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TCS Question - Why is Tu B’Shevat on the Fifteenth of Shevat?

This might seem like a rather strange question for our regular rabbinic ‘lama’ column. The answer at first glance is that it’s on the fifteenth of Shevat, because that is the day in the Jewish calendar on which it falls (this year Tu B’Shevat begins at sundown on February 7th).

The name itself is a clue to the date of the festival, as the ‘Tu’ of Tu B’Shevat is the Hebrew letter tet and the Hebrew letter vav, which together have a numeric value of 9 and 6 respectively. Added together they make 15 and so the name of the festival Tu B’Shevat is literally ‘the 15th of Shevat’.

However, there was some debate about the date for this festival in the Mishnah (the oral law of Judaism codified around the year 200 c.e. by Rabbi Judah HaNassi). Tu B’Shevat is one of four New Years in our calendar (a subject for another a time) and the Mishnah states: ‘On the first of Shevat is the New Year for trees, according to the ruling of Beit [School of] Shammai; however, Beit [School of] Hillel placed it on the fifteenth of that month.’

The Rabbis followed the ruling of Beit Hillel, and so placed the festival on the 15th day of the month.
This is not the only place in our Jewish texts where there is a debate (and disagreement) between the Schools of Hillel and Shammai. The two of them were leading Rabbis in the first century of the Common Era, and their schools often disagreed. Through the Talmud (which includes both the Mishnah and the commentary on it, called the Gemara) there are 316 recorded disputes between the two Schools. And in the overwhelming majority of the cases the ruling followed the School of Hillel.

In contrasting the two founders of the schools, Hillel was known for being quiet and peace-loving, he always tried to be accommodating of circumstances and times, bringing people close to God and to each other. In contrast Shammai was known for being severe, unbending and stern.

The famous story is told of a man who appeared before both of them asking ‘make me a convert, on condition that you teach me the whole of Torah while I stand on one foot’ (Talmud Shabbat 31a). Shammai chased him away with a builders ruler, while Hillel said to him ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary, go and study it.’

The early Rabbis followed the teachings of Hillel, they pursued the path of a Rabbi who recognized the need to be accommodating of circumstances and times, always bringing people in, rather than chasing them away with a severe observance of rules and laws. The date of Tu B’Shevat is therefore a reminder of the teachings of Hillel, and the open and embracing Judaism which this great Rabbi espoused.

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