Celebrating Tu B’Shevat

There are four new years on the Jewish calendar. There’s the new year of Kings and festivals, when the reigns of kings were counted and the dates of festivals decided upon. There’s the new year for the tithe of animals, used to calculate the animal tithes to the priests. Most well known is the new year for shmitta, jubilee years for planting, and for tithe of vegetables, aka Rosh Hashanah. Finally, there is the new year of trees.

Tu B’shevat, the new year of trees, was this last Monday, February 10th. The name of the holiday is actually its date on the Hebrew calendar. “Tu” is made up of the Hebrew letters tet (ט) and vav (ו) whose numerical values are 9 and 6, respectively, and add up to 15. “Shevat” is the name of the month. So, the name literally means the 15th of Shevat.

The Torah states, “When you enter the land [of Israel] and plant any tree for food, you must consider its fruit to be forbidden. Three years it will be forbidden to you; it must not be eaten. In the fourth year, all its fruit will be holy, praise offerings to Adonai. Then in the fifth year you may eat its fruit to add its produce to your harvest. I am Adonai your God. (Lev. 19:3–5).” The Bible gives a special status to fruit trees because they sustain life and are a sign of divine favor, so much so that Adonai warns Israel not to destroy the fruit trees of an enemy during times of war (Deut. 20:19–20).

The problem is, how did the farmer know when to start counting the years? When was the new year or the “birthday” of the trees? The Tanakh doesn’t tell us. The Mishnah, following the decision of Beit Hillel, established the date of the new year for trees as the 15th of Shevat (Mishnah, Rosh. HaShanah 1:1).

Tu B’shevat is celebrated in different ways. In Israel, we plant trees. Overall, the nation plants millions of trees during Tu B’shevat. We also eat fruits and nuts—specifically products from the seven species, the staple foods for Israel during biblical times and that were acceptable as offerings in the Temple (Deut. 8:8). These are almonds, dates, figs, pomegranates, olives, wheat, and barley. During the Middle Ages, a Tu B’Shevat Seder was established in which the fruits and trees of Israel were given symbolic meaning. The main idea was to eat ten specific fruits and drink four cups of wine in a specific order with appropriate blessings. Contemporary versions of the Tu B’Shevat Seder emphasize environmental concerns.

As the weather slowly begins to round the corner and warm into spring, may you find an opportunity to enjoy the divine blessing of fruit, get outside, and thank Adonai for the abundant cycles of life and renewal he has created on this beautiful planet.

This article was written by MJTI Academic Dean Rabbi Vered Hillel. For more posts by her, read her article on Pesach Under Lockdown, Scapegoats, Jews, and Judaism, or Hanukkah Songs in Popular Culture.

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