“Tu biShvat” vs. “Tu b’Shvat”: Orthography and Presumptions of Authority in Jewish Environmental Education

Nigel Savage made public this week his reply to Ben Dreyfus[ref]For more on this, see here, here, and here[/ref] and others concerning Ḥazon’s orthography of ט״וּ בִּשְׁבַט as Tu B’Shvat rather than Tu biShvat. Given the seriousness of the environmental and food justice issues that Tu biShvat gives voice to, it’s important to recognize that this earnest if seemingly comical debate isn’t really about romanization of Hebrew anymore. It’s a question about Siaḥ (שִׂיחַ — discourse), the roles of Jewish education, and the goals of Jewish educators.

Nigel Savage and Ben Dreyfus’s holy debate reminds me of the kind of Talmudic argument where two or more mitzvot are set in conflict with one another.

On the one hand, there’s the import of our mission: stalling or reversing global climate change in the face of massive indifference and well-healed opposition using our religious tools, rituals, and celebrations as an important medium to for expanding environmental awareness (meanwhile also helping our community understand the depth of environmental wisdom in its Torah). We are educators and activists, enjoined to educate and improve this situation. Part of our work in educating is in being relevant and in inspiring the creativity and imagination of our students.

Another part is in being correct (with all the post-structuralist fuzziness implied) . The measure of our authority as educators ultimately draws from our success in both of these parts.

And so we really need to be mindful of places where our success in one of these parts comes at the expense of the other, or in opposition to the other. The solution should never be to ignore one aspect by saying the other is more important. Both are important because in the equation of Jewish education, correctness and relevance rely upon one another.

For what its worth, I sense there’s a simple solution here that meets both our needs as educator and that’s to do our very best to teach this holiday and if we need to romanize the spelling of Tu biShvat, it is to spell it as such. If apostrophe’s are confusing some as to their purpose (distinguishing the Hebrew prefix from the proper noun or indicating a sheva where there should be a ḥirik), then it’s not as if we can’t disambiguate our intentions with some or another footnote as to the style usage.[ref]Nigel’s position on this is oddly familiar to me as an observer of how much pride folk take in their local customs, regardless of how much they deviate from what may be normative or proper. Nigel grew up with an apostrophe, and by his own admission, this is the least rational and most important argument for his choice of Ḥazon’s spelling for ט״וּ בִּשְׁבַט.[/ref]

I would only add that Tu Bishvat is also the style I use as editor-in-chief of the Open Siddur Project. At the same time, we recognize there are different transliteration schemas and we’ve represented a fair number of them in our transliteration demonstration tool. (Try it yourself in transliterating ט״וּ בִּשְׁבַט).

I hope this will further echo a point that both Ben and Nigel have alluded to from two different perspectives: that what is “correct” when it comes to human artifice (e.g. language and style) is a matter of usage and popularity. And this is true even for “standard” conventions, which are attractive as common standards even when they, through the organic mechanism of human culture, evolve or devolve according to their function.

The universe, through its physics, applies its own standard. Scientists and engineers apply their standards in order to interoperate. And so too, do linguists, grammarians, and literary stylists. What’s important to me, and I hope so too, for you, is that we honor and respect what is useful to interoperate giving freedom for the evolution of culture and its languages. (And this is why all of the Open Siddur Project content is shared with free-culture attribution licenses.)

About Aharon N. Varady

Aharon's Omphalos is the hobbit hole of Aharon Varady, founding director of the Open Siddur Project. He is a community planner and environmental educator working to improve stewardship of the Public Domain, be it the physical and natural commons of urban park systems or the creative and cultural commons of libraries and museums. His advocacy for open-source strategies in the Jewish community has been written about in the Atlantic Magazine, the Yiddish Forverts, Tablet, and Haaretz. He is particularly interested in pedagogies for advancing ecological wisdom, developing creative and emotional intelligence, and realizing effective theurgical praxes. He welcomes your comments, personal messages, and kind words. If you find his work helpful to your own or you'd simply like to support him, please consider donating via his Patreon account.

Leave a Reply