JANUARY AND SH’VAT – Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah

It’s January. As soon as we say the word, images of deep winter fill our minds: grey skies, short, dull days, the cold and the damp, frost and ice, sleet and snow; naked trees and a barren landscape. Of course, sometimes the sun shines and the bare branches make beautiful patterns against the sky at sunset.

There is no escape from January. We just have to get through it. But, actually, that’s not quite true. A parallel universe beckons: the domain of the Hebrew month of Sh’vat – which begins this year on January 2nd. Sh’vat conjures up images of a very different kind. The first paragraph of Mishnah Rosh Ha-Shanah, which is devoted to the various ‘new years’ of the Jewish calendar, relates (1:1):

On the 1st of Sh’vat is a New Year the trees, according to the words of the School of Shammai; the School of Hillel say, on the 15th [day] of it.

As was often the case, the view of the School of Hillel became the halachah, the law. And so, if we step out from January and into Sh’vat, we can look forward to a mini festival, dedicated to the planting of trees and the eating fruits associated with the land of Israel. Of course, while January almost coincides completely with Sh’vat this year, there is no correspondence between chilly Britain and the warmer climate of the Eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean. Sh’vat in Israel is a time when the almond trees blossom. I remember planting trees on Tu Bishvat in 1979 on a kibbutz in the Western Galilee, wearing a T-shirt. I also recall many a frozen Tu Bishvat in England, and boiling several kettles of water in order to unfreeze the ground before planting.

Nevertheless, despite these obvious contrasts in climate, the month of Sh’vat reminds us that January is not quite what it seems. Within the bare trees all around us, the sap is rising. Soon, snowdrops will appear and winter crocuses, and before too long, even February will be over…

There is, after all, something transitional about January, situated in the middle of the three winter months. Once the first two weeks have passed, we begin to notice the days lengthening, and by the end of the month, spring is just four weeks away…

Of course, since the inauguration of National Holocaust Memorial Day, on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army, on January 27th 1945, it is impossible to get through the month without reflecting on the horrors of the Sho’ah. But we are summoned to do more than this. As we remember the murder of 6,000,000 of our people, and the destruction of thousands of Jewish communities, we are challenged to commit ourselves to the renewal of Jewish life.