The Jewish holiday of Tu B'Shevat, which was celebrated last week, is most famously mentioned in the opening mishnah of tractate Rosh Hashanah as one of the four new years in the Jewish calendar:
ארבעה ראשי שנים הם: באחד בניסן, ראש השנה למלכים ולרגלים. באחד באלול, ראש השנה למעשר בהמה; רבי אלעזר ורבי שמעון אומרין, באחד בתשרי. באחד בתשרי, ראש השנה לשנים לשמיטים וליובלות, ולנטיעה ולירקות. באחד בשבט, ראש השנה לאילן, כדברי בית שמאי; בית הלל אומרין, בחמישה עשר בו.
“There are four new years: The first of Nisan is the new year for kings and for festivals. The first of Elul is the new year for the tithe of beasts. Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Shimon say: the first of Tishri. The first of Tishri is the new year for years, for shmitta and jubilee years, for planting and for [tithe of] vegetables. The first of Shevat is the new year for trees, according to the words of Bet Shammai. Bet Hillel says: on the fifteenth of that month.” (Mishnah RH 1:1, translation Joshua Kulp)
Let us set aside Tu B'Shevat for a moment, however. I want to focus on another aspect of this mishnah, namely the connection of the first of Nisan to the first of Tishri. Nisan and Tishri are both more than mere months. They are packed with festive activity. Both are regarded in the rabbinic tradition as tekufot, annual quarters, a temporal designation perhaps analogous to our modern concept of seasons. The question that interests me is what is the connection between the liturgical experiences of the Nisan season and the Tishri season? And furthermore, what does this have to do with the weekly parshah which often coincides with Tu B'Shevat, B'shalach?
In the period of the Bible, the Israelites celebrated two new years, one in Nisan and one in Tishri. The process by which these two festivals developed into our Pesach and Rosh Hashanah is a complex one which we will not explore here. The point is that in mishnaic times both dates were still recognized as new years. Each date has its own identity. Nisan marks the beginning of the royal cycle. Nisan marks the beginning of the agricultural cycle. One might argue that this mishnah is making a distinction between the human and natural domains, however I think it is more apt to speak of a distinction between the historical and the terrestrial. Or perhaps the urban and the rural. Put otherwise, the mishnah is defining two temporal realities: one for the official Judaism of Jerusalem (the seat of monarchy and the destination of festival pilgrimages) and one for the local Judaism of the provinces (where agricultural laws were most relevant). To this day, our calendar marks these two new beginnings by means of the holidays of Pesach and Rosh Hashanah. In the eyes of the rabbis these two holidays were not only linked, but they were in competition with each other for the highest prestige, as can be seen in the following text:
“R. Eliezer says: The world was created in Tishri, in Tishri the Patriarchs were born, and in Tishri the Patriarchs died. R Joshua says: The world was created in Nisan, in Nisan the Patriarchs were born, and in Nisan the Patriarchs died.” (Bavli, Rosh Hashanah 10b)
Another item which figured in rabbinic arguments over Nisan vs. Tishri was the liturgical commemoration of the 'Aqedah, the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22). On what day did the 'Aqedah originally take place and when should we memorialize it? Today, we are used to thinking of the 'Aqedah in connection with Rosh Hashanah. The Torah reading on the second day of Rosh Hashanah is taken from Genesis 22. We publicly read this narrative to remind (kivyachol) God, of the mercy he showed Abraham and to convince him to similarly take mercy upon us on the Day of Judgment. Moreover, the central symbol of the holiday, the shofar (preferably a ram's horn), is commonly seen as an allusion to the ram who is sacrificed in place of Isaac at the end of the story. Nevertheless, a divergent tradition which associated the 'Aqedah with Pesach is preserved in our sources:
“And when [God] chose Jacob and his sons, he fixed for himself the new moon of Redemption, in which Israel were redeemed from Egypt and in which they will be redeemed in the future...and in this month Isaac was born and in it he was brought to the 'Aqedah.” (Shemot Rabbah 15:11)
In the end, as we know, Tishri vanquished Nisan, and Rosh Hashanah claimed the rights to the 'Aqedah. But what about Nisan? Did it receive anything in exchange? Is there a parallel narrative associated with the Nisan season which similarly exemplifies the courage of the Jewish people to do God's will and displays God intervening in human affairs in a dramatic way?
To find the answer we must look at the Torah readings for both holidays. What we find is that on both Rosh Hashanah and Pesach we read well-known narrative sequences from the Torah which culminate in a suspenseful episode in which God dramatically intervenes. As we have already said, the 'Aqedah is the reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah. However this incident is in fact only the second half of a larger narrative (Genesis 21-22) which is read over the two days of Rosh Hashanah. The narrative is the story of Isaac's coming of age: from his long-awaited and miraculous birth, to his weaning party, to his dynastic victory over his brother Ishmael, finally culminating in God's command that he be sacrificed.
Similarly, the Torah reading for Pesach is a major Pentateuchal narrative spread out over two days of the holiday (in this case, the first and seventh days), namely the departure from Egypt (Exodus 12-15): from God's command to sacrifice the paschal lamb, to the killing of the Egyptian first borns, to Israel's flight, to the encampment beside the Sea of Reeds, to the spectacular splitting of the sea, culminating finally in the Song at the Sea (“Shirat Hayam”). This, of course, brings us to this Shabbat, also known as Shabbat Shirah, because of the public reading of Shirat Hayam, which is found in parshat B'shalach.
The juxtaposition of the 'Aqedah and Shirat Hayam as the climactic liturgical moments of the Tishri and Nisan seasons (respectively) is corroborated in an unexpected and yet familiar place: the daily siddur. Comprised in large part of selections from Psalms, the liturgy of the morning service contains only two extended passages from the Torah (other than the Shema, of course). These are Genesis 22:1-19 (the 'Aqedah) recited before pseukei d'zimrah and Exodus 15:1-18 (Shirat Hayam) recited after it. The fact that the authors of the siddur chose to frame the hymns of praise recited every day with these two Biblical passages says a great deal about their centrality to the daily, as well as annual liturgical cycle.
Admittedly, the 'Aqedah and Shirat Hayam are not likely passages to be read side by side. First of all, they do not belong to the same genre. The 'Aqedah selection is a prose narrative, whereas Shirat Hayam is a poetic ode. The first builds up to a single moment of action, while the second describes the victorious denouement in the wake of the action. The first is terse and relies on empty space in its creation of suspense; the second is bombastic and lurid in is depiction of detail. Moreover, each passage expresses God's power to intervene in the world in a different way. In the 'Aqedah, God is elusive and mysterious. He remains in the background and when he emerges it is to display his mercy. At the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, God is front and center and the divine quality which is emphasized is physical might. In the 'Aqedah, God only enters the picture at the last second, sending an angel to hold back Abraham's hand, while at the Sea he is continuously present even if his actions are executed via a pillar of smoke/fire throughout the face-off.
However, there are important similarities also. Firstly, these two texts function analogously within their respective narrative units. Both are culminating events. The 'Aqedah is the tenth and final trial undergone by Abraham, while the splitting of the Sea is the greatest miracle which tops a long list of plagues in which the Egyptians are slowly tortured but never fully trounced.
More importantly, both passages are strongly connected to the same geographic location: the Temple Mount. In spite of the distinction made earlier between the urban character of Nisan and the rural provincial character of Tishri, both passages are expressly grounded in Jerusalem. In the 'Aqedah passage, God tells Abraham to go to “the land of Moriah,” a subtle yet clear reference to the hilly region where Solomon later built the first Temple (see 2 Chronicles 3:1). From a very early date, therefore, the tradition has existed that the 'Aqedah took place on the very site of the future Temples (see Genesis Rabbah 55:8). Likewise, Shirat Hayam describes God's future activity in which he will bring his people to the promised land: “You will bring them and plant them in your own mountain, the place you made for your dwelling, the sanctuary, O Lord, which your hands have established” (Exod 15:17).
There are also linguistic parallels between the two passages. Both passages refer to the act of splitting, using the same verb (ב-ק-ע), in their prologues. Just as Abraham had to split the wood (ויבקע עצי עלה) before he could lay his son Isaac between the logs, so too God had to split the sea (ויבקעו המים) before he could lead his children, Israel, between the walls of water. The 'Aqedah mentions a “ram caught in the thicket by his horns” (איל נאחז בסבך בקרניו), while Shirat Hayam says “trembling seized the tribes of Moab” (אילי מואב יאחזמו רעד). The two images are quite different, nevertheless the overlapping language is quiet unmistakable. The “tribes” or “lords” of the Moabites are referred to as “rams” and their “seizure” is effected by means of the same verb (א-ח-ז) as the entrapment of the 'Aqedah ram.
Interestingly, a survey of the verbs used in each passage shows two opposite trajectories of movement. The 'Aqedah describes a process of ascent to a high place, and so it is not by mistake that over and over the text uses the root meaning “to rise up, to ascend” (ע-ל-ה) to refer to the act of sacrifice. For instance: “offer (והעלהו) him up as a burnt offering (לעלה) upon (על) one of the mountains which I will point out to you.” Similarly, Abraham is twice depicted not merely seeing, but looking up and seeing. The text underscores the upward direction by using the phrase “he lifted up his eyes” (וישא אברהם עיניו). In contrast, the dominant linguistic trajectory of Shirat Hayam, expressed through the choice of verbs, is one of descent. The Egyptians are described using the following phrases: “drowned in the Sea of Reeds” (טבעו בים סוך), “the deeps covered them” (תהמות יכסימו), “went down to the depths like a stone” (ירדו במצולות כמו אבן), “sank like lead” (צללו כעופרת), “the earth swallowed them”(תבלעמו ארץ), “terror and dread descend upon them” (תפל עליהם אימתה ופחד),
Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik noted that the morning prayers begin on a very optimistic note with jubilant psalms of praise, all of which use strong, active verbs (שירו, הללו, הודו). The individual is confident that through her prayers she will truly render praise to the Creator. However, by the time the worshipper is ready to begin Shacharit, her tone has grown much less confident. She has realized the impossibility of adequately praising the divine, and so the verbs in the liturgy shift into the passive tone (ישתבח). The two trajectories I have described above fit in to Soloveitchik's schema well. Before we begin pseukei d'zimrah we are self-assured, hopeful that our davening will be truly meaningful. Like Abraham, we lift up our eyes in anticipation. We are ascending to that sought after spiritual high. But soon enough, we reach a barrier. Like the Egyptians we begin to sink like lead, embarrassed by what we thought we could accomplish. God does not laugh at us. Like the children of Israel, we are ushered through the sea-bed and planted up in the highlands, in the place of God's sanctuary, the very same spot where the 'Aqedah narrative left off. Tu B'Shevat figures into this scheme too. The trees also wish to render praise to the Creator. Just as Shirat Hayam begins with the words אז ישיר משה, so too it says about the trees in p'seukei d'zimrah, אז יררנו כל עצי יער.
So the fact that the 'Aqedah narrative and Shirat Hayam both appear in the daily liturgy indicates that the memorialization of the two great calendrical cycles – Tishri and Nisan – is a daily matter, that each day provides an opportunity for the individual to situate himself within both the historical and the terrestrial orbits. This year we will be lucky enough to add to these the arboreal as well.
The initial idea for this post came from Shalom Spiegel, The Last Trial (New York: Pantheon Books, 1967).
I am Jonathan Lipnick, tour guide and educator specializing in Christianity and Judaism. In this blog I explore questions (historical, linguistic) that come up in the course of my teaching and reading.