How Do You Spell Tu B’Shvat?

New York
11th Shevat, 5773,  22nd Jan 2013

In the broad scheme of things, spelling isn’t the most important thing in the world. (Sme of yu wll hv seen th wll-crculated rticle by Grhm Rwlinson tht demonsrates hw relatively easily we reed thngs lk this; if you haven’t, check out Typoglycemia .) The fellow we know as “William Shakespeare” spelled his own name in different ways during his lifetime, and its spelling evolved further after he died.

Nevertheless, the world has moved on since Shakespeare’s day; few of us nowadays would knowingly misspell a word. But a Jewish blogger thinks that we’ve been misspelling Tu B’Shvat for some while now, and last year he wrote a rather excellent blog post, titled, “Hazon sinks deeper into the hall of shame.”

Of all the things that we might, over the years, have been attacked for, I never imagined that the spelling of Tu B’Shvat might have prompted such opprobrium, but so it goes: the world of Hebrew transliteration is more passionate than some of you might suppose.

How, then, does one spell Tu b’Shvat?

The answer of course is: טו בשבט or, more accurately sometimes, ט’’ו בשבט.

Within this, ‘Tu” is the letters tet and vav, whose numeric values in Hebrew are 9 and 6, which sum to 15; “Shevat” is the Hebrew month; and “b” is a prefix meaning “of” or “in” (in standard transliteration, using a prefix causes the month’s name to conjugate to Shvat). So Tu B’Shvat – in Hebrew – is the 15th of Shevat.

When you’re writing Hebrew in Hebrew, there is a presumption a/ that people know what they’re reading, and thus b/ there’s clear comprehension that טו בשבט comprises these three elements – a number, a prefix and a month. (The two chipchuk between the tet and the vav are not pronounced but signify that, in this case, the two letters together are not a “word” but a number.)

When you transliterate a language, you have to make approximations, and these vary over time according not only to changes in convention, but also to changes in pronunciation. I’ve spent some time in recent weeks learning the Hebrew poetry of Chaim Nachman Bialik, and it is shocking and fascinating to see that he wrote Hebrew in an accent – and thus with a poetic rhythm – that is so different from contemporary Hebrew, that Israelis have terrible trouble in reading it; when they read it in contemporary Hebrew it sounds awful; only when they force themselves into a 19th century Ashkenazically-inflected Hebrew does the poetry, as spoken word, come to life.

Over time, the world of academia has established what is defined as “correct” transliteration. For scholars who are publishing works in English that are transliterating or citing documents written in Hebrew, it’s important to know what a particular combination of English letters refers to in the original. That’s why standards for transliteration exist. (ISO 259 is probably the current standard, though it’s not the only one.)

But the problem with this, as Emerson might have said, is that a certain kind of foolish consistency of academic transliteration can become the hobgoblin of little minds.  In the academic system, for instance, the Hebrew letter kof is transliterated with the English letter “q”, which is why a scholarly look at the roots of what in English we tend to refer to as “Kiddush” is sometimes spelled ‘qidush” (or even “qydws, with one of those funny symbols on top of the “s” to show that it’s standing in for the Hebrew letter “shin.”) This is why it’s common in a certain kind of book to read a preface in which the author says something like “I’ve followed academic forms of transliteration except in the case of commonly anglicized Hebrew words, where to do so would be needlessly pedantic; in these instances I have simply used the conventional English spelling.” (If you don’t do this, you can get lost in this kind of downhill spiral: “Unfortunately such transliterations are still not unambiguous. From Yôšiyyāhû alone one would not know that the second consonant of the name is alef rather than vav. One could transcribe Yōʾšiyyāhû to make this clear, but that would obscure the fact that the Masoretes indicated that the alef was quiescent in their pronunciation. Perhaps Yō(ʾ)šiyyāhû? But people don’t do that. Parentheses would normally be used only to indicate that a letter was sometimes included in a form and sometimes missing.”)

And thus back to Tu B’Shvat. Mahrabu thinks that the “correct” transliteration should be “Tu Bishvat.” Why then do we spell it “Tu B’Shvat” or, sometimes, “tu b’shvat.” There are three reasons, and I actually think that each is valid, but the three together for me are cumulatively enough for me not to feel in any way inclined to change our transliteration:

  1. Finding a way in English to give a sense of the grammar/structure of the Hebrew. My problem with the “correct” transliteration in this instance is that “Bishvat” doesn’t in any way convey to a non-hebrew speaker that בשבט  - b’shvat – is a prefix followed by the Hebrew month of Shvat. Tu B’Shvat is, to my mind, a much clearer conveying of what’s going on in the Hebrew than Tu Bishvat.
    In addition, properly speaking the first vowel in the word is a long e sound (bee-), although most Hebrew speakers slur that a bit in modern pronunciation. While the proper academic way to represent this vowel is the letter i, in spoken English bi- is never pronounced as bee (think about the words bit and bite). Furthermore, most words in English with bi- as a prefix pronounce it as a long vowel, such as in bilateral, which is not at all what is intended. Therefore, Tu B’Shvat represents a transliteration that a/ is easy to read, b/ visually sets apart the prefix, and c/ allows those not familiar with Hebrew grammar to approximate the typical Hebrew pronunciation. Tu bee-shvat would also fulfill these categories, but that is rarely suggested, which brings us to:

  2. Common usage. On Google, tu b’shvat and tu b’shevat have between them 619,000 hits, whereas tu bishvat and tu bishevat have 431,600. (This may change over time: if ten years from now the grammar-police succeed in imposing bishvat or bishevat, then there would be some argument for us to cross-over; even then, I’d prefer not to lose a sense of prefix and month, as well as reflecting how a non-native Hebrew speaker pronounces English vowels.) Tu bee-shvat in comparison has fewer than 50 hits.

  3. It’s how it was spelled when I was a kid. This last is of course the least defensible academically, and the most persuasive personally. I’ve been celebrating Tu B’Shvat since I was a kid, and I’ve been to or hosted Tu B’Shvat seders every year since 1986; and along the way, I’ve always spelled it – and mostly seen it spelled – Tu b’Shvat.

So… Chag Sameach :).

What matters most, of course, is not how you spell it but what you make of it. The Torah is “etz chayim” – the tree of life. Israel is the only state that ended the 20th century with more trees than it began.  I live in a town in which its highly secular Jewish mayor – Michael Bloomberg – partnered with Bette Midler (fabulous Jewish lady; I don’t think I can comment on her observance) to launch Million Trees NYC. I don’t think these facts, and the very existence of Tu B’Shvat, are unconnected. Tu B’Shvat – the new year for trees – has changed over time, and not just in its English spelling. We live in different times and places, and we face different challenges.

Yet Jewish tradition comes along, once a year, to remind us that all civilization depends on the natural world that sustains us. As we roll along from Rosh Chodesh Shevat to Tu B’Shvat, and on to Purim and Pesach, Jewish tradition teaches not merely that new buds are sprouting and that new life is forming, but also that we have obligations and responsibilities to till and to tend, to conserve and to renew. Or, as the President put it on Monday, “We still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. The path will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition. We must lead it. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.”

As Reb Shlomo Carlebach z”l might have said: I wish you and yours a spring season of health, new growth, and renewal.

Shabbat shalom,

Nigel

 

PS – we have a slew of updated Tu b’Shvat resources on our website – check out….