One of Judaism's best skills is to fill old bottles with new wine. This minor festival on the Jewish calendar is a perfect example. It had an ancient meaning, a distinctly different late medieval one, and now yet other ones for modern times.
What Tu B'Shvat meant in ancient times is indeed largely connected to the Land of Israel. The 15th of Shevat was the date that a tree was deemed to have aged a year for purposes of the mitzvah of Orlah (that a person may not use the produce of a tree for its first 3 years of life + 1 year's produce given to the Temple) and as a marker of the "fiscal year" for tithes (i.e. that the produce of a tree gathered before this date would apply to the previous year's tithes, while what grew after this date applied to the next year's tithes). That meaning is specific to the land of Israel, among the Mitzvot hateluyot ba'aretz, the commandments tied to the land. There was no ritual celebration of this date, and it cannot really be considered a holiday.
In the 16th century, a new approach emerged among the Safed kabbalists. Long before them, the Jewish mystical tradition had employed the metaphor of the divine or cosmic tree. Now this group imbued the agricultural fact of the early blossoming of the almond tree with a mythical meaning relating to different "worlds" of emanation. They initiated a ritual component of a seder for Tu B'Shvat, in which different fruits were eaten and different colored wines were drunk, giving each a mystical significance. This ritual became popular among mystically inclined Sephardic communities. (Less among Ashkenazim, although the practice did develop of eating Land-of-Israel fruits on this winter date.) You can practice this mystical rite anywhere. It is not specific to the Land of Israel.
In modern times, two other meanings developed. The Zionists, enflamed with the love of the land, celebrated its fruitfulness by planting trees around Tu B'Shvat. This is memorialized in a popular song: "Here go the planters, with joy in their hearts and spades in their hands!" Obviously, this is a day of celebration of the land itself.
Finally, in the wake of the ecological crisis, Tu B'Shvat has become a kind of Jewish earth day, with environmental teachers and activists marking the day as an opportunity to think about human stewardship of the earth and the damage we cause. If you'd like to read more about this, check out a book called Trees, Earth and Torah: A Tu B'Shvat Anthology, edited by Arthur Waskow, Naomi Hyman and Ari Elon. This meaning applies everywhere.
There is nothing at all in the Bible about the new year for or of the tree.The Mishnah [RH 1:1]assigns the new year of the tree to the 10th month, Shevat. But here we have a dispute between the Schools of Hillel and Shammai.For the former point of view, the 15th of the monthis the new year, while for the latter’s perspective, the first of the month of Shevat is the first day of the Arbor year.Zionist Israel made a big deal about the day in order to connect the nation of Israel with the land of Israel.
Orthodox Diaspora Israel Jewry sees the day as a pre-Purim event so as to make the otherwise humdrum month of Shevatmeaningful. But it is an invented holiday with no sanctifying commandment or precept attached to it.
A close reading of the Mishnah [RH 1:2] indicates that Israel is not judged on the New Year of the tree on or during month Shevat.The judgment day of the tree is Shavuot, the Jewish Pentacost.
This day can be seen as a happy or sad day.
Hillel’s school maintains that the new year of the tree falls on Shevat 15th [a] when the moon is full, the night is light,and the Passover and Sukkot festivals begin.Therefore, the Hillel school associates the day as a happy and holidaymoment. This is the same Hillel for whom the Hanukka candles are kindled in crescendo, in ascending order, from one to eight candles as the days unfold.
Shammai’s school assigns the new year of the treeto [b]the first day of Shevat, the new moon of the lunar month, when the moonlight is absent in the sky.Recall that Shammai’s Hanukka practice wasto begin with eight candles and to conclude with one, mimicking the descending orderof the Tabernacles’s cult offerings.
Although Shammai’sschool’s position has Biblical precedent if not warrant, Hillel’s attitude of gratitude won the day.
The non-canonical mystical folk tradition, known as Kabbalah, assigned to the dark new moon a sense of foreboding and judgment. The decreasing number of Hanukka lights mandated by the Shammaitic position can lead to despair.
Shammai’s Judaism looked to the past, the good old days, the irretreviably lost glory years of ancient Israel. Hillel’s Judaism maintained that we add to and do not diminish our spiritual opportunities, as per bMenahot 99b.
While Jewrydoes not add to or diminish from the number of commandments[Deuteronomy 13:1] , we may adjustour customs, modify our mores, and respond appropriately to the times.When Rabbi Moses Sofer proclaimed that innovation is forbidden by Jewish law, he was responding to what he believed was the need of his moment, to his point of view.Nowhere in the Orthodox canonical library
is innovation forbidden as a prohibition.
1.Tu Bishvat is an old innovation, but it is an innovation nonetheless.
2.The historical Tradition viewed the day as a happymoment, like but not identical to Torah ordained 15th of the month major festivals.
3.The Psalmist’s imperative, at 100:2, is that we serve the Lord with joy. Tu Bishvat as it is practiced reflects this value concept.
Tu Be’Shevat (the 15th of the month of Shevat) certainly has significance outside the land of Israel! It us understood to be the time when the sap begins to rise in the Almond trees so that they are the first to blossom, and then to fruit. It symbolizes the beginning of a new cycle of growth, renewal, and birth, and the coming Spring. This is a fairly universal concern.
Tu Be’Shevat is biblically based (directing good husbandry in orchards through the mitzvah of waiting to harvest produce from a tree for commercial purposes until it establishes a sufficiently strong root system to support itself), and discussed in the Talmud. .
The celebration of Tu Be’Shevat is in the same category as the prayers for Tal and Geshem (dew and rain in the land of Israel) that are incorporated into the Amidah (the Standing prayer, also known as the Shemoneh Esreh/ the 18 blessings, and as HaTefillah/The Prayer) which is central to the three worship services daily. It speaks directly to the tie of Jews everywhere to the land/ the earth/Creation, and reminds us of the cycle of life. It also connects us to the seasons and cycles of our spiritual and historical homeland, Israel.
Though the origin of the holiday is practical, tied to horticulture in Israel, it has come to have much broader application as time has passed.
The Kabbalists (around the 16th Century) used this holiday to make the connection between heaven and earth, between G-d and Creation. They started with the image of the tree as an analogy for Torah (it is a tree of life). In some of the more mystical approaches, they used the concept of a tree as the image of the Sephirot (the ten traits of G-d we may experience in the world), and saw that mystical tree as rooted in Heaven, with the branches and leaves in this world, and the fruit as the benefits the righteous can find and from which they benefit.
Since the establishment of the modern State of Israel in 1948, the Jewish National Fund (JNF) has regularly encouraged support of their work in transforming the desert to bloom by seeking donations to plant trees, certainly around this holiday.
Starting largely in the 1960’s, Environmentalists have seized on this holiday (as is also true of Arbor Day in the US), as a time of focus on the world around us, encouraging planting, recycling, and good practices regarding use of natural resources and care of the earth.
Most recently, there has been a conflation of the concerns in the Environmentalist ranks with a Social Justice (Tzedek/Righteousness) thrust in the application of the concept of Kashrut. Kashrut has in past been concerned with which items (animals, plants, birds, fish) are suitable to eat, and how they may be prepared (largely in the areas of harvesting and cooking) to remain fit and ritually ‘clean’ or ‘pure’. This newer marriage of Kashrut with Social Justice and Environmentalism has led to the development of the ideas that are forming the basis of Eco-Kashrut; a focus not only on which items are fit, but how they are raised, handled, and prepared for use, how the process of producing them affects the world of Creation around us, and how those involved in the process of production and those who are the end users/consumers are treated and impacted. It is a far broader view, looking at the items themselves, how they are produced, how that affects the environment and society, how those involved in the production are affected, and how those who consume these products are affected.
Especially in this newest fashion, the concerns of Tu Be’Shevat are relevant, not only in Israel, but throughout the world. I am sure you can think of examples; if not, a glance at the headlines of late may bring several to mind.
I would urge that the celebration of Tu Be’Shevat serves us as a (or another) reminder that we are the caretakers of our world. We can use and benefit from it, if we do so appropriately, but we should neither be profligate nor reckless with the world around us. Thus, celebrating Tu Be’Shevat is needed and important until we (humankind) learn the lesson and act accordingly.
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