The Love of Land and Learning Inherent in Chodesh Shevat

Rosh Hodesh Shevat 5780

We intuitively appreciate that each month has a unique focus for our avodah pnimit or spiritual growth and the month of Shevat is brimming with transcendental power.  According to our ancient Jewish source of Sefer Yetzira, every month has a color, a Hebrew letter, zodiac sign, one of the 12 tribes and a body part with the function associated with it. The month of Shevat is correlated with the color blue-green and the letter Tzadik. It is symbolized by the mazal of a dli (a pail) commonly known as Aquarius, corresponds to the tribe of Asher and is associated with the sense of taste. Is it possible that all of these elements are somehow connected?

Before answering this question, we have a clue as to the nature of this month from the first few pesukim in the book of Devarim (1:3) where the nation of Israel stood on the banks of the Jordan River.

וַיְהִי בְּאַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה, בְּעַשְׁתֵּי-עָשָׂר חֹדֶשׁ בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ; דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה’ אֹתוֹ, אֲלֵהֶם

In the fortieth year on the first day of the eleventh month, Moshe speaks to bnei Yisrael according to what Hashem commanded him. Moshe speaks to the nation for the entire month of Shevat, known as the 11th month counting from Nissan, and continues through to the last day of his life on the 7th of Adar. This means that the entire month of Shevat is essentially spent in a shiur, learning the Mishna Torah from the mouth of Moshe Rabbenu. According to Rav Eliyahu Kitov, our “Sages say that the first day of Shevat is comparable to the giving of the Torah and these thirty seven days are particularly suited for renewed acceptance of and inspiration in the study of Torah.” (The Book of Our Heritage). Moshe Rabbenu taught the people Torah in excitement and anticipation of the lives that we were about to start in the Holy Land. The book of Devarim is replete with messages about the good land that Hashem is giving us, as is illustrated in the beloved verses 7-10 in chapter 8:

ז כִּי ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ, מְבִיאֲךָ אֶל-אֶרֶץ טוֹבָה:  אֶרֶץ, נַחֲלֵי מָיִם–עֲיָנֹת וּתְהֹמֹת, יֹצְאִים בַּבִּקְעָה וּבָהָר.  ח אֶרֶץ חִטָּה וּשְׂעֹרָה, וְגֶפֶן וּתְאֵנָה וְרִמּוֹן; אֶרֶץ-זֵית שֶׁמֶן, וּדְבָשׁ.  ט אֶרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר לֹא בְמִסְכֵּנֻת תֹּאכַל-בָּהּ לֶחֶם–לֹא-תֶחְסַר כֹּל, בָּהּ; אֶרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אֲבָנֶיהָ בַרְזֶל, וּמֵהֲרָרֶיהָ תַּחְצֹב נְחֹשֶׁת.  י וְאָכַלְתָּ, וְשָׂבָעְתָּ–וּבֵרַכְתָּ אֶת-ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ, עַל-הָאָרֶץ הַטֹּבָה אֲשֶׁר נָתַן-לָךְ.

For Hashem your God is bringing you to a good land, a land with flowing streams and underground springs gushing out in valley and mountain. It is a land of wheat, barley, grapes, figs and pomegranates; a land of oil-olives and honey-dates. It is a land where you will not eat rationed bread, and you will not lack anything- a land whose stones are iron and from whose mountains you will quarry copper. When you eat and are satisfied, you must therefore bless Hashem your God for the good land that he has given you.

Torah, Eretz Yisrael and Her Fruits

We have this inherent theme of learning Torah and appreciating the greatness of Eretz Yisrael in the 11th month, as learnt from the first few verses in Deuteronomy, and as seen from the pesukim above, we are told specifically about eating the wonderful agricultural produce of the land. We have our first link to the mystical message that eating is the sense associated with Shevat. By eating of the produce of the seven species we have a unique opportunity to connect to Eretz Hakodesh. This is certainly the practice by Jews around the world, to partake of fruit in general and fruit of the seven species, grown in the land of Israel in particular, as established by the Ari HaKadosh on the holiday of Tu B’Shevat.   As we know, the 15th day of the month in the middle of the lunar month is when we see the glorious beauty of the full moon, and the fullness of the moon reflects how the full essence of the month is most felt.  The act of eating invites us to nourish our physical bodies with spiritually-rich food, so that we can taste and see the goodness of Hashem, as it says in  mizmor 34:9  טעמו וראו כי טוב ה’ .

Strikingly, we see Rav Yoel Sirkis, known as the Bayit Chadash or Bach commentary on the Tur describe the sanctity of the fruits of the land of Israel:

…הלא קדושת ארץ הנשפע בה מקדושת הארץ העליונה היא נשפעת גם בפירותיה שיונקים מקדושת
השכינה השוכנת בקרב הארץ…  (ב”ח על טור או”ח  סימן רח)

The holiness of the land is influenced by an upper realm of sanctity, but it is also influenced by the fruits which suckle from the holiness of the Divine Presence known as Shechinah which resides in the land of Israel. So we have two over-arching themes of Torah and Eretz Yisrael, highlighted specifically by fruit bearing trees and the eating of fruit.

The Tribe of Asher

How does the tribe of Asher (mentioned in Sefer Yetzira) connect with Shevat’s theme of Torah learning and connection to Eretz Yisrael? We see that the blessings given to Asher correlate strongly with the blessings of the land of Israel:

מֵאָשֵׁר, שְׁמֵנָה לַחְמוֹ; וְהוּא יִתֵּן, מַעֲדַנֵּי-מֶלֶך  (בראשית מט:כ)

Asher the individual is blessed by his father Yaakov to have rich bread or food, perhaps referring to the grains of the land, to be on such a high caliber to be suited to serve to the king.

וּלְאָשֵׁר אָמַר, בָּרוּךְ מִבָּנִים אָשֵׁר; יְהִי רְצוּי אֶחָיו, וְטֹבֵל בַּשֶּׁמֶן רַגְלו. בַּרְזֶל וּנְחֹשֶׁת, מִנְעָלֶךָ; וּכְיָמֶיךָ, דָּבְאֶךָ. (דברים לג:כד-כה)

To Asher he said: Blessed among the sons is Asher. He shall be accepted by his brothers an dip his foot in oil. Iron and copper are your door bolts and your strength shall increase each day.

We see a parallel mention of iron and copper by the blessings bestowed upon Asher as well as by the verses in Chapter 8 of Devarim, noted above, lauding the land of Israel. Similarly we have mention of the oil, presumably olive oil which will be so plentiful by the tribe of Asher that it will be used frequently. The symbolism of the tribe of Asher is inherently linked with our established theme of the month.

Water as a Metaphor

The zodiac sign of Aquarius, or the pail, also links to the recurring focus of learning Torah and the land of Israel. Water is oft-used as a symbol for Torah, and we see it correlated beautifully in a midrash in Shir HaShirim Raba 1:3 from which we will bring only a few examples.

מַה מַּיִם חַיִּים לְעוֹלָם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: מַעְיַן גַּנִּים בְּאֵר מַיִם חַיִּים, כָּךְ תּוֹרָה חַיִּים לְעוֹלָם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: כִּי חַיִּים הֵם לְמֹצְאֵיהֶם, וּכְתִיב: לְכוּ שִׁבְרוּ וֶאֱכֹלוּ

מַה מַּיִם מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: לְקוֹל תִּתּוֹ הֲמוֹן מַיִם בַּשָּׁמַיִם, כָּךְ תּוֹרָה מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: כִּי מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם דִּבַּרְתִּי עִמָּכֶם

מָה הַמַּיִם מְטַהֲרִים אֶת הָאָדָם מִטֻּמְאָה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וְזָרַקְתִּי עֲלֵיכֶם מַיִם טְהוֹרִים וּטְהַרְתֶּם, כָּךְ תּוֹרָה מְטַהֶרֶת הַטָּמֵא מִטֻּמְאָתוֹ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: אִמְרוֹת ה’ אֲמָרוֹת טְהֹרוֹת

וּמַה מַּיִם יוֹרְדִין טִפִּין טִפִּין וְנַעֲשׂוֹת נְחָלִים נְחָלִים, כָּךְ תּוֹרָה: אָדָם לוֹמֵד שְׁתֵּי הֲלָכוֹת הַיּוֹם וּשְׁתַּיִם לְמָחָר עַד שֶׁנַּעֲשָׂה כְּנַחַל נוֹבֵע

Just as water lives forever so too does Torah live forever, Torah comes from the sky just as water comes down from the sky as it says “I spoke to you from the heavens.” Just as water purifies as we learn from a verse in Yechezkel, so are the words of Hashem pure.

Just as water comes down drop by drop and creates rivers, so too a person can learn Torah, two halakhot one day at a time, and become likened to a flowing river  

This poignant midrash highlights intrinsic links between water and Torah and brings to mind the Talmudic discussion (Bava Kama 82a) when Bnei Yisrael went for three days without water in the desert it is actually a metaphorical reference to Torah – אין מים אלא תורה. The zodiac Aquarius representing water connects to the land of Israel as well, as we learn in the Talmud Yerushalmi (RH 1:2) that in the middle of the month of Shevat is when the trees start drinking from the new water that has fallen:עד כאן הן חיין ממי השנה שעברה מיכן והילך הן חיין ממי השנה הבאה… כבר יצא רוב גשמי השנה. As we’ve experienced in the last few weeks, baruch Hashem we are in the rainy season in the Holy Land. This concept of a rainy season is a unique aspect to living in Israel and by mid-Shevat most of the rain water has fallen.

Shevat’s Special Letter

As we mentioned above, every month has a letter associated with it, and Shevat’s letter is the letter Tzadik. How might this letter fit into our established theme? The letter tzadik is strikingly the same word as a righteous person, known as a tzadik. We see a fascinating correlation between the tzadik, the land, and the trees, which we know celebrate their new year on the 15th of Shevat (Mishna RH 1:1) in a verse in Yishayahu: וְעַמֵּךְ כֻּלָּם צַדִּיקִים, לְעוֹלָם יִירְשׁוּ אָרֶץ; נֵצֶר מטעו (מַטָּעַי) מַעֲשֵׂה יָדַי, לְהִתְפָּאֵר, And your people, all of them righteous, shall possess the land for all time; They are the shoot that I planted, My handiwork in which I glory. This pasuk showcases the vast potential in every individual in the nation of Israel to be righteous, symbolized by a tree planted by Hashem. We have much support connecting individuals to trees, including the verse in Devarim (20:19), “the man is the tree in the field” and specifically, the righteous to trees, as seen in “the righteous person will flourish like a date tree” (Psalms 92:13). To see the inherent link between the image of a person as a tree, one need not look further than the actual “end letter” of tzadik, written as “ץ”, strikingly reminiscent of the shape of a tree!

Putting it All Together

As we celebrate the month of Shevat, we have in mind the over-all Biblical based theme of learning Torah with love for the “good land” of Eretz Yisrael as seen in the images of the fruit bearing trees, eating of the holy fruit of Israel, which is highlighted by the blessing of the tribe of Asher and the image of the letter Tzadik which look like a tree. These symbols join with the mazal for plentiful water and correlate to our final element of the month mentioned in sefer yetzira, the color blue- green, with the image of the soon-to-be green trees merging with blue water.

May we strive to align ourselves with the image presented in mizmor 1 of Tehillim,

כִּי אִם בְּתוֹרַת יְהוָה, חֶפְצוֹ; וּבְתוֹרָתוֹ יֶהְגֶּה, יוֹמָם וָלָיְלָה.

וְהָיָה– כְּעֵץ, שָׁתוּל עַל-פַּלְגֵי-מָיִם: אֲשֶׁר פִּרְיוֹ, יִתֵּן בְּעִתּוֹ–וְעָלֵהוּ לֹא-יִבּוֹל; וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר-יַעֲשֶׂה יַצְלִיחַ

May you desire in the Torah of Hashem and study it day and night. May you be like a tree planted by flowing streams, whose fruit yields at the proper time, and leaves don’t fall off, and may you succeed in everything you do.

This article was originally published on the Matan website on ראש חודש שבט תש”פ (Jan 27, 2020).