Tu B'Shevat 101

Celebrating the New Year for the Trees

Tu B'Shevat planting trees in Israel
WikiCommons

One of the four New Years on the Jewish calendar, Tu B'Shevat is considered the New Year for the trees and there are new and evolving ways that the holiday is celebrated around the world. 

Meaning

Tu B'Shevat (טו בשבט), like Chanukah, is spelled a multitude of ways, including Tu Bishvat and Tu b'Shvat. The word breaks down with the Hebrew letters of Tu (טו) representing the number 15 and Shevat (שבט) being the 11th month on the Hebrew calendar.

So ​Tu B'Shevat literally means "the 15th of Shevat."

The holiday typically falls in January or February, during the rainy winter season in Israel. The importance of and reverence for trees in Judaism is incomparable, as Rabbi Yochanan ben Zaikai quipped,

"If you should happen to be holding a sapling in your hand when they tell you that the Messiah has arrived, first plant the sapling and then go out and greet the Messiah."

Origins

Tu B'Shevat finds its beginnings in the Torah and Talmud in in the calculations for when trees could be harvested and tithed for the Temple service. As Leviticus 19:23-25 says,

When you come to the Land and you plant any food tree, you shall surely block its fruit [from use]; it shall be blocked from you [from use] for three years, not to be eaten. And in the fourth year, all its fruit shall be holy, a praise to the Lord. And in the fifth year, you may eat its fruit; [do this, in order] to increase its produce for you. I am the Lord, your God.

During the time of the Temple in Jerusalem, then, after a farmer's tree had turned four years old, he would offer up its first fruits as an offering. In the fifth year on Tu B'Shevat, farmers could begin using and benefitting both personally and economically from the produce. The tithing schedule differs from year to year within the seven-year shmita cycle

These tithes differ from year to year in the seven-year shemittah cycle; the point at which a budding fruit is considered to belong to the next year of the cycle is the 15th of Shevat.

With the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, however, the holiday lost much of its relevance, and it wasn't until the Medieval period that the holiday was revived by Jewish mystics.

The Middle Ages

After hundreds of years dormant, Tu B'Shevat was revived by the mystics of Tzfat in Israel in the 16th century. The kabbalists understood the tree as a metaphor for understanding God's relationship to both the physical and spiritual worlds. This understanding, solidified by Moshe Chaim Luzzatto in his 18th century work The Way of God, said that the higher spiritual realms are roots that manifest their influence through braches and leaves in the lower realms on earth. 

The holiday was honored with a celebratory meal modeled after the Passover seder. Like the well-known seder meal in the Spring, the Tu B'Shevat seder included four cups of wine, as well as the consumption of seven fruits symbolic of Israel.  Also, it is said that the famous kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luri, known as the Arizal, would eat 15 varieties of fruits at the seder.

The Modern Tu B'Shevat

In the late 19th century, when Zionism was taking off as a movement, the holiday was again revived in order to more deeply link Jews in the Diaspora with the Land of Israel. 

As more Jews became aware of the holiday, Tu B'Shevat became focused on the environment, ecology, and sustainable living. The planting of trees has become a central focus of the holiday, with the Jewish National Fund (JNF) spearheading the effort by planting more than 250 million trees in Israel in the past 100 years alone. 

How To

There are many options for hosting your own seder

In addition to planting a tree in Israel, the JNF also offers many programs as part of its Tu B'Shevat Across America celebration. The site offers seder ideas, haggadot for your special seder, as well as sermons and other resources for how you can bring the ancient holiday into a modern period when Jews do not have a Temple in Jerusalem.

 

It's also customary, even if you're not having a seder, to eat as many fruits as you can on Tu B'Shevat, especially those of the Land of Israel, including figs, dates, pomegranates, and olives. Likewise, it's also customary to make sure that one of the fruits you eat is a "new fruit," or one that has not been eaten by you yet during the current season.

The blessing over fruit of the tree is

  • Hebrew: ברוך אתה ה׳ אלוהינו מלך העולם בורא פרי העץ
  • Transliteration: Baruch atah Adonai, Elo-heinu Melech Ha’Olam borei p'ri ha-etz.
  • Translation: Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who creates the fruit of the tree.

If you eat a new fruit, be sure to also say the shehecheyanu blessingIf you eat an abundance of these fruits, there is a special blessing to say after finishing, too. 

Others have a tradition of eating carob (a pod with a sweet, edible pulp and inedible seeds) or etrog (the citron used during Sukkoth) made into preserves or candy on Tu B'Shevat. 

When to Celebrate

  • Tuesday, February 3, 2015 at sundown
  • Sunday, January 24, 2016 at sundown
  • Friday, February 10, 2017 at sundown
  • Tuesday, January 30, 2018 at sundown 
  • Sunday, January 20, 2019 at sundown
  • Sunday, February 9, 2020 at sundown
  • Wednesday, January 27, 2021 at sundown
  • Sunday, January 16, 2022 at sundown
  • Sunday, February 5, 2023 at sundown