A year or so ago, I was attending a concert with my mother in an old, established North Shore suburb of Chicago where my mother lived. It is also a long established Jewish community. The elderly ladies sitting in front of us were Jewish, talking about so-and-so’s wedding, and so-and-so’s Bat Mitzvah. One of them was reading the upcoming events on the program to her friend.
“And there’s a Tu B’Shevat celebration…”
“The what?!” her friend asked, cupping her ear and tilting her head.
“TU B’SHEVAT!” the response resounded through the concert hall.
“Oh. What is that again?”
Tu B’Shevat is not as well-known as some of the other Jewish holidays. Even as someone who grew up with the holiday and has a B.A. in Jewish Studies, I had to do a little extra research to write this article. It’s just not something we think about that much. In fact, even the name doesn’t really give us a clue as to it’s purpose. Translated, it’s simply the “fifteenth of Shevat,” and to add to the confusion… it’s a New Year’s celebration!
I know what you’re thinking. Isn’t the Jewish New Year at Rosh HaShanah? And while we’re on that topic, why is that? Didn’t God assign the Biblical New Year to begin at Passover? (Exodus 12:1-2)
We actually have that same confusing norm in our own culture. We have the official New Year beginning on January 1st. We have the Fiscal Year which begins on October 1st. We have a President’s Inauguration which occurs every four years on January 20th. We also have the Academic Year, which usually begins in late August or after Labor Day. The ancient Hebrews also had many different “new years” in their calendar.
Rosh HaShanah, more correctly known as Yom Teruah, was traditionally the time when kings were crowned. In our time, it is celebrated as the “head of the year,” which is the direct translation. You could call that a civil new year, much like our Inauguration. There was the first day of Elul for animal tithes, much like Tax Day on our calendar. Pesach (Passover) was the beginning of the year as designated by God, a time of renewal and reflection, still celebrated today with a seder and a symbolic meal. And then, there was Tu B’Shevat, the agricultural new year.
In the Torah, the agricultural cycle is seven years and ends with a sabbatical. Certain years were designated for consuming one’s own crops, and other years were set aside for bringing a tithe to the Temple, the priest, and the poor. This tithe was called the Ma’aser Sheni. However, during the Sabbatical year, crops had no owners. They were free for anyone to take at any time.
Because of these laws, it was important for planters to know when the new year began for their produce crops. Therefore, the Rabbis chose the fifteenth day of Shevat as that marker. Anything grown before this day belonged to the previous agricultural cycle, and anything produced afterward belonged to the next cycle.
It makes sense that a holiday so tied to agriculture and the Temple system is not widely understood in our own culture. These are not daily concerns of our ours. Nonetheless, there is something to glean from the observance of this holiday.
Tu B’Shevat customs include eating fruit. Whether it was self-grown or not, it is a reminder of what this holiday was set aside for and to remember God’s provision. Some people specifically eat from the Seven Species (Shivat HaMinim), foods native to the Land of Israel. These include: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates. Sometimes, this can be done in a special Tu B’Shevat seder.
The seder was developed in the 16th century, and for a long time was a solely Sephardic tradition. However, it is observed today throughout the different backgrounds and expressions of Judaism. At the beginning of the seder, the leader asks those gathered why the New Year of the Trees is celebrated on this day. The congregation responds: “Since the Holy Temple was destroyed, the Jewish people could no longer bring the First Fruits (Bikkurim) to Jerusalem. On Tu B’Shvat we offer instead the fruit of our lips, to praise God for all the fruit trees in the world.”
Many Jewish people use this holiday as an opportunity to become more active in caring for the environment. One tradition is for individuals and congregations to plant trees in Israel. This is done by collecting funds and sending them to organizations that will oversee the planting of the trees. Usually, this tradition is done in memory of a loved one who has passed away, but it can also be done in honor of an individual’s achievement, such as a Bar/Bat Mitzvah.
If you are interested in participating in this tradition, or learning more about Tu B’Shevat, my sources are cited below. There are many organizations that plant trees in Israel, and it shouldn’t be hard to find one you would like to support.
If you merely read this article, go buy some Israeli produce, or go so far as to plant a tree in Israel, I wish you a Happy Tu B’Shevat and a lifetime of enjoying God’s bountiful blessings!