On Root / What Does Tu Bishvat Mean?

On the occasion of Tu Bishvat, we take a break from election analysis to look at the tree-related words that branch out into all areas of our lives.

Jeremy Benstein
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There is some sort of metaphoric similarity between people and trees.
There is some sort of metaphoric similarity between people and trees.Credit: AP
Jeremy Benstein

Dayenu!  Enough already! (Literally, "it is enough for us"). For the past three months, this column has been exploring Hebrew words connected to elections and politics. And as Monty Python said, now it's time for something completely different.

So it's time for a break, and what better break than with this week's holiday, Tu Bishvat – the Jewish New Year of the Trees? A column called "On Root" just has to deal with some "rooty" and fruity ideas, and other arboreal expressions.

Tu Bish-what?

First the name: This mid-winter holiday has the dubious distinction of having a name that is simply the date of its observance, not unlike Tisha B'Av, the commemoration of the destruction of the Temples, on the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av, or for that matter, the American Fourth of July. The "Tu" part, although not a number, is an acronym of two Hebrew letters, "tet" and "vav," (which can be pronounced "v" or "u"), whose numerical values, 9 and 6 respectively, add up to 15, the day the holiday falls in the month of Shvat.

Why, you might ask, do we use these letters, representing 9 and 6, and not say, 10 and 5? Because those letters are "yud" and "heh" which when put together spell yah, one of the names of the deity ("Jah" if you're Rastafarian), and we avoid writing out divine epithets for mundane purposes such as dates in the calendar.

Name-wise, Tu Bishvat actually has the most in common with another holiday called Lag B'Omer, "the 33rd day of the [counting of] the 'omer" (a period between Passover and Shavuot , "Pentecost"), since that too is an acronym of two Hebrew letters, "lamed" and "gimel," which are equivalent to 30 and 3, respectively.

Moreover, since one of the central celebrations on Tu Bishvat is tree-planting, it is a sort of collective atonement for the massive combustion of everything wooden that takes place in Israel at the ubiquitous bonfires of Lag B'Omer, which is indeed Tu Bishvat’s “evil twin” in this regard.

But Tu Bishvat didn’t start out as a Jewish Earth Day, or even Arbor Day. Up through rabbinic times, Tu Bishvat was comparable to “Tu B’April” for Americans, or April 15 – a date relevant to calculation of taxes. The exact middle of winter was chosen as the end of the arboreal "fiscal year," meaning the taxes (tithes) on fruit that ripened after this date belonged to next year's cycle. Thus it became labeled as rosh hashanah la-ilanot, “the New Year of the trees.”

A Tree by Many Other Names

The word for "tree" used in that phrase is ilan, the rabbinic word, rather than 'etz, the biblical one. Modern Hebrew shows its different historical layers in different ways. Biblical Hebrew can sound very stilted and archaic to the contemporary ear, because our syntax (sentence structure) is more modeled on the clearer Mishnaic (post-biblical) style. But our vocabulary is more biblically influenced, and while both these words for "tree" are known today, it is the biblical alternative that is more common. Ilan is used in more poetic contexts.

Likewise, Ilan and its feminine forms, Ilanah andIlanit are common given names (where 'etz is not). Indeed quite a number of tree words are familiar names  in Israel, including: Alon/Alona ("oak"), Oren/Orna ("pine"), Erez ("cedar"), Tomer, Tamar, Dekel and Dikla (variations on names of the date palm), Shaked ("almond"), Ella ("terebinth"), Dafna ("laurel") and many more.

This "eponymic" closeness is summed up in a biblical phrase that has echoed down through the generations to contemporary Israeli poetry and music: ki ha’adam etz ha’sadeh, meaning something like: “for the human [is a] tree of the field” (Deut. 20:19). In its original context it is either a statement expressing human dependence on trees and their fruit, or it’s a rhetorical question, asking if trees are indeed similar to humans, and should suffer like us, and from us, in warfare – the answer being a resounding "no!" which is still one of the Bible's clearest ecological admonitions.

Seemingly the most obvious interpretation, that there is some sort of metaphoric similarity between people and trees, comes to the fore in celebrated Israeli poet Natan Zach’s canonic 1974 poem "Ki Ha-adam." Like the tree, the human stretches upward; we thirst, grow, and can be cut down or burnt in the fire. Significantly, Zach’s poem, with its focus on mortality and its melancholy musical setting by contemporary Israeli songwriter Shalom Hanoch, has become popularly associated with deaths and memorials, and for many Israelis it is connected to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the commemorations after the former leader was cut down in his prime.

But there are indeed many similarities, and one only has to look at the parts of the tree, and the broad range of their uses in contemporary language, to discern the connections.

Root and Branch

Who hasn't looked for their personal or familial "roots," shorashim? Already in 7th grade, children here do a family history project, and are called upon to create an ilan yochasin, a "tree of relationships," a family tree. This well-known upside-down tree diagram, with its roots above, and us, the branches, below, shows, as we might say in Yiddish, our yiches, "connections" or "descent."

Ironically, though, probably the last thing a person has is roots. Whether we are jetting halfway around the globe or just walking across the street, people are extraordinarily mobile, with very little nailing us to the ground and making us stay put. But that doesn't prevent us from looking for some anchor in a world of transience, and in Israel, with Jews from all parts of the world, a very common excursion is the tiyul shorashim, a trip designed to familiarize you with where your people came from, whether that be Morocco, Poland, India or Lithuania.

Moving up, we have the trunk, or geza'. Two very different words come from this "root," both relating to the idea of a geza' also being "race" or "breed." The adjectival form, giz'i, means something like "purebread" when referring to dogs, but in Hebrew slang, is a word of approval, like "cool" or "awesome." Adding the letter "nun," however, gives us giz'ani, and the noun form, giz'anut, meaning "racist" and "racism." Very uncool, and not awesome.

Branching out above are the 'anafim, "branches." As in English, this word is used in a variety of contexts, such as branches of the economy, or of agricultural products. The highest branches together make up the tzameret, the "treetop," a lovely word of unknown etymology, but which is often used to describe the elite or "head honchos" of a given sector or industry: economic, political or cultural.

That leaves us, so to speak, with the fruit: singular, pri, plural, perot. Interestingly, this root also appears in verbal form, not exactly "to fruit," but as in the commandment of Gen. 1:25: pru urvu, "be fruitful and multiply," (the second word related to harbeh, "many"). Likewise, a writer can be poreh, "prolific," and economists are always fretting about piryon ha'avodah, "workers' productivity." Hopefully, this column has been mafreh, "seminal" or "fructifying."

And if it's been too much of a good thing, then dayenu! That word is familiar to us from the Pesach Seder, how all of God's mercies at each stage of redemption "would have been enough for us." On Tu Bishvat, too, many celebrate a sort of seder. It's not too much to recognize the role of trees in the natural world, and in our lives one day a year. They give us many different physical, tangible things: basic foods like fruits and nuts; cool shade on a hot afternoon; sturdy support for hammocks and tree houses; and all the wood that panels our lives, from cradle to casket.

But even more fruitful is trees’ symbolic, metaphoric significance: They embody quiet grace and wisdom, flexibility and strength, long-term growth and commitment to future generations. They are both a focal point for human activity and a home for animals and birds, and thus they engender and connote community. And sitting under one’s vine, gefen, and fig tree, te-enah (1 Kings 5:5) – well, that’s shalom, true peace.

Comments? Queries? Quibbles? Write: jeremybenstein@gmail.com. Particularly promising or piquant posts will be addressed in this space.

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