Sunday, January 6, 2013

A Tu B'Shvat Hebrew Lesson

עצים or אילנות?  

Shalom Boys & Girls, Moms & Dads & Teachers. I have a question for you:

Why is Tu B'Shvat called חג האילנות -- the holiday of trees -- when the commonly used Hebrew word for tree is עץ? Even the biblical word for tree is עץ, so why use the plural of the word אילן  to name this holiday?

Don't you think that's good question? I searched and searched until I found the answer. Here it is: Long before Eliezer Ben-Yehudah revived the Hebrew language, Biblical Hebrew was followed by another linguistic stage -- Talmudic Hebrew -- which incorporated Aramaic into the daily conversation. Have a look at the pages of the Talmud and even portions of the Passover Hagaddah and you will find a Hebrew dialect that sounds like it comes from a different planet. 

Connect the dots and you'll find out why Tu B'Shvat is called חג האילנות. To begin with, it is not a biblically-based holiday. It is first mentioned in the Mishnah in Tractate Rosh Hashanah as one of the four New Years on the Jewish calendar. So there we are, smack in the Aramaic period when the word עץ referred to wood. Therefore, since עץ was a material good, the members comprising Chazal -- the Jewish sages of the time -- were not going to use such a "common" word to name a holiday commemorating trees. Instead, they creatively combined two Aramaic words (one for tree and the other for wood) and created a new term for fruit trees -- אילן. Pluralize that and you get חג האילנות. Pretty cool!!!

Is the word אילן commonly used today in Israel? Only as the name for a boy. For girls, there's the name אילנה.

The word עץ is the big winner in Israel and here are some awesome Hebrew connections. We all know that trees symbolize strength. The Hebrew root for the word עץ is עצה. From that root we get the words עצה (advice), יעץ (to advise, give counsel) and לעצב (to give form or shape). As the New Year of Trees, Tu B'Shvat sure shapes the Jewish mindset because it's our way of celebrating the environment. 

חג שמח!

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