1. Our Sages said that one should “begin with a blessing;” and, as we shall shortly see, this is particularly emphasized at the farbrengen of the fifteenth of Shevat, which is “Rosh Hashanah for trees.” It is also associated with Jews, for “man is a tree of the field;” and “man” refers to Jews, as stated, “You are called ‘man.”’
How does this relate to a Jew’s service to G-d? There are two principal types of service: Torah study and observance of mitzvos. The concept of “Man is a tree of the field” is associated with Torah study, for our Sages on this verse say, “If he is a worthy Torah scholar, you may eat from him (i.e. benefit from his teaching).” In other words, it man is a tree of the field” refers to a Torah scholar.
Torah is the “cup of blessing” — and it is therefore particularly appropriate to begin the farbrengen of the fifteenth of Shevat with blessings. The reason Torah is the “cup of blessing” is because through Torah, all blessings flow to the world. In the words of the Zohar: “He looked into the Torah and created the world.” Everything in the world came into being through the agency of Torah.
Let us now analyze the idea of “Rosh Hashanah for trees” in man’s service to G-d. Our Rebbeim have noted that “Rosh Hashanah,” which means “Head of the Year” (and not “Beginning of the Year”), is analogous the head of a person. Just as the head encompasses the body’s limbs and directs them according to its desires, so the resolutions adopted on Rosh Hashanah, the Head of the Year, set the tone for conduct during the rest of the year.
“Rosh Hashanah for trees” is the time when trees begin their new season for growth. It is therefore an appropriate time for Jews, who are compared to trees, to undertake good resolutions for the rest of the year (“Rosh Hashanah for trees”). And because “man is a tree of the field” refers to Torah scholars (as noted above), the resolutions should first and foremost be to increase in Torah study, qualitatively and quantitatively.
Torah must be studied with the view to implement its teachings in deed, to know what to do and what not to do. This too is alluded to in “Rosh Hashanah for trees.” A tree’s function is to give fruits, the seeds of which in turn produce trees, which then produce fruit, ad infinitum. This is emphasized on “Rosh Hashanah for trees,” for halachically, “Rosh Hashanah for trees” applies to fruit — referring to the time of giving Ma’aser (a tithe) from the fruit of trees. In man’s service to G-d, fruit is the idea of Torah study which brings one to the actual observance of mitzvos. In the words of our Sages: “What are fruits? Mitzvos.”
“Rosh Hashanah for trees” thus signals a new start in the service of Torah scholars (who are “trees of the field”), that service being study of Torah with the view to implement its teachings into actual deed (analogous to trees which produce fruit).
We can go further in our analysis of how “Rosh Hashanah for trees” is reflected in man’s service to G-d. “Rosh Hashanah for trees” is the dividing line for the purposes of giving ma’aser. Fruit which began to form before the 15th of Shevat could not be given as ma’aser for fruit which had begun to form after the 15th of Shevat. That is, since for the purposes of ma’aser it is necessary to specify the year to which the fruit belongs, the fifteenth of Shevat marks the beginning of the new year for fruit. Each year’s fruit must be tithed separately.
This is reflected in man’s service to G-d in two aspects:
1) A Jew should complete the year’s service, and not defer it for the coming year;
2) At the start of a new year, a Jew’s service should be fresh compared to last year’s service.
In other words, the modes of service of different years should not be intermingled, but each should be complete in itself, commensurate to that year.
A Jew’s service should be in a new manner all year round — both in regard to Torah, as stated, “The words of Torah should be new for you as if they were given today;” and also in regard to mitzvos, which should not be observed as a stale routine, but instead a Jew should go “from strength to strength.” Nevertheless, there are different levels in newness, and different degrees in going from “strength to strength.” One can rise steadily from one level to the next; or one can leap to a level such that the higher level is immeasurably higher than the previous one. Correspondingly, there are special times in the year when a Jew is given unusual powers to make such a leap. Such a time is “Rosh Hashanah for trees,” when a new service, infinitely higher than previously, starts.
The idea of an immeasurably greater leap is emphasized in Torah study particularly, which is the idea of a “tree” to which a Torah scholar is compared. Rashi, on the verse, “If you shall go in My statutes,” explains that this means, “You shall toil in Torah.” In other words, a Jew’s Torah study must be in the manner of “go” — an infinitely high ascent. This is then expressed in the observance of mitzvos, as the verse continues to say, “and you shall keep My mitzvos,” and on which Rashi comments, “You shall toil in Torah in order to keep and to observe.” And then, because one’s service is in an infinite manner, G-d’s blessings are bestowed in an infinite manner.
We can go deeper in analyzing the relationship between progress in an infinite manner and Torah scholars. Torah scholars are described in Scripture as “Yissachar in your tents,” whereas those who lay more emphasis on observance of mitzvos, good deeds, are described as “Zevulun in your going out.” The difference between the two is comparable to that between the first and second paragraphs of the Shema. The first paragraph deals principally with one’s service in the realm of sanctity exclusively, when a person “does the will of G-d” — similar to Torah study (“Yissachar in your tents”); the second talks of man’s involvement with worldly matters. It is specifically in the first paragraph that we find the command to serve G-d “with all your might” — service transcending all limits, including those of “with all your heart and with all your soul.”
However, this idea of “with all your might” service in an infinitely ascending manner then permeates the service of observance of mitzvos (“Zevulun in your going out”), which is alluded to in the second paragraph of Shema. As our Sages have noted, the reason the paragraphs of the Shema are in the order they are is “so that a person should first accept upon himself the yoke of heaven, and then accept upon himself the yoke of mitzvos.” It therefore follows that service “with all your might” in the first paragraph of Shema (Torah study) extends to and permeates the service of the second paragraph (mitzvos).
The above concerning “Rosh Hashanah for trees” that it symbolizes completion of the previous year I s service and the immeasurably new services of the coming year is stressed in the date for “Rosh Hashanah for trees”: the fifteenth of Shevat. On the fifteenth of the month, the “moon is full.” In the service of Jews, who are “compared to the moon,” this corresponds to full service “with all your might.” Afterwards, new service starts, analogous to the renewal of the moon, as our Sages have said: “[Jews] are destined to be renewed like it [the moon].” And, as noted before, the new service is in an immeasurably loftier manner, since it follows the completion of previous service.
Rosh Chodesh, when the moon is “born,” and the fifteenth, when the moon is full, differ not in regard to the moon itself and not even in regard to the light which the moon receives from the sun; rather, they differ in regard to the light the moon sheds on the earth. Because the function of the moon is to “give light to the earth,” the amount of light it sheds is associated with the moon itself. And therefore on the fifteenth of the month, when the earth receives the full amount of light, the moon itself is called “full.”
This too is reflected in man who is compared to a tree, and in a tree itself. A Jew is whole only when, in addition to serving G-d in the manner of “with all your might,” he influences others to do likewise (consonant with the command, “Love your fellow as yourself”). This is analogous to the moon, the fullness of which, we have said, depends on the light it sheds on the earth.
So too with a tree, which reaches its full potential when it produces other fruit, the seed of which in turn produces other trees, etc. The purpose of fruit is not to remain on the tree, but to be eaten, and to produce other trees.
There is a lesson from all the above in actual deed, for “deed is paramount.” Every day a Jew must remember that he is comparable to a fruitbearing tree — both in regard to his personal service (Torah study leading to observance of mitzvos) and in regard to others (influencing them to be as he).
On “Rosh Hashanah for trees,” the above service assumes a new, fresh form, incomparably loftier than before — “with all your might.” And because it is “Rosh Hashanah,” the “Head of the year,” it has an effect on the rest of the year. Even on a regular day, one’s service should be infinitely higher than the previous day’s. On “Rosh Hashanah for trees,” therefore, every Jew must adopt good resolutions in all of the above areas.
The resolutions of the fifteenth of Shevat are undertaken until the fifteenth of Shevat of the next year, 5745. Even though Moshiach will certainly come beforehand, for “I wait for him every day to come,” we shall continue to engage in the above service also then. Indeed, after Moshiach comes, Torah study (“tree”) will be dominant, for we shall then learn Moshiach’s Torah from Moshiach himself. And because “Study is great since it leads to deed,” the same thing applies to fulfillment of mitzvos.
May it be G-d’s will that every Jew increase in all aspects of service to G-d, both in regard to one’s personal service and in regard to influencing others. And through our service in the matters associated with “Rosh Hashanah for trees,” we speedily merit the fulfillment of the promise that “They [Jews] are destined to be renewed like it [the moon].”
2. The Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 1:1) says there are four Rosh Hashanahs. “Rosh Hashanah for trees” is the only Rosh Hashanah in which we find that Bais Hillel and Bais Shamai argue. Bais Shammai is of the opinion that “Rosh Hashanah for trees” is on the first of Shevat; Bais Hillel says it is on the fifteenth of Shevat. The halachah is decided in favor of Bais Hillel.
Because Bais Shammai’s opinion could have been followed, and yet the halachah is decided as Bais Hillel, “Rosh Hashanah for trees” emphasizes the concept of “Hillel.” “Hillel” is cognate to the word “B’Hilo” in the phrase, “B’Hilo Neiro” (Iyov 29:3), which means “When his candle shone.” Thus “Hillel” is the idea of light and revelation. Hillel was also renown for his traits of kindness and mercy. On “Rosh Hashanah for trees,” then, the ideas of kindness and revelation are emphasized.
The regular Rosh Hashanah (on the first of Tishrei) is associated with mercy, as our Sages say, that through shofar-blowing, G-d “arises from the throne of judgment and sits on the throne of mercy.” On “Rosh Hashanah for trees,” this concept is emphasized yet further. Since the halachah could have been decided in favor of Bais Shammai, and yet was decided in favor of Bais Hillel, the attributes associated with Hillel — kindness and revelation — are emphasized, similar to the idea of greater light which follows prior darkness.
In man’s service to G-d, “Hillel,” as noted, corresponds to light and revelation. That the halachah is decided according to Bais Hillel means that every Jew is illuminated with “the lamp of the L-rd which is the soul of man.”
Further, Bais Hillel rules that, when dancing before a bride, one says “Fine and righteous bride” — notwithstanding any external appearances to the contrary. In man’s service to G-d, this corresponds to the fact that every Jew (who is compared to a “bride”) is on the level of a “Fine and righteous bride,” notwithstanding any external appearances to the contrary.
G-d, our Sages say, fulfills that which He commands to others (as written, He tells His words to Ya’akov, His statutes and His ordinances to Israel”). G-d (the “groom”) therefore follows the halachah which is decided in favor of Bais Hillel, and bestows blessings and good on all Jews.
The lofty distinction of “Rosh Hashanah for trees” (which emphasizes the idea of “Hillel”) is also associated with the peculiar status of this festival in regard to the prohibition to fast and the non-recital of tachnun (confessional prayer) on this day. Commentators discuss what is the source for its status as a festival. There is no such problem with the other three Rosh Hashanahs: The first of Tishrei is a festival explicitly recorded in Torah; the first of Nissan and the first of Elul are Rosh Chodesh, when tachnun is not recited anyway (and similarly, according to the opinion of Bais Shammai, “Rosh Hashanah for trees” is on the first of Shevat — Rosh Chodesh). But what of “Rosh Hashanah for trees,” which according to Bais Hillel is on the fifteenth of Shevat?
The conclusion reached by most commentators is that the fifteenth of Shevat is considered a festival because it is cited in the Mishnah in tandem with the other Rosh Hashanahs. It is only logical that if fasts are prohibited on the other Rosh Hashanahs, it is prohibited also on the Rosh Hashanah for trees. Thus, “Rosh Hashanah for trees” is the only Rosh Hashanah which is not of itself a festival in either Mishnah or Gemarah, but its status must be derived from the other Rosh Hashanahs.
It is specifically this peculiar trait of “Rosh Hashanah for trees” which expresses its lofty position. Chassidus, in explaining the lofty nature of the “hakofos” on Simchas Torah, notes that it is mentioned neither in the Written Torah nor in the Oral Law. Instead, it is a “Jewish custom.” Chassidus explains that precisely because it is so lofty, it cannot be recorded in either the Written or Oral Laws.
So too with “Rosh Hashanah for trees.” That it is not cited as a festival in Mishnah or Gemarah indicates that it is of so lofty a level that it cannot be recorded in Mishnah or Gemarah. And, as noted above, its lofty nature is expressed also by the extra emphasis it lays on the fact that the halachah follows the opinion of Bais Hillel.
3. “Rosh Hashanah for trees” is celebrated by eating fruit, particularly those with which Eretz Yisroel is blessed. This is puzzling. The fifteenth of Shevat is the time when fruit begins to form, the beginning of their growth. Why, then, is it celebrated by eating ripe fruit, when there is a considerable time-lapse between the beginning of growth and the end of the ripening process?
However, we explained previously that the function of trees is to produce fruit. On “Rosh Hashanah for trees,” therefore, when the fruit begins to form, Jews, by eating fruit, stress the ultimate goal of a tree.
In a deeper sense, “Rosh Hashanah for trees,” which means “Head of the Year for trees,” encompasses, as the head does the rest of the body, everything connected to trees, from the beginning of the formation of fruit to the ripe fruit. Because both the beginning and end of the process of putting forth fruit is important, Jews connect the two together by eating ripe fruit at the beginning of the growth cycle.
This is particularly associated with “Hillel,” which, we have said, is the idea of light and revelation. On “Rosh Hashanah for trees,” we openly see the ripe fruit of the tree when we eat it although it is the time for the beginning of growth.
The idea that the ripened fruits are encompassed in the beginning of their growth on “Rosh Hashanah for trees,” is associated with the portion of Tanya learned on the fifteenth of Shevat (on a leap year, as this year). The portion, found in Ch. 21, talks of the unity between G-d and His speech and thought, and compares it to “a person’s speech and thought while they are still in potentia in his wisdom and intellect, or in a desire and craving that are still in the heart prior to rising from the heart to the brain, where by cogitation they are formulated into the so-called ‘letters’; for at that time the ‘letters’ of thought and speech which evolve from that longing or desire, were still in potentia in the heart, where they were absolutely fused with their root *** Verily so, by way of example, are the ‘speech’ and ‘thought’ of the Holy One blessed be He, absolutely united with His Essence and Being, even after His ‘speech’ has already become materialized in the creation of the worlds, just as it was united with Him before the worlds were created. There is thus no manner of change in His blessed self ... “
The thrust of today’s portion of Tanya is that G-d’s speech, after it had already become materialized in the creation of the worlds, is encompassed in and absolutely united with G-d’s Essence. This is similar to the idea elaborated on above, that the ripe fruits are encompassed, in potentia, in “Rosh Hashanah for trees.”
There is a lesson from all of the above for man’s service to G-d. A Jew is compared to a tree, and his service must be such that the fruits of that service exist, in potentia, at the start of service.
Service in such a fashion in the preparation to the fulfillment of the promise (Amos 9:13), “Days are coming, says the L-rd, when the ploughman shall overtake the reaper.” That is, the reaping of the produce will immediately follow plowing and seeding. Similarly, in the future era, “a woman will give birth every day.” Conception and birth will occur on the same day, for instead of nine months, pregnancy will be for only nine hours duration.
All this is effected through our service during exile although we cannot see it taking place. The Rebbe Maharash compared this to a man who possesses a locked chest containing jewels and precious stones. The man also possesses the key to the chest, enabling him to open it whenever he wishes. So too in our case: Through “one mitzvah,” rules the Rambam, a person “tilts himself and the whole world to the meritorious side, and brings redemption and salvation for himself and them.” In other words, a Jew has the power to bring the future redemption, when all shall see openly the fulfillment of the above promises.
4. We spoke at a previous occasion about holding gatherings on the 15th of Shevat, especially for children of pre Bar/Bas Mitzvah age — Tzivos Hashem. As those who are just beginning their growth, the idea of “Rosh Hashanah for trees” is particularly relevant to them.
When talking to children about the 15th of Shevat, the concepts must be explained in terms that children can understand; and the lessons to be applied in actual practice must similarly be directed to things that are relevant to them (e.g. reciting “Modeh Ani,” kindling Shabbos and Yom Tov lights). Such explanations, of course, are still true they are merely presented in a certain form, commensurate to the mental grasp of a small child.
Every concept of Torah has different aspects the literal, allegorical, homiletical and esoteric meanings of Scripture. They all are explanations of the same Scripture; they are merely clothed in different forms.
Similarly, Torah is learned not only on this earth, but also in the “heavenly academy.” Understandably, the way Torah is studied in heaven is different than the way it is studied on this corporeal earth. But this difference is only in regard to the form in which the concepts are dressed, and thus, both below and above learn the very same halachah, regardless of the way it is “clothed.” It is related in the Talmud, for example, that the heavenly academy accepted a ruling by Rabbah bar Nachmeini although the way he on this world learned the topic was in a different form than the way the heavenly academy did.
We shall now explain a concept associated with the 15th of Shevat according to its esoteric meaning but in a form appropriate to children.
“Rosh Hashanah for trees” is associated with the seven kinds of produce with which Eretz Yisroel is blessed: “A land of wheat and barley, and vine and fig-trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey (of dates)” (Devorim 8:8). It is explained in the esoteric part of Torah that these seven kinds correspond to the seven sefiros: Wheat and barley correspond to chesed (kindness) and gevurah (severity), vine to tiferes (splendor), etc.
Wheat is eaten by man, whereas barley is mainly a food for animals. The former therefore refers to the G-dly soul, and the latter to the animal soul. The vine, from which wine is made, refers to the inner aspect of the G-dly soul, for “when wine enters [a person], secrets come forth.”
This is the explanation according to the esoteric mode of study. There is also an explanation in the exoteric mode of study (mishnah, Talmud, etc.), and, proceeding further, an explanation in simple words fitting for young children. What is that explanation?
Eretz Yisroel, we tell a child, is the land given by G-d to the Jews as an eternal heritage. Therefore it is called “Eretz Yisroel,” the “Land of Israel,” for it is the chosen land which belongs to the chosen people.
Because Jews belong in Eretz Yisroel, when they live outside Eretz Yisroel their life is not truly complete. This a child knows from his own experience. Although treated well when in a friend’s house, he is most comfortable when in his own home.
A child therefore realizes that a Jew always hopes for G-d’s salvation every day of his life. Every day, before and after Bar Mitzvah, on weekday as on Shabbos and festivals, Jews feel that they are not in their own home, that they are “children exiled from their father’s table.” Jews therefore entreat G-d and cry out, “Speedily cause the scion of David Your servant to flourish ... for we hope for Your salvation all day.”
We further tell a child that since Eretz Yisroel is the land given to Jews, it follows that it provides a Jew with all his needs — “A land of wheat and barley, and vine and fig-trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey (of dates).”
Let us examine some of these in more detail.
A child knows that the body’s health depends on bread, made from wheat — “bread sustains the heart of man.” Although he also eats candy, he knows that to feel healthy and satisfied he must eat bread.
Bread made from barley is more coarse and heavy than bread made from wheat. And a person’s body sometimes needs more hearty food than that provided by bread made from wheat it needs bread made from barley.
When a child tastes wine (from kiddush or havdalah), he feels that it provides a joyous sensation; and a person’s faculties work better when he is in a state of joy. This is the meaning of “When wine enters [a person], secrets come forth” — the wine reveals abilities that beforehand were hidden (“secrets”).
These three foods are necessities. There are, in addition, foods which produce delight. When a child is given delicacies he did not expect, he is very happy. When, after eating bread and tasting wine in a meal, a child is given “figs and pomegranates,” he is delighted. Similarly, “olive oil” makes food more tasty, and “honey” is sweet.
This is the greatness of Eretz Yisroel. It gives a Jew everything he needs (materially as well as spiritually), foods which produce delight as well as foods necessary for life.
Such is the explanation of the 15th of Shevat in terms comprehensible to children. And, of course, as explained previously, as a Jew reaches higher levels, he learns in a more lofty fashion.
May it be G-d’s will that our speaking of the seven kinds of produce with which Eretz Yisroel is blessed speedily leads us to “eat of its fruit and be satiated with its goodness” — in the true and complete redemption through our righteous Moshiach.
5. In addition to the general concept of the 15th of Shevat, there are lessons to be derived from the particular day on which it falls this year. More specifically, we can derive lessons from the portion of Chumash learned today, and from the Shabbos which blesses the 15th of Shevat.
The Shabbos preceding the 15th of Shevat (i.e. the Shabbos which blesses it) is Shabbos parshas Beshallach. It is called “Shabbos Shirah,” the “Shabbos of Song,” for in parshas Beshallach we read the “Song of the Sea,” and in the Haftorah we read the “Song of Devorah.” Further, Shabbos Shirah this year is the 10th of Shevat, the yartzeit of the previous Rebbe.
“Shirah,” “Song,” indicates the idea of joy. Further, our Sages say “We recite ‘Shirah’ only over wine,” and “when wine enters [a person] secrets come forth.” Thus song and joy are associated with revelation. This teaches that service connected with the 15th of Shevat must be such that even the most hidden aspects are revealed. Also, that all aspects of service must be performed joyously.
A further lesson is derived from the previous Rebbe’s yartzeit, which, we have noted, is this year on the Shabbos which blesses the 15th of Shevat. On a yartzeit, writes the Alter Rebbe (Iggeres HaKodesh, chs 27 & 28), the service which the person had performed during his life is elevated to its root and source, and “effects salvations in the midst of the earth.” Thus, Shabbos Shirah bestows special blessings for fulfilling the previous Rebbe’s instructions. Those instructions are, first of all, to disseminate Chassidus, and second, to disseminate Judaism, including teaching children (children both in years and in knowledge) the “aleph-bais.” The previous Rebbe himself, in Russia, strove with immense mesiras nefesh (self-sacrifice) to ensure that classes be set up for children in every corner of the land. He did this although he knew that he was thereby endangering the dissemination of Chassidus (for the authorities persecuted him mainly because of his work with children).
Special strength thus stems from the yartzeit of the previous Rebbe to engage in the dissemination of Chassidus and Judaism.
There are also lessons to be derived from today’s portion of Chumash, the fifth section of parshas Yisro. The first part of this section deals with the preparation in the days before the sixth of Sivan to the giving of the Torah; the second part deals with the third day of preparations (the 6th of Sivan).
The verses state: “And it was on the third day” — the right time had come for the giving of the Torah; “And Moshe brought the people out of the camp towards G-d, and they stood at the base of the mountain” — they stood at the right place to receive the Torah; “And the whole of Mt. Sinai was smoking” — the revelation of G-dliness effected a change in the world, even in inanimate matter (the mountain); “And ... Moshe spoke and the L-rd answered him aloud” — Moshe’s speaking elicited the response from G-d.
Today’s section of Chumash tells, then, of the state of Jews when they had concluded their preparations to receive the Torah, and also the state of the world at that time. Because Torah provides eternal instructions, the above teaches that a Jew, at all times and in all places, should always be in a state similar to what they were on “the third day.” That is, a Jew has the ability to receive the Torah, including the idea of “Moshe spoke” (referring to the spark of Moshe that is within every Jew) and to elicit the response from G-d.
This not only affects a Jew personally, or his immediate environment, but it has an effect on the whole world, even inanimate objects (“The whole of Mt. Sinai was smoking”). He has this ability even though previously his environment (or the world) was a “desert,” with “snakes and scorpions” — for there too the revelation of G-dliness permeates, and a radical change will be wrought.
This came about through the fact that “Israel camped there opposite the mountain” — “as one man with one heart” say our Sages. In other words, Jews can change the world when they are united and have Ahavas Yisroel for one another.
Every Jew is obligated to study Torah, and therefore every Jew must constantly feel that he is preparing to receive the Torah, including the preparations of “the third day.” Hence, when he learns Torah, it is similar to the original giving of the Torah. As explicitly stated in the Talmud (Berachos 22a) concerning the way Torah should be studied: “Just as there it was in dread and fear and trembling and quaking, so here it must be in dread and fear and trembling and quaking.” And, explains the Alter Rebbe, this is possible because the Torah that each Jew engages in is “the very word of G-d that was said to Moshe from Sinai.” Similarly, say our Sages, “Whosoever reads and learns [Torah], the Holy One blessed be He reads and learns opposite him” — and therefore, “dread and fear will fall upon him as if he received [the Torah] from Mt. Sinai today.”
May it be G-d’s will that the above words work their effect, and that very soon we will not need to talk about it, since we shall have the fulfillment of the promise: “The glory of the L-rd will be revealed and all flesh together will perceive that the mouth of the L-rd has spoken.”