Tu Bishvat is a multi faceted holiday, actually quite complex. It is correctly considered a minor holiday, but like many such days, it has accumulated layers of meaning over the centuries. Religious Schools and the Jewish National Fund and Ecological Organizations have not done Tu Bishvat a favor by narrowing the focus to planting trees, recycling, and singing about planting trees (“maybe apple, maybe apricot”), thus obscuring the rich and deep meaning.
Tu Bishvat is first mentioned in the first century Mishnah. The first Mishnah in the Tractate of Rosh Hashanah begins, “There are four New Year’s Days.” The 15th of Shevat, or Tu Bishvat (Tu = tet-vav, tet = 9, and vav = 6), is designated as the New Year for the planting of trees. Leviticus 19:23 prohibits eating the fruit from trees for the first three years after they are planted. Tu Bishvat was designated as a somewhat arbitrary “birthday” for trees, so any tree growing before that time would automatically become 1 year old on that day. This was important for calculating ma’aser, tithes. The day was chosen for a very practical reason, because in Israel, at least, it falls past the midpoint of the winter, just before the time that the fruit trees would begin blooming.
In the 16th century, Jews following a mystical tradition invested Tu Bishvat with additional meaning, and began to celebrate a Seder on that day drinking four cups of wine and eating different kinds of foods from the land of Israel, celebrating both the land of Israel and our desire for redemption and peace in the world. They focused on three different kinds of fruits – those with inedible skins, those with inedible pits, and those that are eaten whole. Each represents a different level of God’s creative energy in the world. The Seder also focuses on the Tree of Life, a representation of 10 mystical emanations of God.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, as the Jewish National Fund was born, the Zionist movement was focused on rebuilding the land of Israel. Tu Bishvat became a time to plant trees. Planting eucalyptus trees was a way to absorb water and drain the swamps which were a major source of malaria carrying mosquitos. Many of us remember the JNF blue boxes, and collecting money to fund the forests of pine trees planted around Israel. In the late 20th and early 21st century, it has been recognized that some of the early efforts to drain swamps and plant non-native trees have damaged the ecology of Israel. Thus, the focus of Tu Bishvat has added an aspect of examining the impact that we have on the natural world, and trying to live more in harmony with God’s creation.
Tu Bishvat this year is celebrated on Wednesday, February 8. The Beit Sefer B’yahad/United Jewish School will hold a Tu Bishvat Seder for the students that afternoon.