This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Apples and Apocalypse*

The Talmudic sages designated a "new year for the trees" in order to identify the agricultural year to which a fruit crop belongs, for purposes of tithing regulations. There is no evidence from ancient Rabbinic literature that the fifteenth of Sh’vat was celebrated as a holiday with distinctive observances or customs.

Shortly after the close of the Talmudic era we begin to discern a tendancy for the Fifteenth of Sh’vat to assimilate certain attributes of the real New Year, Rosh Hashanah.

Liturgical poems from the Land of Israel, entreating the Almighty to bestow his favours upon the fruits of the trees, were composed in order to embellish the prayers on the Fifteenth of Sh’vat. This evidence suggests that the Jews of the Holy Land, who lived off the soil, and for whom the flourishing of the crops was a crucial matter of daily sustenance, were the first to observe the New Year of the Trees as a veritable holiday.

Perhaps we are justified in tracing a thread of continuity between the older Israeli practice and the customs of the medieval Ashkenazic communities. The pioneering leader of German Jewry, the tenth-century Rabbi Gershom the "Light of the Exile," dealt in one of his responsa with the advisability of ordaining a series of communal fast days that would overlap the fifteenth of Sh’vat. Rabbi Gershom declares that in such a case it would be better to postpone the fast, rather than violate the festive character of the trees’ New Year which, after all, is compared in Talmudic literature to Rosh Hashanah.

Later chroniclers of Ashkenazic customs, including Rabbi Jacob Moellin (the Maharil) noted as well that penitential prayers are to be omitted on the Fifteenth of Sh’vat, in recognition of the date’s festive status.

By the sixteenth century we hear accounts that Ashkenazic Jews were commemorating the trees’ New Year with a special ritual: the eating of fruits. This practice was recorded in the Yiddish Book of Customs (Minhagim Bukh) that was printed in 1590 in Venice and subsequently reissued in several European centres. A seventeenth-century authority even recorded that in Worms, Germany, it was customary to cancel school, and that the teachers were expected to treat their charges to liquor and cakes.

Until this time there is virtually no mention of these practices among Sepharadic Jews. Neither Maimonides’ comprehensive twelfth-century code of Jewish law, nor the Kabbalistic traditions from the circle of Rabbi Isaac Luria in sixteenth-century Safed contain any references to the observance of the Fifteenth of Sh’vat as a holiday.

For Jews in the Sepharadic diaspora, a decisive turning point occurred at the close of the seventeenth-century with the publication of a work of Kabbalistic pietism that bore the name Hemdat Yamim ["the Beloved of Days"]. Deeply imbued with the esoteric teachings of Luria’s school, the author of Hemdat Yamim drew upon a rich library of earlier works in order to attach Kabbalistic symbolism to all the days of the Jewish sacred calendar.

The Hemdat Yamim was the first book to set forth an elaborate Passover-like seder for the Fifteenth of Sh’vat, built around the ceremonial tasting of thirty different fruits from the Land of Israel. The consumption of each of each fruit was accompanied by the recitation of appropriate texts from the Bible, Talmud and Zohar.

Underlying all the texts was an intense yearning for messianic redemption: When the exiled children of Israel return to their native soil, the blossoming of the fruit from the earth serves as a model for the resurgence of the Jewish nation.

Hemdat Yamim was exceptionally influential, and it quickly gained acceptance among Jewish communities throughout North Africa, Europe, Turkey, the Balkans and central Asia. The seder for the Fifteenth of Sh’vat was later published separately under the title P’ri Etz Hadar ["the fruit of a goodly tree"], and became the basis for the celebration of the day in all Sepharadic and oriental Jewish congregations.

It is not surprising that the intense messianic craving that was embodied in the Hemdat Yamim ceremony struck a responsive chord in the hearts of Jews. However, there is still something extraordinary in the fact that this work should have been allowed to exert such a powerful influence on mainstream Jewish religious practice.

For, though the name of Hemdat Yamim’s author has not yet been determined with certainty, there is one fact about him that remains uncontestable: He was a fervent follower of the seventeenth-century messianic pretender Shabbetai Zvi. The author’s Sabbatian leanings were made amply clear in his poetic tributes to the movement’s leader and to its prophet, Nathan of Gaza. These allusions were pointed out at the time by Rabbi Jacob Emden of Altona and other opponents of the Sabbatian heresy. In fact, many Sepharadic writers came to presume that Nathan was the author. Several writers came to refer to him respectfully as "Rabbi Hemdat Yamim."

The upshot of all this is that thousands of Jews who participate each year in their traditional Tu Bish’vat Seder, and find in it a vivid expression of their mystical longing for redemption, are in reality reciting words that were intended to proclaim the messiahship of Shabbetai Zvi.

It would appear that the borderline between orthodoxy and heresy is not always as clearly delineated as we might have wanted. The diverse branches of Jewish tradition have branched off in many surprising twists and turns–but they rarely fail to bear delicious and fascinating fruit.

This article and many others are now included in the book

In Those Days, At This Time
In Those Days, At This Time:
Holiness and History in the Jewish Calendar

published by

University of Calgary Press
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