English, Piyut, Readings

Tu Bishvat as Judgement Day in a Poem by Aharon Mirsky

The cover of Mirsky's book, which was published in 1999 by Bizaron Books

Tu Bishvat (the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shvat), which is celebrated today, is also known as the New Year of the Trees. This festive date appears for the first time in tractate Rosh Hashana (The New Year) of the Mishna. The Mishna refers to four New Years:

The four new years are: On the first of Nisan, the new year for the kings and for the festivals; On the first of Elul, the new year for the tithing of animals… On the first of Tishrei, the new year for years, for the Sabbatical years and for the Jubilee years and for the planting and for the vegetables. On the first of Shevat, the new year for the trees, these are the words of the House of Shammai; The House of Hillel says, on the fifteenth thereof.

As can be seen there was a dispute between בית שמאי (House/School of Shammai) and בית הלל (House/School of Hillel) concerning the exact date of the new year of the trees. Ultimately (and not surprisingly) the date was set according to the latter. In practice, Tu Bishvat remained a marginal date in the Jewish calendar throughout the Middle Ages. It became gradually more prominent from the beginning of the early modern period, especially in mystical circles and reached its heyday in modern Israel, where it is celebrated widely and quite lavishly.

This post is dedicated to an interesting and charming children’s poem by the late Aharon Mirsky (1914-2001), a prominent piyyut scholar and poet. I bring here a photocopy of the original publication, which is accompanied by drawings by Yehudit Ben-Yosef:

It would be superfluous to provide here a full English translation of the poem but I would like to touch upon its main themes. Mirsky takes here quite seriously the notion of the new year of the trees and compares it to Rosh Hashana, the celebration of the New Year at the beginning of the Jewish High holidays. Since Rosh Hashana is considered to be the judgment day for all human beings, so – according to Mirsky – Tu Bishvat must be the judgment day of the trees and plants. But what does this mean? Mirsky draws here on the famous late antique piyyut for Rosh Hashana (and subsequently Yom Kippur) –           ונתנה תוקף קדושת היום (and we shall proclaim the greatness of the day). A famous line in the piyyut reads: בראש השנה יכתבון / וביום צום כיפור יחתמון (On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed), namely that the people’s judgement will begin on Rosh Hashana and end on Yom Kippur. Similarly, according to Mirsky, the trees and flowers in the garden will be judged.

Then Mirsky draws on another famous part of the piyyut in which the poet enumerates those who will die during the coming year: …מי יחיה ומי ימות / מי בקיצו ומי לא בקיצו / מי במים ומי באש / מי בחרב ומי בחיה (Who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast…). This terrifying litany (which also stands behind Leonard Cohen‘s Who by Fire) is echoed in Mirsky’s poem as well, for example: מי עוד יוסיף לפרוח כאן  / ומי גזעו יקמול (who will continue to grow here / who his trunk will wither); מי יטרף בידי עלעול / בבוא ימי הסתיו (who will be devoured by stormy wind [עלעול] in the autumn).

This playful children song does not seem to call for an extension of Jewish theology to the realm of flora but it does bring together brilliantly ancient piyyut and modern Hebrew poetry. I have no doubt that many kindergarten and elementary school teachers could use it in class in order to develop discussions concerning Tu Bishvat in particular and enviormental issues in general.

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English, Readings

Sins Without Borders

The confession of sins is a key feature in the classical Jewish process of atonement in general and in the Yom Kippur liturgy in particular. The obligation to confess during Yom Kippur appears already in the Tosefta (Kippurim 4:14) where we also find, in the words of Rabbi Yehuda son of Patera, that one has to specify each individual sin. Rabbi Aqiva disagrees with that opinion but R. Yehudah’s opinion was codified and made part of the liturgy. See for example the following passage from Maimonides’ Mishne Torah, Hilkhot Teshuva:

How does one confess? He says: ‘Please God! I have intentionally sinned, I have sinned out of lust and emotion, and I have sinned unintentionally. I have done such-and-such and I regret it, and I am ashamed of my deeds, and I shall never return to such a deed.’ That is the essence of confession, and all who are frequent in confessing and take great value in this matter, indeed is praiseworthy (chapter 1).

The list of sins that appears in almost every medieval prayer books consists of forty four sins, two for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Every line opens with the formula על חטא שחטאנו לפניך (for a sin that we have sinned before you) followed by the individual sin. The list had become so standard that it can be hardly regarded as authentic or personal in any way. Interestingly in a few medieval manuscripts we find unique lists of sins. Many of the sins in such lists are quite obvious, such as בביטול תורה (in not studying Torah) or בחילול שבת (profaning the Sabbath). However frequently we find very innovative sins such as בגילוח זקן and בגידול בלורית (shaving the beard and growing forelock) or בחימוד בגדים and בחימוד נשים (desire for cloths and desire for women).  Below is a list of the most unusual sins I found in these sources: ביין נסך (in non kosher wine), בהילוך על גבי עשבים בשבת (in walking on grass on the Sabbath), בהריגת בריה בשבת (in killing a creature [e.g., insect] on a Sabbath), בלימוד שלא לשמה (in studying the Torah not for its own sake), בקטטה בבית (in a quarrel at home), בתפלה שלא בכוונה (in prayer without the proper intention),  בתרדמה בבית התפלה (in falling asleep in synagogue), בצער בעלי חיים (in causing animals to suffer), בתשמיש (in having sex), לגרום רעה בזרעינו (in wrongdoing with our sperm), בפנות לאלילים (in worshiping idols) and בעובדינו בקרוב להם (in worshiping near them). Such lists of sins are not only very interesting but also very useful for socio-historical studies that seek to explore the everyday practices and beliefs of medieval Jewish societies, a task that I hope to embark on in the near future.

Perhaps the most unusual sin, or at the very least the most awkward formulation, I came across is found in a prayer book according to the Fez (a city in Morocco) rite, in which the confession open with the following sin על חטא שחטאנו לפניך באהבת אדם (for a sin that we have sinned before you in the love of a person). Suggestions for what that sin might be would be greatly appreciated.

And an easy fast (צום קל) for those observing.

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