Tu Bishvat as Judgement Day in a Poem by Aharon Mirsky

The cover of Mirsky's book, which was published in 1999 by Bizaron Books

Tu Bishvat (the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shvat), which is celebrated today, is also known as the New Year of the Trees. This festive date appears for the first time in tractate Rosh Hashana (The New Year) of the Mishna. The Mishna refers to four New Years:

The four new years are: On the first of Nisan, the new year for the kings and for the festivals; On the first of Elul, the new year for the tithing of animals… On the first of Tishrei, the new year for years, for the Sabbatical years and for the Jubilee years and for the planting and for the vegetables. On the first of Shevat, the new year for the trees, these are the words of the House of Shammai; The House of Hillel says, on the fifteenth thereof.

As can be seen there was a dispute between בית שמאי (House/School of Shammai) and בית הלל (House/School of Hillel) concerning the exact date of the new year of the trees. Ultimately (and not surprisingly) the date was set according to the latter. In practice, Tu Bishvat remained a marginal date in the Jewish calendar throughout the Middle Ages. It became gradually more prominent from the beginning of the early modern period, especially in mystical circles and reached its heyday in modern Israel, where it is celebrated widely and quite lavishly.

This post is dedicated to an interesting and charming children’s poem by the late Aharon Mirsky (1914-2001), a prominent piyyut scholar and poet. I bring here a photocopy of the original publication, which is accompanied by drawings by Yehudit Ben-Yosef:

It would be superfluous to provide here a full English translation of the poem but I would like to touch upon its main themes. Mirsky takes here quite seriously the notion of the new year of the trees and compares it to Rosh Hashana, the celebration of the New Year at the beginning of the Jewish High holidays. Since Rosh Hashana is considered to be the judgment day for all human beings, so – according to Mirsky – Tu Bishvat must be the judgment day of the trees and plants. But what does this mean? Mirsky draws here on the famous late antique piyyut for Rosh Hashana (and subsequently Yom Kippur) –           ונתנה תוקף קדושת היום (and we shall proclaim the greatness of the day). A famous line in the piyyut reads: בראש השנה יכתבון / וביום צום כיפור יחתמון (On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed), namely that the people’s judgement will begin on Rosh Hashana and end on Yom Kippur. Similarly, according to Mirsky, the trees and flowers in the garden will be judged.

Then Mirsky draws on another famous part of the piyyut in which the poet enumerates those who will die during the coming year: …מי יחיה ומי ימות / מי בקיצו ומי לא בקיצו / מי במים ומי באש / מי בחרב ומי בחיה (Who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast…). This terrifying litany (which also stands behind Leonard Cohen‘s Who by Fire) is echoed in Mirsky’s poem as well, for example: מי עוד יוסיף לפרוח כאן  / ומי גזעו יקמול (who will continue to grow here / who his trunk will wither); מי יטרף בידי עלעול / בבוא ימי הסתיו (who will be devoured by stormy wind [עלעול] in the autumn).

This playful children song does not seem to call for an extension of Jewish theology to the realm of flora but it does bring together brilliantly ancient piyyut and modern Hebrew poetry. I have no doubt that many kindergarten and elementary school teachers could use it in class in order to develop discussions concerning Tu Bishvat in particular and enviormental issues in general.

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4 thoughts on “Tu Bishvat as Judgement Day in a Poem by Aharon Mirsky”

  1. I was actually thinking that the sentiments fit better with sukkot – Behag nidonim al hamayim. But there is something ‘ fear and trembling’ in the farmer opening up the books and seeing how much his field produced in order to tabulate maaser (the original significance of the date).

  2. 1. That’s adorable.

    2. And yet the Mishna does list a day when the “fruits of the tree” are judged, and that is not 15 Shevat, but ‘Atzereth (i.e., what we call Shavu‘oth)! (And now I see that Shai mentions Sukkoth…)

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