In my last post, I wrote about how I’ve tried to make the secular new year a starting point for developing some healthier habits. I’m proud to report that a little over 3 weeks in, I’m still going strong! My husband and I went over our budget, I set aside time and money to dedicate to physical exercise, and I’ve found some great Torah to connect to, some of which I want to share with you today.
Today is the first of the month of Shvat, שבט, and this concept of Rosh Chodesh, or the “head” of the month, a new month, is also in this week’s Torah portion, Bo. The very first mitzvah given to the Jewish people, even before they became Jews!, was to declare new months and to create a unique Jewish time frame.
The Hebrew word חודש, chodesh, comes from חדש, chadash, which means new. The Jewish calendar is linked to the cycle of the moon, which waxes and wanes over the course of the month. Like I said in my last post, Judaism strongly encourages teshuva, reconnecting, renewal, and opportunities for new growth.
Last night I attended a shiur about the Torah portion and Rosh Chodesh Shvat, which focused heavily on the commentaries by Rav Tzadok HaCohen, the author of the Pri Tzadik. He says the type of renewal of the moon, a renewal after a disappearance, is actually a new thing – not the same as it is before. In other words, just because we enter a new month, it doesn’t mean that it has to be the same as last month. We choose whether to carry the same choices and habits with us into this new era. To clarify the point, he quotes the Gemara in Gittin 43a “A person does not truly understand the words of Torah until he has tripped over them.” Struggling, learning, and relearning are all part of the game. If you misunderstand then get it; if you learn something and then forget it – but then you learn it again – ah! Then it really becomes yours.
King Solomon famously wrote in Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, that “There is nothing new under the sun.” Everything loses its value as it becomes old, because a person has become used to it. The moon, however, is constantly changing and renewing, and that is how we as Jews are to live.
While this wasn’t brought into last night’s shiur, this concept reminds me very strongly of the laws of Niddah, which regulate when a husband and wife can be physically intimate, and ways which they should act when they are separate. One of the thoughts behind it is that a relationship which is allowed to constantly renew itself can grow stronger. It’s more exciting to be together after a time apart than to experience what inevitably becomes the same old, same old. Of course this can’t solve all of the complex problems that couples face, but it’s known that today, just as in yesteryear, that if people perceive a relationship to be stale, they may be tempted to chase after something, or someone, more exciting.
Now that we’ve established how wonderful the new month is, let’s get specific about this month. The first mishna in Mishna Rosh Hashanah explains that there are multiple new years in the Jewish calendar. And there is a debate between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai over when the new year for fruit trees is.
According to Beit Shammai, the first of Shvat is when the new year for fruit trees is. He relies on when the moon is the most hidden, it is the most dark. And there is a line of thinking that we are most ready for renewal when there is the most obscurity, perhaps we feel further from God, we lack clarity and seek it.
Beit Hillel holds that the new year for trees is on the 15th of Shvat, Tu B’Shevat, when the moon is full. One could also suggest that when things are most clear, when we feel most connected to our personal and national mission, when we feel closest to God, that we are ready to take on the next challenge.
That is an interpretation given over by Rabbi David Sedley about the possible reasonings behind the two opinions. As usual, the sages side with Beit Hillel, so in this case, Tu B’Shevat is held as the new year for trees.
But today is still Rosh Chodesh, a day of renewal, Hallel, and celebration. Tu B’Shevat is the time of year that we expect to see almond blossoms bud, the sap to begin to emerge in trees, and also for the majority of the year’s rainfall to have landed. Thank God, it’s been a rainy last two weeks, and I’m glad that we have two more before most of it is locked in.
We know of course, that the moon does not actually go through cycles and that this is merely our perception of the shadows and reflection of the sun’s light on the moon, as viewed on earth. Jewish thinkers too, have known that the waxing and waning of the moon can be easily calculated. The fact that this phenomenon is a result of our perception only strengthens the concept, however. Opportunities for renewal, or the lack thereof are a matter of perception. Things can be the same as they’ve always been, or they can be different. We can be cynical about things remaining the same, or we can make resolutions to change. It’s up to us.
As we say in the special additional Mussaf prayer for Rosh Chodesh, may we be blessed with good things, happiness and joy, salvation, the ability to support ourselves, rich lives, and peace.