The Sefer Yetzira, among other texts, reveals a constellation of unique energies, themes and spiritual practices for each month of the year. We will build on these teachings in order to discover some of the deeper meanings of the month of Shevat, and its special day, Tu b’Shevat. This will allow us to unleash the transformative powers of these times.

The Letter-Combination of the Month

...each month of the year has an inner light that shines...

There are four letters in the Divine Name Havaya (Yud, Hei, Vav, and Hei) and each month of the year has an inner light that shines as a different sequence of these four letters. The month of Shevat shines as the combination Hei*Yud*Vav*Hei. It’s interesting to note that the only difference between this combination and the original spelling of the Divine Name is that the sequence of the first two letters is reversed.

There are two parts of the month of Shevat. The first part, from the First of Shevat until the eve of the Fifteenth (Tu b’Shevat), is considered ‘harsh’ (din). This is because the natural flow of the first part of the Divine Name is reversed in this month’s letter-combination: Hei then Yud. The second part of Shevat is much less harsh, and contains more kindness (chesed). This is because the second part of the letter-combination is in the natural flow of the Divine Name: Vav then Hei.

The second part of the month begins with Tu b’Shevat. As the fifteenth day, Tu b’Shevat is the fulcrum between the two sides, the Hei-Yud, and the Vav-Hei. As a fulcrum contains the qualities of both sides, so the day of Tu b’Shevat includes the four letters of the Name. Tu means 15, and this is the numerical value of Hei-Yud (or Yud-Hei). Shevat is the eleventh month of the year (counting from Nissan), and 11 is the numerical value of Vav-Hei.

Tu b’Shevat is thus the shifting point where din is diminished and the proper flow of chesed is restored. How can we activate this shift in our own lives?

The Torah Verse Connected with Shevat

The letter-combination of the month is found in Lev.: "Hamar Yamirenu V’haya Hu." (27:33) This verse says that when selecting an animal for a Temple sacrifice, if a person wanted to exchange the designated animal for different one, both animals would then be considered holy. The theme, therefore, is expanding Kedusha — holiness. In Shevat, we expand holiness in the realm of eating.

The real pleasure of eating comes...from the spiritual "word of G‑d" within the food...

The real pleasure of eating comes not from the physicality of the food, but from the spiritual "word of G‑d" within the food, as it is written, "for not on the bread alone will man live, rather from the word of G‑d." (Deut. 8:3) What if we could taste the spiritual reality within the physicality of the food itself? Then the "word of G‑d" and its "exchange", or the physicality, would both be holy, and we would have expanded holiness into the realm of physical pleasure.

Major Events in Shevat

On the first day of Shevat, Moses had the Torah translated into the seventy languages of the world. His intention was to expand the boundary of holiness, to include even the mundane world in the light of Torah wisdom.

The Letter of the Month

The alphabetical letter corresponding to Shevat is Tzadi, also called Tzadik. The Torah says that for the tzadik, the righteous or enlightened person, eating is inherently satisfying: "The tzadik eats for the satisfaction of the body; the belly of the wicked feels always empty." (Prov. 13:25)

The tzadik eats for the purpose of nourishment of the body. Although this person’s food choices may tend to be more nourishing and healthy than those of the unenlightened person, it is primarily the purposefulness of his eating that brings satisfaction. His eating is spiritual, really satisfying his soul as well as his body. An unenlightened person may eat the same amount of the same food as the tzadik, yet since he eats for no deeper purpose, he only exacerbates his physical and spiritual hunger.

The Name of the Month

The word Shevat (Shin-Beit-Tet) is related to the word Shabbos (Shin Beit Taf, also pronounced ‘Shabbat). In fact, in the Acadian language (Assyrian-Babylonian), the name for the eleventh month of the year is Shabatu. Since the two letters Tet and Taf are both lingual consonants, they are considered interchangeable.

On the day of Shabbos, most people can enjoy eating in holiness. The Arizal says that on Shabbos there is no waste, for everything can be elevated. A Talmid Chacham, a wise student of Torah, is called ‘Shabbos'. (Zohar III, 29a) Therefore a tzadik, or a wise person who embodies the spirit of Shabbos, can eat in holiness on every day of the week.

Sense of the Month

According to the Sefer Yetzirah, the sense connected with Shevat is 'Le’itah', taste. "Tamu ure’u ki tov Hashem," ‘Taste and see that G‑d is good.’ (Ps. 34:9) Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk interprets this verse: ‘Taste and see that all goodness is in fact G‑d.’ In this state of consciousness, the pleasant tastes of food are no longer mundane, they are holy in themselves.

Eating ‘for the sake of Heaven’, for the purpose of strengthening yourself for contemplative prayer or study, is a very high practice. Yet, it is still only a means to an end. Reb Elimelech suggests that it’s higher to taste the presence of G‑d within the food itself. This is also the implication of the verse, "B’chol derachecha de’eihu/In all your ways know G‑d." (Prov. 3:6) The Baal Shem Tov teaches that in the act of eating you can create Yechudim/unifications between the physical and the spiritual. (See for example Toldos Yaakov Yosef, Parashat Va’eira, p.141)

Tribe of the Month

Asher is the tribe corresponding to Shevat. The letters of the name Asher (Alef-Shin-Reish) can be reversed to form the acronym for Rosh Shenot Ilanot, or ‘the Rosh Hashanah of the Trees’, an epithet of Tu b’Shevat. (Ma’or vaShemesh, "Rimzei Tu b’Shevat")

What does Asher represent? The Torah says, (Gen. 49:20) "As for Asher, fat (rich, delicious) is his produce." Reb Tzadok haCohen of Lublin interprets this to mean that the concept of Asher is connected with the enjoyment of food. (Pri Tzadik, 2:19)

Delicious foods such as fruits represent affluence...

The name Asher shares its root with the word 'Osher/affluence’. Delicious foods such as fruits represent affluence since they are not usually considered staples, as are bread and water. On Tu b’Shevat our custom is to taste a royal array of exotic and delicious fruits.

Other related words, Ashur and Ashrei allude to the exalted sefira of Keter. In the non-dual realm of Keter, everything is equal, and yet this is the paradoxically the place where 'Ta'anug/delight’, is rooted. We learn from this that the foundation of ‘holy delight’ is equanimity. When all tastes are equal to us, then we can delight in the earth’s abundance without being harmed. Rabbi Yehudah haNassi lived on this level. Although his home was full of the richest foods and delicacies, at the end of his life he proclaimed, "I did not partake in the pleasures of this world, not even by the measure of a small finger."

Along these lines, the Ma’or vaShemesh comments on the verse: "From all the fruit you shall eat, just not from the Tree of Good and Evil." (Gen. 2:16-17) ‘This means,, you may eat freely from every tree, but don’t make distinctions between the fruits. They should all feel and taste the same to you.’ (Ma’or vaShemesh, Parashat Bo, pp. 179-180)

Body Part of the Month

According to some readings, the body part of Shevat is the Kurkavan, the gizzard (in fowl, corresponding to the 3rd stomach in a ruminant). The Talmud (Berachot 61b) says, "The Kurkavan grinds the food." Why does the Talmud focus on the inner processor, the gizzard, rather than on the more obvious "grinders", the teeth? The month of Shevat helps us rectify the inner processing of food, the deeper issues of eating.

One way that Shevat helps us is by allowing us to explore the spiritual effects of a physically empty stomach (the human equivalent of a gizzard). All of the weeks of Shevat are part of a period called Shuvavim Tat, eight weeks in which fasting is frequently prescribed. When we temporarily refrain from physical food, we can become more aware of our relationship to eating. Are we in the habit of eating for the sake of its outer pleasures? Do we depend on food for physical and emotional comfort? When we return to eating, can we focus on the deeper, spiritual realities within our food? This is the message of Shevat: if we can eat in mindfulness and holiness, we can diminish the din in our lives and restore the flow of chesed.

Time of the Year

When the weather is hot, people tend to eat less, and people generally lose weight in the summer. In the winter months, people tend to enjoy food more. However, when it is very cold, it is harder to enjoy food. Tevet is the coldest month of the year, and in Shevat it starts to get slightly warmer. The Ma’or vaShemesh writes that during this time of year, people begin to focus on food again. Because of this increased focus on food, the sages instituted the Shuvavim Tat, as we mentioned above, as a tikun for overeating. Tu b’Shevat also became a holiday of eating with intentionality, and correcting our relationship to food.

New Year of the Trees

Shevat means "rod", meaning that it’s a time of ‘judgment’, an allusion to Rosh Hashanah. Tu b’Shevat is called the Rosh Hashanah of the (Fruit) Trees. Nevertheless, the actual Judgment Day for trees seems to occur much earlier in the year, perhaps on Sukkot, or even on Rosh Hashanah itself. In what sense then, is Tu b’Shevat a new beginning for the trees, and for us?

...Tu b’Av represents the ‘subconscious’ glimmer of love that lead to the act of Creation.

Tu b’Shevat is mystically parallel to Tu b’Av, the Fifteenth day of the Summer month of Av. Tu b’Av is forty days before the Twenty-fifth of Elul, the date of the beginning of the Creation of the World (five days prior to Rosh Hashanah). The Talmud, at the end of Tractate Taanit, suggests that Tu b’Av represents the ‘subconscious’ glimmer of love that lead to the act of Creation. The Baalei Ha’Tosefot say that on Rosh Hashanah, the ‘thought’ of creating humanity entered the Creator’s consciousness. (Rosh Hashanah 27) The actual Creation of humanity took place six months later, on the First of the month of Nissan.

Tu b’Shevat is forty days before the Twenty-fifth of Adar. According to the Baalei Ha’Tosefot, the Twenty-fifth of Adar would be the first day of Creation of the world, as it is five days before the First of Nissan. Tu b’Shevat would thus be the first glimmer of love before the act of Creation. According to Jewish Law, it is the day that new sap begins to stir and flow within the fruit trees of the Land of Israel. It is the first glimmer of the new fruits that will blossom in Nissan. It is the first glimmer of the chesed that will nourish us in the coming year.