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More than any other festival, Tu B’Shvat is a celebration permeated with nature; in the entire Jewish calendar, it may be the holiday most indisputably linked with the world of living things and the outdoors. With neither a halachic framework nor a legal structure to define it, it is the flowering of the Jewish spirit of intimacy with the earth and with the environment that marks the way for us to celebrate this holiday. Nevertheless, we know of some rabbis who were already worried thousands of years ago about determining certain matters in this regard, and as it could not be otherwise, it is in the Mishnah that we find the first tentative account of this picturesque feast and the reasons for it: “There are four New Years: On the first of Nissan is the New Year for kings and for festivals. On the first day of Elul is the New Year for tithing cattle. On the first day of Tishrei is the New Year for years, for Shmita and Jubilee years, for planting and for vegetables. On the first of Shvat is the New Year for trees, according to the School of Shammai, while the School of Hillel says it is on the fifteenth thereof.” During the Talmudic era, humans had a more direct and contemplative relationship with the natural world, and it was precisely this observation of the weather, of the growth of plants, and, in general, of the natural changes occurring in the month of Shvat that made it possible to set the festival’s date in this exact period. And as we all know, since on this subject the Talmudic discussion followed Hillel’s opinion, our sages instituted the fifteenth day of the month as the New Year of the Trees. This day is, in short, the cutoff date for the rains of the past year to finish watering the trees; the fruits that grow from now on will do so as a result of the rains of the new year for crops. From the fact that it is a day of transition and represents the culmination and the beginning of a cycle, there grew a legend that on this day a heavenly court judges the trees (much the same as for us humans on Rosh Hashanah, when the fruits of our actions are blessed).
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