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In some Anglo-Saxon countries, particularly in the United States, the fifteenth day of the month of Shevat had been called Arbor Day. Arbor Day is usually associated with planting trees and, as applied to Chamisha Asar be-Shevat, it is a misnomer. Chamisha Asar be-Shevat has little, if anything, to do with planting trees.
What then is the significance of Chamisha Asar be-Shevat?
In the first Mishnah of Tractate Berachos we are told of four different occasions in the Jewish calendar that are called Rosh HaShanah, the beginning of a new year.
(a) The first day of the month of Nisan. This day was identified as the anniversary of the coronation of the king. In other words, if a king was crowned in Adar, the month preceding Nisan, his reign was deemed to have started its second year on the first day of Nisan although he had reigned for only one month. This convention was significant for the purpose of dating various legal documents.
(b) The first day of Elul. Everyone who had ten new animals born among his flock during the year had to set aside one as a tithe to be sacrificed in the Temple. The year for the tithe of animals was reckoned from the first day of the month of Elul. The tithing, therefore, applied to the animals born from that date until the end of the month of Av.
(c) The first of Tishri. The Biblical regulations of the Shemittah and Jubilee years took effect from the first of the month of Tishri. The first day of Tishri has become the Rosh Ha-Shanah par excellence, since according to the teaching of the Rabbis in that same Mishnah, this is the day on which every human being passes before the Lord as a sheep before the shepherd and has his destiny determined for the coming year. Tradition has it that this day is the birthday of the world, the anniversary of the sixth day of Creation.
(d) Fifteenth of Shevat. The fruits of the trees, too, are subject to the laws of tithing. What constitutes the fiscal year for the tithing of the fruits of the trees? The fifteenth day of Shevat marks the beginning of the new year. Fruit that appears before that date is tithed with the fruits of the previous year. Fruit that grows afterwards is the fruit of the new year. This is the true significance of Chamisha Asar be-Shevat.
The Jew, in his sensitivity to everything created by G-d, imagines that just as the human being on his Rosh Ha-Shanah beseeches G-d to grant him a year of fruitfulness, health, and success, so too the trees, in their own inexplicable way, pray to G-d for the same beneficence. And just as man on his Rosh Ha-Shanah trusts that G-d has granted him his wishes, so he is happy in his trust that G-d has granted the trees another year of fruitfulness on their New Year day. On Chamisha Asar be-Shevat of 1915 a group of teachers in Jerusalem took their students to Motza, where each planted a tree in honor of the day. Perhaps this is the origin of the contemporary custom of planting trees on this day by the school children of Israel.
- The Minhagim