Everybody loves a new year— a fresh start, new outlook, optimism, and excitement for what’s ahead.
Those familiar with Judaism and the festivals know that the “Jewish New Year” is celebrated on 1 Tishrei, through the observance of Rosh HaShanah (literally “Head of the Year”). The first of Tishrei is the start of the Jewish civil calendar; it serves as a New Year for the reckoning of years and the reckoning of Sabbatical Years and Jubilees. However, many people are not aware that Rosh HaShanah is only one of the New Years recognized in Judaism. There are three others.
The first of Nisan makes a clear case for New Year status considering the Torah’s designation as such in Exodus 12, “Now the LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, ‘This month shall be the beginning of months for you; it is to be the first month of the year for you’” (Exodus 12:1-2). It’s a bit more detailed than that:
On the first of Nisan is the New Year for kings; it is from this date that the years of a king’s rule are counted. And the first of Nisan is also the New Year for the order of the Festivals, as it determines which is considered the first Festival of the year and which the last. (Rosh HaShanah 2a)
That makes sense. That would seem to cover it. A new year for kings and festivals and another for years, Jubilees, etc. How many more New Years could be needed?
It gets more interesting. The first of Elul also receives a New Year nod in the Talmud:
On the first of Elul is the New Year for animal tithes; all the animals born prior to that date belong to the previous tithe year and are tithed as a single unit, whereas those born after that date belong to the next tithe year. (Rosh HaShanah 2a)
Okay, tithes. That makes sense, too. When the Temple still stood, 10 percent of all domestic kosher animals born from the first of Elul to the next first of Elul were to be tithed to the Levites and priests. But why Elul?
As it is stated in the verse: “The flocks are clothed in the meadows, and the valleys are wrapped in grain; they shout for joy, they also sing” (Psalms 65:14). Rabbi Meir holds: When are the flocks clothed in the meadows, i.e., when do the rams impregnate the ewes and thereby clothe them? It is at the time when the valleys are wrapped in grain, i.e., when they are covered in grain. And when are the valleys wrapped in grain? It is in Adar. Therefore, the sheep conceive in Adar and give birth five months later in Av, and so it is fitting that their New Year is on the first of Elul, as most of the year’s lambs have been born by then. (Rosh HaShanah 8a)
That is the background that “plants” us ( did you catch that?) squarely on the reasoning for the last of the four “new” years— Tu Bishvat (15 Shevat), also known as Rosh HaShanah LiIlanot,
(Hebrew: ראש השנה לאילנות, “the New Year for trees”).
Tu Bishvat, the New Year of trees, served a similar function as that of the first of Elul, the New Year for animals, in that the 10 percent tithe for the Levites and priests was taken from the fruit and vegetables harvested between the Tu Bishvat of one year and that of the next. Tu Bishvat was also used to determine which fruits were forbidden by the rule of orlah and which fruits are permitted. Orlah means fruit that is uncircumcised and therefore forbidden. The Torah states the rule of orlah as thus:
Now when you enter the land and plant all kinds of trees for food, then you shall count their fruit as forbidden. For three years it shall be forbidden to you; it shall not be eaten. And in the fourth year all its fruit shall be holy, an offering of praise to the LORD. But in the fifth year you shall eat its fruit, so that its yield may increase for you; I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 19:23-25 NASB emphasis mine)
So before fruit could be eaten from a tree in the land, it had to have survived through at least four cycles. All the fruit harvested between a tree’s fourth and fifth Tu Bishvat was then given to the Levites and priests. After a tree had seen its fifth Tu Bishvat, the fruit harvested from it was proper and permitted to be eaten. Thus it would be pretty important for Israelites to have an established system for knowing the age of the fruit considering the Torah’s designation of its importance.
Why was the fifteenth of Shevat picked for making the determination? It was around this date when the rainy season in Israel ended and the leaves of the fig tree started to emerge and the tree’s twigs became tender. Yeshua referred to this when talking to his disciples:
Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. (Matthew 24:32)
Now we can see why four New Years make perfect sense. It’s a matter of Torah and obedience. Sounds good, right?
Not to everyone. It does make perfect (and biblical) sense, but it doesn’t seem to stop the critics of so-called “man-made traditions” in Judaism from objecting to these rabbinic designations of New Years. But imagine if there was no system in place for determining when tithes should be brought to the Temple. Clearly, the sages were functioning as the guides for Israel in observing the Torah correctly and thereby bringing honor to God. That’s to be commended.
So, as is often the case, understanding the history, culture, and context of first-century Israel provides a clear picture of the reasoning behind things we may not fully understand. Before tradition is dismissed, we should always seek the reason(s) behind it. Why did Israel need four New Years? Now you know, and in the words of G.I. Joe, “knowing is half the battle!”
- Tu B'Shevat Seder, Dr. David Higginbotham, Macon, GA.