From the Torah and the Traditions

We noted in part one of this article that the word shevat stems from the Hebrew word shevet and can be translated as a rod, a stick, a branch, a staff, also a tribe or a symbol of authority as in a scepter. If we paint a picture in our minds of this shevet, extending out and down through the generations…beginning with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the 12 tribes, we see this shevet, this stick, this rod branching out like a family tree…a tree having many branches but all connected to one source… one root…each receiving its nourishment from that ancient promise HaShem made to Abraham in Gen. 12:3, that through his seed all the families of the earth will be blessed! And how will that happen? L’dor v’dor…from generation to generation…passing down and sharing Torah as commanded in the Shema…Baruch HaShem!

The Torah Compares Man to a Tree – How is man like a tree?

“A man is like a tree of the field” (Deut. 20:19). Taken in context we find that a tree is to be respected for it was created by the loving hand of our Creator…it is forbidden to harm or destroy it haphazardly…such as it is with human life.

“For as the days of a tree shall the days of my people be… (Isaiah 65:22). Continuing in verse 23 the prophet states”…they are the seed of the blessed of HaShem and their offspring with them.” This reference to seed and subsequent blessings calls the ancient promise of HaShem to our Father Abraham to mind and with it the concept of DNA that binds all of HaShem’s children together which gives hope to our world!

“For there is hope for a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease. (Job 14:7).

Jeremiah the Prophet says that the man who trusts in HaShem “shall be like a tree planted by the waters and spreads its roots by the river and shall not see when the heat comes for its leaves shall be green, and shall not be anxious in the year of drought, nor shall it cease from yielding fruit “(Jer. 17:8.

Speaking of a righteous man, the psalmist says that, “He will be like a tree planted by streams of water that brings forth its fruit in season….” (Psa.1:2-3). 

In comparison to a wicked man, the psalmist also says, “But I am like a green olive tree in the house of HaShem. I trust in the love of HaShem forever and ever. I will give Thee thanks forever…” (Psa. 52:10)

Trees will take part in rejoicing at the final redemption of all of HaShem’s creation!

“For ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace: the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands(Isa. 55:12). See also I Chron. 16:33.

Trees and humans share basic needs…they need to be nourished in order to thrive and survive.

  1. Soil – trees need to be firmly planted in soil which provides a foundation and room for roots to spread and grow. Mankind also needs to be firmly planted in HaShem and Torah so as to have a strong foundation to grow its root system.
  2. Water – the Torah is likened to water, living water (mayim chayim). It flows      down from HaShem in every generation. The lack of water results in dehydration and death for both trees and mankind.
  3. Air oxygen, breath…in creating Adam, the Torah says that HaShem breathed into his nostrils the breath of life (nishmat chayim). This term is related to root word for soul (neshama). Like man, trees also mush have fresh air.
  4. Light as trees thrive in sunlight which provides both life and warmth, so does man thrive in the Light of HaShem and His Torah!

The connections between mankind and nature are so overwhelmingly obvious that it is no surprise that HaShem through the prophet Isaiah says that He will “plant the heavens” (Isa. 51:16) when referring to His bringing about the promised new heavens and the new earth.

Rabbi Hertz, former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain comments on this verse, “Heaven is here compared to a seed that will grow into a tree, and yield fruit and shelter to the children of men. And Heaven may be planted! Whenever we teach a child by word or example a noble thought, deed or way of life, we plant Heaven. In the same way, Heaven can be planted in the soul of a people, or peoples. Israel was chosen and Providentially preserved, in order that through Israel God might plant Heaven-righteousness and mercy—in the soul of humanity.”

The Message of Tu B’Shevat – The New Year of the Trees

Tu B’Shevat (Hebrew: ט״ו בשבט‎) is not one of the seven “mo’edim” or festivals found in Torah, but it has much to do with the times and the seasons and how they are designed to teach us about connecting to our Creator and practical Torah living in ways that we may not have yet realized.

Tu B’Shevat is seen as a minor Jewish holiday that occurs on the 15th day of the 11th month, known as Shevat on the traditional Jewish calendar.  It is also called “The New Year of the Trees” or (Hebrew: ראש השנה לאילנות, Rosh HaShanah La’Ilanot‎). Tu B’Shevat is one of four “New Years” mentioned in the Mishnah.  Read more from Judaism 101 or

It has been referred to as Jewish Arbor Day. On a deeper level we will be able to discover more Hidden Sparks beneath the Surface for this holiday has to do with renewal and new life as it marks the separation from the harvest of the previous year to the promise of spring and the new produce to come…all from the Loving Hand of our gracious Creator.

“To everything there is a season and a purpose to everything under the heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3).  It should be noted that it takes four months, from Sukkot to the 15th of Shevat, for rains to saturate the ground. In the Land of Israel, this time of year is referred to as the rainy season.  In Jewish tradition, a special blessing is inserted in the Amidah for the winter rains to come. On Tu B’Shevat, the new sap begins to rise up into the trees. It is a “wake up” call to the trees and it is a “wake up” call to us…yet another “New Beginning.”

Many choose to plant a tree of their own  during this time of year or to plant a tree in Israel by donating $18.00, called a “Chai,” which symbolizes the number 18 meaning Life!

On Tu B’Shevat, it is traditional to partake of the seven species of Eretz Yisrael…two grains – Barley and Wheat…plus five fruits – Olives, Dates, Grapes, Pomegranates and Figs and also to taste fruits that we have not yet had the opportunity to enjoy this year. It is an opportune time to celebrate how conscious eating and enjoying the fruits of trees can be a bridge to connect us more deeply to HaShem, our Creator, YHVH…and how it can bring blessings to the earth.

Tu B’Shevat always falls before the parsha Yitro where we read of the giving of the Torah. It represents the renewal of the innate desire within those of us who love Hashem to always keep our eyes, ears and our hearts open to discover those Hidden Sparks beneath the Surface…sparks which connect the physical to the spiritual thus enhancing our daily lives to provide meaning and purpose to living!

“The Torah is a Tree of Life for all who grasp it” (Proverbs 3:18). There is a beautiful symbolism represented here as we see a  physical picture immerge…for when one is called to the bema to read the from the Torah in the synagogue, he or she grabs hold of the wooden rollers of the Torah scroll which are appropriately referred to as “aitz chayim, ”The Tree of Life!

As we either physically or spiritually grab hold of that “Aitz Chayim,” the “Tree of Life,” may we more fully acknowledge that the message of the New Year of the Trees is a wakeup call not only for the trees, but also for us!

Tu B’Shevat – Learning through the Senses

As a teacher of young children, I personally have found that the best way to learn is to learn from our senses…what we see, hear, touch, taste and do has a profound effect upon what we will remember and be able to incorporate into our daily lives. And this concept is certainly not limited to the teaching of children.

According to the kabbalists, each month has a particular sense and a particular letter of the alphabet associated with it. This month has to do with the sense of “taste.” It is interesting to note that there are 32 teeth in the mouth and 32 has the same numerical value as word  lev or heart in Hebrew which connect food to the heart and the size of your heart to the size of your stomach. There is a saying that the size of your heart (which is about the size of your fist) should be the size of the meal that we eat!

Although most of us would not necessarily agree with that statement, we would agree that we do need to be mindful of the way we eat and what the purpose of eating actually is. It is for enjoyment, yes, but also for nourishment, and should be met with thanksgiving. Remember Esau? He swallowed his lentils whole.

The kabbalists also teach that within the food are Divine Sparks…when we eat, we digest the food and it moves up to the brain and nourishes it as well as the entire body.

The challenge for this month then is to be more cognizant of not only our eating habits, including the manner in which we are eating, but the foods that we are eating and the nourishment and energy they provides us. In so doing, we can use this month to actually elevate the G-d given foods that we eat…to carry that energy into our daily lives…to connect the physical with the spiritual and ignite more of those hidden sparks beneath the surface!

The Power of a Blessing!

On Tu B’Shevat, we are given the opportunity to partake of the 7 species of Eretz Yisrael…2 grains, Barley and Wheat…plus 5 fruits, Olives, Dates, Grapes, Pomegranates and Figs and also to taste fruits that we have not yet had the opportunity to enjoy this year. It is an opportune time to celebrate how eating and enjoying the fruits of trees can be a bridge to Gd, and how it can bring back the blessing to the earth.

We take a fruit, and before enjoying it, we recite a blessing: “Blessed are you, HaShem our Gd, king of the universe, who creates the fruit of the tree.” In other words, we are acknowledging that these fruits are a gift from HaShem for our enjoyment and our nourishment. When we say the blessing for ha aitz (the fruit of the tree) and eat of it, we are using all of our senses; we are taking in the physical, and transforming a material moment to a spiritual moment.  We are connecting to HaShem by an action and intent (kavanah) as we are consciously drawing in His Divine Presence, His Sheckinah into ourselves, into our lives.

You may ask exactly what do we do to observe Tu b’Shevat? There are many meaningful customs and traditions for this holiday that vary from family to family. The important thing to remember however you may choose to observe this day is that in Judaism, there is a blessing for everything, and on Tu b’Shevat, blessings abound!!!

A Personal Story and a Mnemonic

As a family, we have not been able to participate in a beautiful Kabbalistic Tu B’Shevat Seder is several years, but each year we do try to partake of the seven species mentioned in the Torah with reference to the “praise of the Land of Israel!”

Several years ago after relating the story of Adam and Eve’s disobedience to the Creator by eating the fruit of the one tree of which they were told not to partake, I posed the question…why would they do such a thing? Why do we do the things that we do? Is it because we have free will? 

Yes, we do the things that we do because we want to…because we can, because we have a choice; and if we are G-d fearing people, if we have made a bad choice, inevitably we will realize it and ask ourselves why we did it…and then do t’shuvah (repentance) and ask for forgiveness. I wonder if Adam and Eve after having eaten of the forbidden fruit might have gone through the same process and asked themselves a similar question that might have gone something like this…

But Why? (Why did I do this?) O Dear G-d Please Forgive! Think of this question in reference to the 7 species. It is a mnemonic device for remembering them and is one that made my 12 year old grandson laugh and comment, “Granny, you will always be a preschool teacher!” Picture a plate with foods going from right to left as in Hebrew…Barley, Wheat, Olives, Dates, Grapes, Pomegranates, Figs!

The sages teach that when we give a blessing to Hashem before and after eating of His bounty, that we can turn the physical act of eating into a spiritual act of receiving and heartfelt gratitude which can nourish both body and soul and in so doing give us a physical reminder that we are making a good choice and yes, that we are actually contributing to the rectification of Adam and Eve’s flagrant disobedience. We then are in a process of becoming a part of bringing tikkun olam (repair of our world)!

As we gaze upon the beauty of the foods represented on each of our plates, we first say the Shehecheyanu blessing over each new fruit or grain we have not yet partaken of this year. Then as we separately bless the Creator for each fruit (or grain), take each bite into our mouth and savor it, we have an opportunity to taste of the miracle which brought it into being and give thanks not just with our lips, but with our hearts and souls…this is the blessing of receiving…and this is what the New Year of the Tree(s) is all about…it is New Year for us too…yet another  loving wakeup call  from The Creator to us His children…more Hidden Sparks beneath the Surface!”

Remembering Rabbi Chayim Luzzatto wise words…

As I think I am!  It’s all about consciousness…G-d consciousness!

Happy Tu B’Shevat!

(Note: Tu b’Shevat this year falls on Monday, January 17th).

by Elisheva Tavor aka Betty Tabor Givin

Betty Tabor Givin (who is known by her Hebrew pen name as Elisheva Tavor) is a lifelong teacher. After having retired from her teaching career of several decades in the public and private school sector, she turned her full attention to religious education. She is an ordained teacher and long-time board member for United Israel World Union. Her popular teachings demonstrate the depth and beauty of her Jewish faith. Her articles have been featured in various publications and on the web. She is a regular contributor to Netiv Center for Torah Study and the United Israel Bulletin and is presently writing a book entitled, Hidden Sparks Beneath the Surface.