English, Piyut, Readings

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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English, Talk of the Town

Captivated

Last night, Dr. Youval Rotman of Tel Aviv University lead the inaugural discussion of Hebrew University’s  Group for the Study of Late Antiquity. The Group, which was started by Uriel Simonsohn and I in order to create an active scholarly community for researchers working on different corners of late antiquity, will be meeting monthly for group text-study and conversations, topped off by cheese, crackers, and Israeli wine as robust as the discussions.

Rotman’s topic was “Captives and Redeeming Captives in Late Antiquity: The Law and the Community,” and a crowd upwards of 30 (that’s in quantity, though I suppose also in age) read texts by Ambros, Tertullian (and more), along with rabbinic sources from the Mishna, Tosefta, and Babylonian Talmud (sources are available here).  A number of interesting trends were noted, included an apparent development in communal solidarity that turned captive redemption from a more private, family affair into a public,  community-based activity.  A connected issue that came up was the role of the state, or lack thereof, in redeeming captives.  Apparently, once you hit late antiquity Roman and Byzantine legislation forbids the state from redeeming prisoners of war.

I wonder whether the following, fascinating anecdote about Ifra Hormiz somehow reflects  those two points:

איפרהורמיז אימיה דשבור מלכא שדרה ארנקא דדינרי לקמיה דרב יוסף אמרה ליה ליהוי מצוה רבה יתיב רב יוסף וקא מעיין בה מאי ניהי מצוה רבה אמ’ ליה אביי מדתני רב שמואל בר יוסף אין פוסקין צדקה על היתומים ואפלו לפדיון שבוים שמע מינה פדיון שבוים מצוה רבה היא

Ifra Hormiz the mother of King Shapur sent a moneybag of dinars to Rav Yosef. She said to him: Let it be for a great mitzvah. Rav Yosef was sitting and looking into it –  what could be a great mitzvah?  Abaye said to him: Since Rav Shmuel b. Yosef taught that we do not levy money for charity from orphans even for the redemption of captives, it may be concluded that the redemption of captives is a great mitvah. (b. Bava Batra 8a-b; according to MS Hamburg).

The story is fascinating for a number of reasons. But in the meantime it is noteworthy that the talmudic storyteller has the queen-mother essentially delegating (and funding) rabbis to redeem (Jewish?) captives – as opposed to having the Sasanian state take care of it by itself. And it is the rabbis as a group who are in charge of captive redemption – as we also find at b. Taan 22a, where a case of captive redemption (apparently – though see the MSS) “visits upon” the rabbis, again apparently as a group.

Next up is Prof. Shaul Shaked, who will be speaking on January 3rd on “Zoroastrianism: A Religion of the Book.” For that I leave you with the following, thought-provoking picture – courtesy of my friend Dan Sheffield who has been digitizing a treasure-trove of photograph’s by the late Mary Boyce.

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