It’s the holiday that marks the new year for trees—a kind of Jewish arbor day. In Israel, it traditionally signals the beginning of spring.
The holiday’s name refers to its date on the Hebrew calendar, the 15th of the month of Shevat. On the English calendar, Tu B’Shevat 2019 begins at sundown on Sunday, January 20, and ends at sundown on Monday, January 21.
In the Mishnah’s tractate Rosh Hashanah, the rabbis engage in their trademark Talmudic discussions and determine that we must celebrate the beginning of the new year not once but four times. The first celebration, in the month of Nissan, is dedicated to the reigns of Israel’s kings. The second, in Elul, to animal tithes. The third is the one we all know, Rosh Hashanah, which falls on the first of Tishrei, when the Hebrew calendar starts anew. Finally, there’s Tu B’Shevat, the 15th day of Shevat (a one-day holiday which begins at sundown), when we are to calculate the agricultural cycle and all biblical tithes involving trees and fruit.
Though a minor light in the holiday constellation, Tu B’Shevat nonetheless was of great importance when the people of Israel made a living working the land. In those ancient days, a host of prohibitions and demands—many still observed—guided Jewish life. Among those restrictions is orlah, the biblical prohibition against eating fruit produced during the first three years of the tree’s life, and ma’aser oni, the obligation to set aside a certain portion of crops for the poor. A calendar was necessary to help ensure that all these rules were observed on time. That calendar started in the middle of Shevat. And since the 15th day is marked by the Hebrew letters yud and heh—which, combined, spell out the direct name of God—the adjacent letters tet and vav were selected to signify the date instead.
While the sacred texts don’t decree specific behaviors associated with the holiday, its deep connection to nature could not be ignored by Jewish mystics. In the 1600s, Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, the renowned Kabbalist, created a Tu B’Shevat seder, a festive meal with special, mystical blessings and symbolic foods—specifically fruits and nuts—in the belief that such a ritualistic approach to nature would bring the world nearer to spiritual harmony. Since the Torah is often referred to as the Tree of Life, went the reasoning, any celebration of trees should, by association, become a celebration of life’s meanings and mysteries. To that end, the rabbi and his disciples drank four cups of wine, roughly representing the four seasons, and the seder focused on the kabbalistic ideas of repairing the world as one would a tree, focusing on everything from roots to leaves.
In modern times, an alternative tradition has taken hold: planting trees. Back in 1890, to celebrate Tu B’Shevat, Rabbi Ze’ev Yavetz, one of the founders of the religious Zionist movement Mizrachi, took his students to plant saplings in Zikhron Yaakov, an agricultural settlement outside what would soon become Tel Aviv, the seaside city founded in 1909. As more immigrants flocked to the Promised Land, the custom took root, symbolizing the renewal of both the soil and the people. The tradition has since become routine for Israelis, more than a million of whom plant trees each year on Tu B’Shevat.
Although few people today follow Luria’s intricate design for a seder, the idea of such a ceremonial meal is still practiced in many communities. Popular foods consumed at such seders include samplings from the seven species—olives, grapes, wheat, barley, dates, pomegranate, and figs—which the Bible marks as the quintessential crops of the land of Israel.
ANYTHING GOOD TO READ?
Alas. With the exception of the aforementioned Mishnaic tractate, there’s little in writing about the holiday.
• Ponder Tu B’Shevat on Pandora.
• Get down with some Tu B’Shevat rap.
• Take sides in the Tu B’Shevat battle of the sexes.
• Cook a holiday dish with Tablet’s Top Chef.
• Travel in time to a future, dystopic Tu B’Shevat.