Monthly Archives: January 2023

Turning over a new leaf

Rabbi Gabriel Botnick on how trees – and humans – prepare for change

The world of trees is fascinating, yet some of it is invisible to our eyes. We can watch buds develop into leaves, and flowers give way to fruit, but for these events to occur, something far more miraculous must first take place, hidden from sight.

Around late summer or early autumn, perennial trees will begin their transition to dormancy – when they slowly stop growing in anticipation of winter. It’s during this time that a tree will begin shedding its fruit and losing its leaves, so that by the first frost, the tree is fully dormant and protected from the cold weather.

But dormancy actually consists of two periods: the earlier endodormancy, when a tree will not grow at all, no matter what conditions it is exposed to; and the later eco-dormancy, when the tree is open to the possibility of growing new buds once it has met a requisite number of hours under ideal conditions. This protects the tree from budding too early and being exposed to frost damage.

For most fruit-bearing trees, the moment of transition from the endo- to eco-dormancy periods occurs around January. It then takes a number of weeks before the first buds appear on a tree, signalling to us that spring has arrived. But as far as the tree is concerned, the rebirth of spring actually begins far earlier – at the start of the eco-dormancy period.

While we may have no idea that such changes are happening within our arboreal neighbours, those who are finely attuned to nature certainly are aware of these processes. Although scientists didn’t begin to understand these stages of growth until about 200 years ago, our ancestors have been keenly aware of this process for at least 2,000 years.

The two great schools of thought in the Mishnah, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, understood that trees began their rebirth in the middle of winter – they just couldn’t agree on the exact date. While Beit Shammai said this transition coincided with Rosh Chodesh Shevat, Beit Hillel argued that the change happened two weeks later, on the 15th of the month, or Tu B’Shevat.

It’s remarkable to think that, even without access to empirical science, our ancestors could understand the hidden, inner world of trees. But it isn’t terribly surprising, as anyone who strives to understand God’s world will realise there is complexity and beauty hidden below the surface wherever we look – especially within humans.

The rabbis of the Mishnah explain that people are similar to trees in many ways. I imagine the rabbis understood that within each of us occurs a multitude of changes that are hidden from the view of others. Often times, the most profound changes come on so slowly and subtly that we don’t even recognise them occurring within ourselves. But when we pause to reflect on our lives’ journeys, we realise how much we have grown and changed.

When we are trying to make a change in our lives, it is important to be patient and to remember that even while we may not realise it, microscopic changes are happening within us all the time.

Right now, we might feel like that barren tree, braced against the harshness of winter. But soon – and likely before we even realise it – we will be standing tall and beautiful in the full bloom of summer. We simply need to have faith in the process.