The Bible teaches us that the children of Israel were commanded to plant trees and other foliage as they conquered the holy land of Israel “for the tree of the fields is man’s life”. Deuteronomy 20:19
Tu B’Shevat— the 15th of Shevat on the Jewish calendar–is a minor holiday that marks the beginning of a “New Year for Trees.”
In the Talmud (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:1), Tu B’Shevat is one of four new year days on the Jewish calendar, which include (1) Rosh Hashanah – the New Year For Years; (2) Rosh Hashanah L’Ilanot (Tu B’Shevat) – the New Year For Trees; (3) Rosh Hashanah le’Ma’aser Beheimah – the New Year For Tithing Animals; and (4) Rosh Hashanah le’Melechim v’Chagim v’Hodeshim – the New Year For Kings and Festivals and Months.
Some Jews think Tu B’Shevat has an identical meaning for trees as the day of Rosh Hashanah has for humans, serving not only as a New Year but also as a Day of Judgment. Proponents of this belief view Tu B’Shevat as the Day of Judgment For Trees when God decides whether the trees will be nourished by the rains and grow fruit or whether the season will be dry. They believe that on this day, God determines how bountiful the fruit will be in the coming year. (Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year and Day of Judgment, is the day when God decides who will live and who will die in the coming year.)
Over the centuries, Tu B’Shevat has evolved more than any other Jewish holiday. From tithing in Biblical times to modern day environmental stewardship and/or political planting, Tu B’Shevat is rooted deep in the soil of Jewish culture.
Tu B’Shevat: A Day For Tithing, Taxes, and Orlah
Originally, in post-Biblical times, Tu B’Shevat was the annual date for tithing, reckoning the age of trees for purposes of taxes, and for orlah, the first three years during which a tree’s fruit is considered God’s property and not to be eaten.
On Tu B’Shevat, Tribes calculated and paid their fruit tithes to Jewish priests and Levites who did not own land to grow food for themselves because their “portion” was God. This tithe was a type of tax.
Leviticus 19:23-25 states that fruit from trees may not be eaten during the first three years, and specifically, that the fourth year’s fruit is for God. Tu B’Shevat is the day for reckoning these years. Since each tree is considered to have aged one year as of Tu B’Shevat, if a Jew plants a tree the day before Tu B’Shevat, the next day begins the tree’s second year. Conversely, if he plants a tree the day after Tu B’Shevat, the tree does not reach its second year until the next Tu B’Shevat. Similarly, Tu B’Shevat also acts as the dividing line between the years in which the fruit has ripened. Fruit ripened before the day of Tu B’Shevat is considered part of the old year, and fruit ripened after Tu B’Shevat is part of the new year.
“When you come to the land and you plant any tree, you shall treat its fruit as forbidden; for three years it will be forbidden and not eaten. In the fourth year, all of its fruit shall be sanctified to praise the LORD. In the fifth year, you may eat its fruit. ” Leviticus 19:23-25
Tu B’Shevat: A Day For Observing The “Feast of Fruits” Seder And For Eating “The Seven Species”
After the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. by the Romans, tithing fruit on Tu B’Shevat became more of a tradition than a necessity because Temple priests and Levites no longer served in the Temple. For this reason, Kabbalists (Jewish mystics) in the 16th Century, led by Rabbi Isaac Luria, developed a Tu B’Shevat Seder (ordered steps of a celebratory meal) to restore the significance and purpose of Tu B’Shevat to the lives of the Jewish people.
The Tu B’Shevat Seder was published in Izmir, Ottoman Empire in 1731-1732 as part of an anthology of Kabbalistic customs, and later, in 1753, was published as the first Tu B’Shevat Haggadah. (Haggadah means “narration” and refers to a manual that details the ordered set of instructions for the Seder.) The name of this Tu B’Shevat Haggadah was “Peri Eitz Hadar” (the Fruit of the Goodly Tree in Hebrew). It included eating different types of traditional fruits grown in Israel, drinking four cups of wine, and reading passages from the Bible, Talmud, and Midrash that mentioned trees. Songs and dances based on trees and nature were also included. The Kabbalists called their Tu B’Shevat Seder the “Feast of Fruits.”
Conceptually similar to the Pesach (Passover) Seder, the Tu B’Shevat Seder discusses the spiritual significance of fruits and of the shivat haminim, the “Seven Species” described in the Bible as being abundant in the land of Israel. These Seven Species of fruits are based on a passage in the Torah, in the Biblical Book of Devarim, or Deuteronomy 8:8: “It [Israel] is a land of wheat, barley, grapes [vines], figs and pomegranates, a land of oil, olives, and dates [honey].” The Kabbalistic reason for consuming these fruits is the belief that saying a blessing over each fruit prior to eating it helps heal the earth; The more people that bless and eat fruit, the more blessings will abound to heal the earth.
Additionally, Kabbalists view Tu B’Shevat as a day when the Tree of Life renews the flow of life to the universe, and teach that on the 15th of the month of Shevat, the sap in the trees begins to rise, signaling the end of winter. The fact that white and pink blossoms or flowers begin appearing on the almond trees in Israel during the season around Tu B’Shevat only adds evidence to support their belief.
Tu B’Shevat: A Day For Planting Trees
At the beginning of the Zionist movement, Tu B’Shevat again took on new meaning as planting trees became a symbol for the Jewish re-attachment to the land of Israel. The most recent transformation has re-popularized Tu B’Shevat into a holiday of Jewish environmentalism and ecology– similar to our “Earth Day”– because of its association with trees and, by extension, nature. As such, on this day, tree-planting, swamp drainage, and reclamation of land takes place in Israel.
Many people outside of Israel honor Tu B’Shevat by planting trees in their own communities, sending donations to the Jewish National Fund or other Jewish organizations that support tree-planting, or by sponsoring companies who plant trees on their behalf in Israel proper.
Modern day Jews observe Tu B’Shevat by:
- Evaluating their relationship with nature and making resolutions to become more environmentally sensitive to God’s earth
- Performing projects related to swamp drainage, tree planting, and the reclamation of land
- Eating 15 different kinds of fruit (including carob) in honor of the “Tu” (Fifteen) in Tu B’Shevat
- Holding a Tu B’Shevat Seder
Tu B’Shevat Dates On Our Gregorian Calendar
- Jewish Year 5770: sunset January 29, 2010 – nightfall January 30, 2010
- Jewish Year 5771: sunset January 19, 2011 – nightfall January 20, 2011
- Jewish Year 5772: sunset February 7, 2012 – nightfall February 8, 2012
- Jewish Year 5773: sunset January 25, 2013 – nightfall January 26, 2013