Trouble with Tu B’Shvat

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Dear Rivkie,

 The Tu B’Shvat holiday (the new year for trees) is coming up soon and I promised myself last year that I would give some thought as to how to celebrate this year. I see a Tu B’Shvat seder advertised sometimes, and people who are deeply into environmental causes seem to have a real affinity for this holiday, but neither of those things are my jam. Can you explain what Tu B’Shvat is and give some suggestions for how I can mark this day in a way I can relate to?

 

 Signed,
Interested Irit

 

Dear Irit,

I am so glad you asked this question, as I too have spent years being insufficiently attentive to this fascinating holiday. So, let’s dive right in.

Tu B’Shvat, or the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shvat, is the new year for trees. The designation for trees’ beginnings is important because of tithing related to shmita (sabbatical) years of the agricultural cycle in Israel. So, if a tree bears fruit before this date, the rabbis decided it is considered as produce belonging to the previous year; after 15 Shvat, it is part of the “new year.” Hence, a farmer knows how to designate his produce.

Chabad.org adds that while Tu B’Shvat is Rosh Hashanah (i.e., marks the new year) for trees, “we attach special significance to this holiday because ‘Man is [compared to] the tree of the field’ (Deuteronomy 20:19). Through cultivating strong roots — faith and commitment to G-d — we produce many fruits — Torah and Mitzvot.” So, we can definitely extrapolate the theme of trees’ growth to our growth and the roots of trees to Judaism’s core tenets of faith and commitment to Hashem.

Now, I always thought that the Tu B’Shvat seder was a sort of newfangled practice, but apparently I was way mistaken. MyJewishlearning.com shared that 16th-century kabbalists in Tzfat invented the Tu B’Shvat seder. They celebrated fruits and nuts commonly associated with Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel). Almonds featured big, as almond trees were believed to be the first in the land, as did carob, which was hearty enough to make the journey from Israel to Jews in Europe. They also drank four cups of wine: white wine (representing winter); white with some red (to mark the coming of spring); red with some white (to symbolize early spring); and, finally, straight red (representing spring and summer). Not only that, but there was an actual Haggadah for the Tu B’Shvat seder published in 1753, called “Pri Etz Hadar” or “Fruit of the Goodly Tree.”

Additionally, there is a strong Zionist element to the holiday. In the late 19th century, European Jews started establishing agricultural settlements in Palestine. In the very beginning of the 20th century (1901), the Jewish National Fund (JNF) starting collecting money to plant trees in the land that the Jewish people was finally reclaiming, after dreaming of its own homeland for 2,000 years. I certainly had those little blue JNF tzedakah boxes on my counter growing up and had trees planted in my name for my bat mitzvah. JNF says it has planted over 240 million trees in Israel!

So, here are some things you can do on Tu B’Shvat:

1. Eat some fruits, especially those related strongly to Israel like pomegranates, dates, figs, etc., and say a shehecheyanu prayer on it if that’s your first time eating that fruit this (lunar) year.

2. Research more about the Tu B’Shvat seder and, if you are so inclined, buy a Tu B’Shvat Haggadah. (Or heck, just drink four glasses of wine!)

3. Plant something, or make a donation to JNF to plant a tree or 12 in honor of Tu B’Shvat.

Just like anything in life, it doesn’t hurt to celebrate. There are so many bad things that happen in life, it’s nice to make an extra big deal of the sweet ones. So, eat, drink, and be merry, Irit. And let me know how you celebrated.

 All the best,
Rivkie