The end of Tevet and the beginning of Shevat are usually the period of the winter doldrums. There is already a longing within us for the springtime, for warmer weather and brighter sunshine and for the promise, hope and joy that the holidays of Purim and Passover bring to us. Tevet is a month that has incorporated within it the tail end of Chanukah but also the sad day of fasting of the Tenth day of Tevet. Shevat however is the harbinger of the better days ahead.
The Mishna and Talmud in tractate Rosh Hashana describe Shevat as the month of the new year of the fruits of the trees. There are two opinions as to which day of Shevat begins this new year. Beit Shamai is of the opinion that it is the first day of Shevat. Beit Hillel is of the opinion that it is the fifteenth day of Shevat. Jewish law and tradition follows the opinion of Beit Hillel. Thus, Tu (“15”) B’Shevat is the minor holiday and day of commemoration that highlights the otherwise potentially dreary month of Shevat.
The fact that Shevat is so inextricably connected to fruit, trees and produce of the Land of Israel automatically grants it the honor of being the harbinger of the end of the days of winter and the beginning of the more pleasant and hopeful period of the springtime. The Talmud explains the reasoning and legal grounding for both the opinions of Beit Shamai and Beit Hillel. However, both opinions concur that it is the month of Shevat that takes center stage in the emergence of the Jewish calendar from the depths of winter.
In the long winter night of Jewish exile, when the phrase “dead of winter” was often given literal meaning through the persecution of the Jews by many heartless and cruel enemies, the coming of the month of Shevat signified renewed hope for a better and more secure Jewish future. Shevat represented a turning point in time and therefore in actions and hopes. It was the source of Jewish memory regarding the Land of Israel, its trees and fruits and farmlands.
It told Jews in the far lands of their dispersion and exile that there would yet come a time that they and their descendants would plant trees and harvest their fruits in the Land of Israel. It reminded them of their past glories and illuminated the darkness of the winter of exile and dispersion. The custom of having new fruit, preferably from the Land of Israel itself, on one’s table in the month of Shevat was an expression of longing and love. It survived all of the years of exile because it was bound in ritual, Jewish law and holy commitment. It made Jewish memory of the Land of Israel imminent, omnipresent and real.
The Zionist movement was built on this faith, religious memory and element. The decline of secular Zionism as an inspirational force in the Jewish world can be traced directly to its foolish abandonment of Judaism and its laws and practices. As we emerge from the dead of winter with the coming of the month of Shevat and its new year’s greetings and blessings to us, we would do well to remember the spiritual content that lies behind the arrival of this new month.