Tu Bishvat is a holiday intimately connected to the agricultural cycle of the Land of Israel. Falling in the middle of the Jewish month of Shvat, the 15th day of the month is the New Year of Trees. Today, this holiday is often celebrated by planting saplings and also by participating in a seder-meal that echoes the Passover seder, in which the produce of trees, including fruits and nuts, are eaten.
Ideas and Beliefs: The Bible expresses a great reverence for fruit trees as symbols of God’s bounty and beneficence. Special laws were formulated to protect fruit trees in times of war and ensure that the produce of trees would not be picked until the trees were mature enough and tithes were given from them. In order to calculate the age of trees, both for determining when they could be harvested and when they were to be tithed for the Temple, the Talmudic Rabbis established the 15th day (Tu) of the month of Shvat as the official “birthday” of trees.
History: Subsequent to the destruction of the Temple, Tu Bishvat lost much of its relevance, but in the middle ages it was rediscovered by Jewish mystics. In the modern period it has enjoyed another revival as a holiday that links Jews with the land of Israel and as a Jewish celebration of the environment.
Practices: When the Temple stood in Jerusalem, Tu Bishvat served as the day on which farmers offered the first fruits of the trees they planted, after the trees had turned four years old. The following Tu Bishvat signified when the farmers were allowed to begin making use of the produce of the trees they planted, whether for personal or economic reasons.
In the middle ages, the Jewish mystics of Safed developed a ritual meal celebrated on Tu Bishvat that was modeled on the Passover seder. Four cups of wine were drunk and seven “fruits” symbolic of those of the Holy Land were eaten. With the rise of Zionism in the late 19th century, Tu Bishvat was rediscovered as a celebration that links the Jews with their land. The holiday became one of rededication to the ecology of the denuded land, with the planting of trees taking center stage in the celebration. Jews outside of Israel contribute money to plant trees there and/or plant trees in their own communities.
Ecology: With the increased concern for the environment in recent years, Tu Bishvat has taken on an additional meaning as a day on which Jews can express and act on their concern for the ecological well-being of the world in which we live. This has led to the rediscovery of the mystical Tu Bishvat seder, now transformed into a celebration of God’s bounty and the environment.
Traditions: The name of this festival is actually its date: “Tu” is a pronunciation of the Hebrew letters for the number 15, and it falls in the Hebrew month of Shvat.
Traditionally, Tu Bishvat was not a Jewish festival. Rather, it marked an important date for Jewish farmers in ancient times. The Torah states, “When you enter the land [of Israel] and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden for you, not to be eaten” (Leviticus 19:23). The fruit of the fourth year was to be offered to the priests in the Temple as a gift of gratitude for the bounty of the land, and the fifth-year fruit–and all subsequent fruit–was finally for the farmer. This law, however, raised the question of how farmers were to mark the “birthday” of a tree. The Rabbis therefore established the 15th of the month of Shvat as a general “birthday” for all trees, regardless of when they were actually planted.
Fruit trees were awarded special status in the Torah because of their importance in sustaining life and as a symbol of God’s divine favor. Even during times of war, God warns the Israelites, “When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees… Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed” (Deuteronomy 20:19-20).
Four New Years: At a later time, the Rabbis of the Talmud established four “new years” throughout the Jewish calendar —Rosh Hashana, or the Jewish New Year for the calendar date; a new year for establishing the reign of kings; a new year for tithing animals of Jewish farmers to be given to the Temple; and finally, Tu Bishvat, the new year for the trees (Mishnah, Rosh Hashanah 1:1). The Rabbis discussed why this date was chosen; saying that Tu Bishvat falls after mid-winter (usually in February), they concluded that the majority of the annual rainfall has usually already fallen by this time in the land of Israel, thus yielding a healthy, water-logged soil in which to plant new trees (Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 57a).
Kabbalah: In medieval times, kabbalists (Jewish mystics) gave Tu Bishvat greater spiritual significance. Seeing in Tu Bishvat a vehicle for mystical ideas, the kabbalists imbued Tu Bishvat with new religious significance as well as created elaborate new symbolic rituals. According to Lurianic Kabbalah (which is a form of mysticism studied by the students of Isaac Luria), all physical forms–including human beings–hide within them a spark of the Divine Presence. This is similar to some kinds of fruits or nuts, which hide within them seeds of new life and potential growth. In Jewish mysticism, human actions can release these sparks and help increase God’s presence in the world. On Tu Bishvat, the kabbalists would eat certain fruits associated with the land of Israel as a symbolic way of releasing these divine sparks.
Practices: Tu Bishvat, or the “birthday” of all fruit trees, is a minor festival seemingly tailor-made for today’s Jewish environmentalists. In fact, there is an ancient midrash (rabbinic teaching) that states, “When God led Adam around the Garden of Eden, God said, ‘Look at My works. See how beautiful they are, how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil or destroy My world–for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you'” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7.13).
Photo: Jack Hazut
But it was not always this way. In ancient times, it was merely a date on the calendar that helped Jewish farmers establish exactly when they should bring their fourth-year produce of fruit from recently planted trees to the Temple as first-fruit offerings. After this, all subsequent fruit produced from these trees could be eaten or sold as desired.
Kabbalistic Seder: Tu Bishvat could easily have fallen into desuetude after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, since there was no longer a system of fruit offerings or Temple priests to receive them. However, the kabbalists (mystics) of Tzfat (the city of Safed) in the Land of Israel in the 16th century created a new ritual to celebrate Tu Bishvat called the Feast of Fruits.
Modeled on the Passover seder, participants would read selections from the Hebrew Bible and Rabbinic literature, and eat fruits and nuts traditionally associated with the land of Israel. According to Deuteronomy 8:8, there are five fruits and two grains associated with Israel as a “land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs and pomegranates, a land of olive trees, and [date] honey.” The kabbalists also gave a prominent place to almonds in the Tu Bishvat seder, since the almond trees were believed to be the first of all trees in Israel to blossom. Carob, also known as bokser or St. John’s bread, became another popular fruit to eat on Tu Bishvat, since it could survive the long trip from Israel to Jewish communities in Europe.
Participants in the kabbalistic seder would also drink four cups of wine: white wine (to symbolize winter), white with some red (a harbinger of the coming of spring); red with some white (early spring) and finally all red (spring and summer).
Complete with biblical and rabbinic readings, these kabbalists produced a Tu Bishvat Haggadah in 1753 called “Pri Etz Hadar” or “Fruit of the Goodly Tree.”
Modern Agriculturalists: When Zionist pioneers began returning to the land of Israel in the late 19th century, Tu Bishvat became an opportunity for these ardent agrarians to celebrate the bounty of a restored ecology in Israel. In ancient times, the land of Israel was once fertile and well forested. Over centuries of repeated conquest, destructions, and desertification, Israel was denuded of trees. The early Zionists seized upon Tu Bishvat as an opportunity to celebrate their tree-planting efforts to restore the ecology of ancient Israel and as a symbol of renewed growth and flowering of the Jewish people returning to their ancestral homeland.
In modern times, Tu Bishvat continues to be an opportunity for planting trees–in Israel and elsewhere, wherever Jews live. Many American and European Jews observe Tu Bishvat by contributing money to the Jewish National Fund, an organization devoted to reforesting Israel (the purchase of trees in JNF forests is also customary to commemorate a celebration such as a Bar or Bat-Mitzvah). Many parents donate to the JNF every year on Tu Bishvat in honor of their children.
For environmentalists, Tu Bishvat is an ancient and authentic Jewish connection to contemporary ecological issues. The holiday is viewed as an appropriate occasion to educate Jews about their tradition’s advocacy of responsible stewardship of God’s creation, manifested in ecological activism. Tu Bishvat is an opportunity to raise awareness about and to care for the environment through the teaching of Jewish sources celebrating nature. It is also a day to focus on the environmental sensitivity of the Jewish tradition by planting trees wherever Jews may live.
The Tu Bishvat seder: The Tu Bishvat seder has increased in popularity in recent years. Celebrated as a congregational event, the modern Tu Bishvat seder is multi-purpose. While retaining some kabbalistic elements–and still very much a ritual that connects participant to the land of Israel–the seder today is often imbued with an ecological message as well. One new custom often found at such seders uses Tu Bishvat as a preparation for the Passover seder. In climates where tree planting is not feasible, participants will plant parsley seeds; the parsley will be used on the Passover seder plate.
For definitions of terms used and more in-depth resouces on Tu Bishvat, please visit myjewishlearning.com