Leshon Ima, Mother Tongue, with Dr. Rachel Zohar Dulin, Special To The Dayton Jewish Observer
It is hard to believe that again we are celebrating the lovely day of Tu B’Shevat, a day known as The Holiday of the Trees and celebrated on the 15th day of the fifth month of the Hebrew calendar.
In Israel, at this time the landscape is covered with beautiful blossoms of wildflowers and the almond trees are budding all around.
Indeed, Tu B’Shevat brings to mind the word tevah, the Hebrew word for nature in all its glory.
Tevah is a post-biblical word, close to the Aramaic tivah. It is derived from the verb tava, which means sink, impress, coin, stamp and formulate.
As a noun, tevah has several meanings. Tevah is an all-inclusive term for everything created. Trees, animals, seas, land, sky and luminaries, are all part of the tevah.
Tevah also means element or substance. It is used in reference to the prime elements: water, fire, earth and air, known as the t’vaim (plural of tevah), formerly believed to constitute all physical matter from which God created the world and all in it (Bamidbar Raba 14).
And yet another meaning for the word tevah is characteristic or character of a living being or a substance (Megilah 14; Yerushlmi, Brakhot 9:2).
The multiple meanings to the word tevah give rise to many interesting phrases in Hebrew.
For example, tevah haadam, literally the nature of a human being, is a term that comes to us from the literature of the Middle Ages, pointing to all kinds of behavioral patterns typical of human beings.
Tevah sheni, on the other hand, translated as second nature, refers to a learned behavior, which has become a part of one’s nature.
And since we are discussing human nature, we should also mention the idiom yatza tivoh baolam referring to a person whose reputation is world-renowned (Megilah 14). This meaning is founded in the fact that the faces of famous people were struck on coins, and their fame spread as the coins circulated.
Tevah is also used in phrases describing both the violent forces of nature and its pastoral quality.
The phrase, eytahnay hatevah, means natural forces and is used in reference to earth quakes, eruptions of volcanoes, floods, etc.
In contrast, the term chayk hatevah, the bosom of nature, refers to the countryside, implying a quiet bucolic place, far from the noise and the hustle of the city.
Since Tu B’Shevat is a holiday in Israel (Rosh HaShannah1:1), it is mitevah had’varim, from the nature of things that it will be a day enjoyed in tevah.
Most Israelis spend the holiday in chayk hatevah, in the countryside, planting trees, eating different fruits, relaxing and enjoying the beauty of tevah.
May Tu B’shevat, The Holiday of the Trees, bring us all closer to the tevah and may we continue to celebrate its beauty.
Dr. Rachel Zohar Dulin is a professor of biblical literature at Spertus College in Chicago and an adjunct professor of Bible and Hebrew at New College of Florida.
To read the complete February 2015 Dayton Jewish Observer, click here.