THE MONTH OF SHEVAT
From articles by Rav Yehuda Shaviv in Yeshivat Har Etzion's Daf Kesher.
I. A NEW YEAR FOR THE TREES
Our main knowledge concerning the month of Shevat is in its role as one of the "new years" during the year. The first mishna in Rosh HaShana tells us that "There are four new years: the first of Nissan is the new year for kings and festivals; the first of Elul is the new year for the tithing of animals; the first of Tishrei is the new year for years, Shemitta, Yovel, planting, and vegetables; the first of Shevat is the new year for trees according to Beit Shammai; Beit Hillel says that it is the fifteenth."
The concept of a new year's day in general is difficult. The year progresses from one day to the next, with no inherent difference between any of the days. If the Sages had not designated a certain day as the beginning of the new year, it would not be unique in any way relative to the days that precede and follow it!
However, this is not necessarily the case with the new years that begins in Shevat (the technical import of this date is that it separates between a year when ma'aser is given to the poor and when the owner eats it himself in Yerushalayim, as well as dividing between the produce from one year and that of the next, an issue which is significant when it comes to determining how much was produced in one year from which the tithes must now be given). Rosh HaShana 14a tells us that according to Rabi Elazar in the name of Rabi Oshaya, Shevat was chosen because "Most of the rains of the year have passed." Rashi there explains that this means that once most of the rains of a year have fallen, the sap begins to well up in the trees and the fruits begin to blossom. Thus, the "new year" is visible to us when we look at the trees during this time of year. The Yerushalmi adds on a second reason, namely that at this time the trees begin nourishing themselves from the waters of the new year and cease to draw off of the waters of the previous year. Until this point, the trees were slumbering, however at this time in the year they begins to awaken and to begin their life process over again.
II. HISTORY - NEW YEAR FOR THE "TREE OF LIFE"
At first glance, Shevat seems to be devoid of any historical significance, and certainly in relation to the other months that serve as new years in the calendar. However, there is one event that took place over 3,000 years ago that has had far-reaching significance until today. At the beginning of Devarim we are told that "These are the words that Moshe spoke to Bnei Yisrael...eleven days journey from Chorev...and it was in the fortieth year on the first day of the eleventh month Moshe spoke to all of Bnei Yisrael in accordance with all that Hashem had spoken to him..."Rambam, at the beginning of his commentary on the Mishna, explains that at the end of the forty years in the desert, Moshe gathered the people together on the first day of Shevat and told them : 'Behold, my time to die is coming, therefore anyone who has heard anything from me and forgotten it should come now and I will clarify it; anyone who has any doubts should come now and I will explain.' This was a crucial period in the life of the Torah - the last chance to learn it from its greatest teacher. This also raises the words of the Mishna to a metaphorical level: while there is a simple meaning to referring to Shevat as the "New Year for the trees," it was also the new year - a time of rejuvenation - for the "Tree of Life" - Torah.
III. AV AND SHEVAT
Two of the new years stand parallel and opposed to each other. Nissan and Tishrei form polar axes to the calendar, and there is much debate over them in the gemara. In which one of them was the world created? In which one of them will the final redemption come? Does Shevat have a similar parallel?
It would seem that the month of Av would be the natural parallel to Shevat, as it comes six months apart from Shevat, and that Tu B'Av would parallel Tu B'Shevat. How does this parallel work? Bu Tu B'Av we are told (Ta'anit 26b) that it was one of the two happiest days in the Jewish calendar. Among the explanations given for why this day emerged as a quasi-festival, the gemara notes that on this day the people of the generation that wandered through the desert stopped dying in the fortieth year. When this happened, Hashem resumed speaking to Moshe directly, something that He did not do for the entire time that the Jews passed away as punishment for their listening to the slanderous reports of the spies. This dovetails nicely with what we said above. On Tu B'Av Hashem resumed speaking with Moshe and six months later, in Shevat, Moshe delivered his final words to his people.
A second reason given for the rejoicing on Tu B'Av is that it was on this day that they stopped cutting wood to be used on the altar in the Beit HaMikdash. Why did they stop at this point? The gemara answers by claiming that starting at this date, the sun began losing strength and thus the trees were no longer as good to be used for firewood. At this time, the days began getting shorter and the nights began getting longer. When did that trend reverse itself? Obviously it happens six months later, on Tu B'Shevat (seeMeiri on Rosh HaShana who makes this exact point).
These two reasons can perhaps be seen to be reflected in the debate between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel cited above. Beit Shammai focuses on Hashem speaking with Moshe, and thus proclaim the first of Shevat to be the new year. On the other hand, Beit Hillel place the cycle of the sun in the center of their analysis, and thus fix the new year on the fifteenth.
IV. THE SIGN OF SHEVAT - AQUARIUS
The Zodiacal sign of Shevat, Aquarius, known in Hebrew as "d'li" (bucket) seems to be tied in with the abundance of water that is present at this time, as the winter is still at its strength and the wells and rivers fill up. A bucket is a utensil used to bring water up from its source, and we find this imagery both in trees and in Torah. A tree is itself a type of a bucket, drawing the water from the ground through its roots, through its trunk, up to its fruits, and out to its most extreme branches.
In a similar vein, only one who explains Torah to his students at its deepest level can truly be said to be a "d'li" - drawing the water of Torah from its source and serving it to those thirsting to drink from it. Torah is likened to water, and for forty years the waters of Torah were present for the Jews in the desert. When this era was coming to a close, what was there left for Moshe to do? Only to elucidate that which had already been taught, to draw and to provide water. [This is particularly appropriate for Moshe, whose very name comes from the fact that he himself was drawn from the water.]
V. THE TRIBES OF SHEVAT
Medrash Tanchuma to Parashat Vayechi states on the verse of "All these are the tribes of Israel, twelve in number..." that the tribes were aligned with the general order of the world - twelve hours in a perfect day, twelve months in a year, and twelve signs of the Zodiac. TheTur, in the laws of Rosh Chodesh, tells us that each holiday was established corresponding to one of the forefathers, and the twelve Roshei Chodesh were established in correspondence to the twelve tribes. However, the Tur does not tell us which tribe matches up with which month.
There are two suggestions made for which tribes align with Shevat - either Levi or Yissachar. While each tribe has its own features, they share in common the role of spreading Torah to the masses. By Levi, this idea is most clearly highlighted in Moshe's blessing to the tribe - "You shall teach the laws to Yaakov and the Torah to Yisrael" (Devarim 33:10). By Yissachar, this job is stated in Yaakov's blessings to his sons. There, Yissachar is compared to a donkey, and the Medrash notes that just as a donkey dutifully carries its load, so too does Yissachar carry the Torah (The Medrash goes on the explain the rest of the blessing in a similar fashion).
Based on all of these aspects, Shevat emerges as a month characterized by the spreading of Torah throughout Israel, both by Moshe and by these two tribes, and in all of its other symbols.
[The last section of this article is heavily Kabbalistic. As I do not feel myself capable of fully understanding it, I am omitting it here.]
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