Beth El's Guide to Tu B'Shevat
By: Ben Kreshtool, Ritual Director
Tu B’Shevat is commonly thought of as the “Birthday of the Trees” or the “Jewish Earth Day.” The festival derives its name from the Hebrew calendar date on which we celebrate: “Tu” is a pronunciation of the Hebrew letters for the number 15, and it falls in the Hebrew month of Shevat. The "Tu" in Tu B’Shevat is the numerical equivalent for the number 15 by using gematria, the letter tet ט is 9, and the letter Vav ו is 6, so 9+6 = 15.
The origins of Tu B’Shevat come from Mishna Rosh Hashanah 1:1 “There are four new years. On the first of Nisan is the New Year for Kings and for Festivals; on the first of Elul for the tithe of animals – R. Eliezer and R. Shimon say it is on the first of Tishrei – On the first of Tishrei is the New Year for years, for Jubilee years, for planting and for vegetables, and on the first of Shevat is the New Year for trees, according to Beit Shammai, but Beit Hillel says it is on the 15th day.”
Tu B’Shevat was initially not a Jewish festival but 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 Shevat as a general “birthday” for all trees, regardless of when they were actually planted.
For Jews living in the diaspora, the true meaning of Tu B’Shevat (a day marking the calculation for the agricultural cycle for tithes) has little practical application as Biblical agricultural laws only exist in the Land of Israel. Obviously Tu B’Shevat is a significant day; otherwise, the Rabbis would not have mentioned it so prominently in the Mishnah.
In modern times, Tu B’Shevat has become a symbol of both Zionist attachments to the land of Israel as well as an example of Jewish sensitivity to the environment. Early Zionist settlers to Israel began planting new trees not only to restore the ecology of ancient Israel but as a symbol of the renewed growth of the Jewish people returning to their ancestral homeland. While relatively few Jews continue to observe the kabbalistic Tu B’Shevat Seder, many American and European Jews observe Tu B’Shevat by donating money to the Jewish National Fund, an organization devoted to reforesting Israel.
Accordingly, Jews around the world plant a tree in Israel to celebrate Tu B’Shevat; you can do this yourself, or you can do it online via the JNF.
Another way to observe Tu B’Shevat is to eat fruits, traditionally from the Seven Species of the Land of Israel, but any fruit - especially fruit that you have not yet tasted this year - will do.
The most intricate of Tu B’Shevat rituals is the Tu B’Shevat Seder, a tradition which comes to us from 16th Century Lurianic Kabbalists who created a unique Haggadah (Pri Etz Hadar) as a guide for the Seder. The Kabbalists saw hidden connections in the Tree of Life to the mystical Sefirot of Kabbalah. They thought these rituals would help bring us closer to God by understanding the hidden nature of God’s creations.
Tu B’Shevat gives us the opportunity to think about the Mitzvah of Shemirat Adamah, protecting the earth. Caring about the world we live in as keeping the world safe and beautiful is a core Jewish value.