Thursday, February 08, 2007

Echoes of an Early Tu-Bishvat

I finally read Yaari's article on Tu Bishvat. I still think Tu Bishvat seders are silly, if you don't speak the Kabbalistic idiom for them to be meaningful. However, more information has come to light:

1) Tu Bishvat was a minor holiday in Eretz Israel in the Geonic period. Piyutim have come to light from the Cairo Genizah for the morning services on Tu Bishvat. In Bavel, however, it was nothing special.

The old Eretz Yisrael community was wiped out during the conquest of the First Crusade - most Jews shmadded out, the rest fled to the East. Records of their minhagim have only turned up recently, in the Geniza manuscripts; there is an old book of "the differences between the Eastern (Bavli) and Western (EY) Jews"; and some texts, such as the Minor Tractates and the Talmud Yerushalmi, bring down Palestinian customs.

Some of those customs have survived in Minhag Ashkenaz, as the Ashkenazim mostly came from Jews who had come from Eretz Yisrael in the Roman and Geonic periods, settled in Italy, and then moved north across the Alps into the Rhineland, France and Germany. Some of these customs' distinctiveness, and some of their existence, have been muted by increased interaction between the Jews of Christendom and the Jews of Dar al-Islam during the period of the Rishonim.

2) A teshuvah from Rabbenu Gershom Me-or HaGolah, early 11th century, says that we do not fast on Tu Bishvat, because the mishnah calls it a Rosh Hashanah, and we don't fast on Rosh Hashanah. But really the halacha is that we can fast on Rosh Hashanah, so what's going on? Odds are, he had a tradition that Tu Bishvat was a minor holiday, and he used the Rosh Hashanah connection as an asmachata (contrived support for something we know is true anyway).

3) Maharil records that we don't say techinot; the Minhagim of R' Isaac Tyrnau says that we don't say Tachanun; and a student of R' Israel Isserlein records that in Austria they don't say tachanun on Tu Bishvat. These are 16th-century sources, I think.

4) A book of Ashkenazic minhagim first printed in Venice in 1590 records that Ashkenazim eat extra fruit on Tu Bishvat.

The suppression of Tachanun and of fasting are brought down in the Shulchan Aruch.

The Hemdat Yamim then, about 1675 or so (not printed until 1721) creates the Tu Bishvat seder from Divine inspiration, and encourages his friends from his mystical society to do it as well. He incorporates the old custom of eating fruit, with the newer kabbalistic infusion of sanctity into acts. Tu Bishvat was a nothing day in the Eastern lands, no suppression of fasting or tachanun, no special fruit-eating, until their adoption of kabbalah brought the Tu Bishvat seder into their habits.

So the Old Ashkenazic customs, which trace back to Old Eretz Yisrael customs, of eating fruit and of not fasting or saying tachanun, long predate the Hemdat Yamim. It makes sense that EY/Ashkenaz preserved this day as a minor holiday, while Bavel/Edot haMizrach ignored it, since only in EY is the fiscal year for maaser and trumah operative.

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