repeat the holiday?! No, unfortunately 😛 , we don’t. We celebrate Purim during Adar II. During Adar I, we do note what we call “Purim katan” (“little Purim”) on the 15th, but we don’t actually do anything special on that day.
I know, I know. Two entire months without a holiday! How do we cope?!?!
I’m joking, but it was actually kind of a bummer as a student in school, because Adar I was never as fun as Adar II. 😉
My kids came home early from preschool today–because of the storm–with various almond-tree decorated paraphernalia, and looking out the window, it seems almost as strange as it used to back in the USA, where the concept of almond trees blooming was completely foreign to me around this time of year.
Well, wish us luck with the snow; at least we know the terrorists will probably be indoors over the next few days. 😛
Anyone who attended a Jewish day school, anywhere in the world, learned That Tu B’Shvat song sometime in his or her childhood.
And everybody only knows the first verse and the chorus:
The almond tree is blooming And a golden sun is shining Birds from every rooftop Proclaim the arrival of the holiday
Tu B’Shvat is here, A holiday for the trees! Tu B’Shvat is here, A holiday for the trees!
Now… as a child in the northeastern United States, the entire concept of this song was utterly bizarre.
I was assured at the time that in far away, temperate Israel, where our ancestors had first observed this “new year for the trees”, Shvat was indeed the very beginning of springtime, when the worst of the winter rains were over–an ideal time to plant trees. As Shelly and the rest of my friends and family in northeastern USA right now will testify, this was pretty difficult to picture!
It was only when I moved to the Jerusalem area that I started to notice that the song actually describes the phenomenon with startling accuracy. Right around the beginning of the month of Shvat, it’s like someone (or, I should write, Someone) flicks a switch, and all of the these stark, bare brown almond trees suddenly burst into bloom. Almost overnight, the landscape is dotted with these patches of white and pink blossoms, so striking against the mostly leafless branches.
One of the things I very quickly learned after making aliyah is that Israelis are completely obsessed with nature. They can’t get enough of this beautiful land and everything that grows in its soil. I was nine years old when I moved here, and my classmates had already mastered the names of all the most common Israeli wildflowers the year before. Whereas “field trips” in the USA involved trips to places like museums and historical buildings, the annual Israeli school tiyul meant hiking–and I mean serious hiking. Like, six-hour-mountainous-trails-in-the-blazing-May-sun hiking. I heard once that Israel has more marked hiking trails per square kilometer than any other country in the world; I don’t know if that’s true, but it could be. The land is covered with trails, and hiking them is the most common and popular recreational activity. (Unless, of course, you count arguing about politics. 😛 )
For a girl who has always loved nature, it is a little embarrassing to say that I rather dreaded these excursions. I am sensitive to heat, I hate exercise, and I am an exemplary specimen of introvert. Needless to say, these trips held very little appeal. So when my class went on its first overnight tiyul in sixth grade, I declined and stayed home. When I tried to do the same in seventh grade, my teacher was extremely concerned and called my parents to tell them they couldn’t just let me stay home! This was a crucial part of my social development! She was completely baffled that I would even consider the possibility of not going. Unfortunately, introversion is often considered something of a social disability in this very gregarious and outspoken culture. My parents brushed her off.
In eighth grade, I gave in to peer pressure and decided to go anyway. I eventually found my Introvert Niche within these trips: heart-to-heart conversations with my handful of close friends, late into the night. It was worth suffering through the hikes for that “quality time” with friends.
In any case, over the years I have acquired bits and pieces of that fundamental education in Israeli flora. I now know, for instance, that these lovely bright red flowers blooming in a field across the street from us now, are called kalanit (anemone):
And not pereg (poppy), which is the red spring flower that grows closer to the coast, where I grew up:
Or nurit (buttercup):
Telling these three flowers apart is elementary knowledge in local botany for Israelis. (Here’s the secret, which you can’t really see in my picture: anemones have a white circle around the flower’s center, and the other two don’t. Buttercups have five petals, anemones have six, and poppies usually have four.) (You’re welcome.)
Indeed, the month of Shvat is very different here from what I grew up with. Your climate is much closer to mine, and one day I expect a full report of your favorite flora native to Catalonia, complete with photographs. 😛
You once asked me where you could find a Hebrew calendar to help you keep track of the holidays and stuff, since, I quote, “I have you to tell me every single holiday, but… you can’t be writing to me every day of our lives to tell me all the holidays 🙂 And, of course, to have a different calendar makes it hard to keep updated every passing year, because it never falls on the same day…” Little did you know, you would be stuck with me as your personal Jewish calendar forever. Mwahahahahaha!
Well, as I’ve said before, technology has been developing to our advantage. These days, you can have the Hebrew date displayed alongside the Gregorian date on your Google Calender really easily. (You go into Settings–>General and select “Hebrew calender” under “Alternate calendar”.) Unfortunately it does not mention the holidays, so you have to add the Jewish holidays separately. But that’s also pretty easy: you browse to your calendar, and under “Other calendars” click “Browse interesting calendars”, and then “subscribe” next to Jewish Holidays. Tada!
So hold on a second. What is the Hebrew calendar anyhow? What are we counting from? Well… tough question, because theoretically, it’s supposed to be counting from the creation of the world. That is, it’s a calculation using the Bible and the dates and years mentioned in it as a reference. But most modern Orthodox Jews don’t actually think the world–or more accurately, the history of homo sapiens, since it’s theoretically counting from the creation of Adam–is only 5775 years old. We don’t think the creation story is meant to be taken literally. The word “Torah” means “instruction”. The Torah is an instruction manual, not a history book. So I see it is being more symbolic than anything else; meant to make us reflect on the creation, rather than give a scientific calculation of when it happened. (If you’re interested in learning more about how we reconcile science with the Genesis creation story, here’s a fascinating and comprehensive article by Dr. Gerald Schroeder, a scientist and Orthodox Jew who has written extensively on the harmony between science and Judaism.)
The Hebrew calendar has 12 months and is mostly lunar but influenced by the sun as well. What that means is that the months are based on the moon, and each month begins with the new moon, but every few years we add an extra month to realign the calendar with the seasons. We do this because according to the Torah, Passover must take place in the spring. The Muslim calendar, by contrast, is only lunar, so their months and holidays fall during different seasons.
The names of the Hebrew months (Nisan, Iyar, Sivan, Tamuz, Av, Elul, Tishrei, Cheshvan, Kislev, Tevet, Shvat, Adar) are generally understood to have been adapted from the Babylonian calendar. This makes sense, because our calendar was really consolidated during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, returning from the First Exile in Babylonia. In the Torah, the months are not referred to by names, just “the first month”, “the second month”, and so forth.
Pop quiz! Which month is the first month of the Hebrew calendar?
You know that Rosh Hashana is the Jewish new year, which begins with Tishrei, so you’d think that Tishrei is the first month, right? Not in the Torah: the source for the holiday of Rosh Hashana is Leviticus 23:24: “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, shall be a solemn rest unto you, a memorial proclaimed with the blast of horns, a holy convocation.”
You see, because Jews have a penchant for complicating things, we actually have four different new years. The first of Tishrei, otherwise known as Rosh Hashana or the Jewish New Year, is the new year for years. That means that we count years from that date, so 5774 turned to 5775 on the first of Tishrei.
The first of Nisan is the new year for months. Nisan, not Tishrei, is the first month, and we count the months from there. That’s how Tishrei comes out as the seventh month. So when does Nisan fall? Usually around March-April; it’s your Hebrew birth month. 😉 The first night of Passover falls on the 15th of Nissan.
The other two new years are a little more obscure, so stay with me here.
The first of Elul is the new year for the tithing of cattle. There is a commandment to bring the firstborn of cattle to the Cohanim (priests), and the first of Elul was sort of the “fiscal year” for animals born during that year, similar to how taxes are calculated in countries where the fiscal year starts on a date other than the first of January. This new year is no longer observed, because we no longer have a Temple and the priests cannot receive these offerings. But Elul–which is the month before Tishrei–has taken on the significance of preparing for the High Holidays.
The last of the new years is the 15th of Shvat, or Tu B’Shvat (because the number 15 is written as ט”ו, tet-vav, or the numerical value of 9+6. Why don’t we write 10+5? Because then it would be yud-heh, and that spells one of the names of God. 16 is written 9+7, ט”ז, for the same reason). This new year is used for calculating the age of plants or crops for certain commandments that have to do with agriculture, or for agricultural tithing. It has become known as “the new year for trees”, and has become a minor holiday on which we celebrate trees and their fruit. It is customary to eat the new fruit of the season on this day. The Kabbalistic mystics created a sort of ceremony, a “seder” (similar to the Passover seder), during which they eat symbolic fruit and discuss its significance. It’s also evolved into the Israeli Arbor Day. A day to plant new trees and to develop environmental awareness.
So. Why am I telling you all this now?
Because tonight is Rosh Chodesh Shvat; the first day of the new month of Shvat. A month I happen to be especially fond of, not only because I have a thing for trees, but also because my birthday falls on the 3rd. 🙂
Birthdays are not much of a big deal in Jewish tradition, though it is said that it’s a sign of a righteous person when s/he dies on his/her birthday. (This is said to have been true of Moses and King David.) Generally, important Jewish figures are commemorated on the day of death, not the day of birth. However, we do tend to celebrate like people in many other cultures. We’re all about giving thanks on a day that commemorates something good that happened to you, and getting born is pretty high on that list! 😉 It is said that on one’s birthday, just like on one’s wedding day, one has a particularly strong connection to God and can give particularly powerful blessings to others. (The reason for this, by the way, is that such life events bring us joy, and joy brings us closer to God.)
And, well, you’ve experienced firsthand that my blessings have a fairly good record 😉 If there’s something specific you’d like me to pray for this Friday, let me know. 😉 Either way, you know I will be (and have been) praying for you.
Chodesh Tov, many blessings, and lots of love,
Blog readers: What do you think about what seems to be a conflict between the Bible’s calculation of the history of humankind versus the scientific calculation? What meaning does that number, 5775, hold for you?