Today is Tu B’Shvat, the 15th of the Hebrew month of Shvat, known as “the birthday of the trees” in Jewish tradition. The tree most associated with Tu B’Shvat is the almond tree, in Hebrew the Shkedi’a (שקדיה), which blossoms on or around that date. The letters forming the root of the word – ש-ק-ד – mean “early”, indicating that the almond tree is the earliest one to blossom. “My” almond tree across the road indeed blossoms faithfully every year on Tu B’Shvat, sometimes seemingly overnight. This year however is a leap year, with the leap month being added only next month. Therefore Shvat is very early in the solar calendar this year, so “my” tree has only just begun to bud. This is what it looked like this morning, as opposed to how it looks in full glorious blossom in the picture above when Tu B’Shvat falls at its “proper” time:
Here is what I wrote about the holiday in previous years (with a few minor changes):
The halachic (legal) importance of the day was to know from which date to start counting in order to calculate when to give tithes, for example – different tithes are given in different days in a 7 year cycle, ending with the Shmita (fallow) year. Tu B’Shvat is used as the date for calculating the age of trees, especially fruit trees, and other plants in order to know when it is permissible to eat of their fruits, and for tithing purposes.
In Jewish tradition the day is a minor holiday, with no special rules and regulations and was almost unmarked in olden times since the Jewish people were expelled from the land of Israel into the Diaspora, around the year 70 CE. However, with the growth of Zionism and the re-establishment of a Jewish settlement in Israel, first under the Ottomans, and later under the British Mandate, the early Jewish pioneers decided to adopt Tu B’Shvat as a symbol of the renewal of the physical (as well as spiritual) reconnection of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel. Equally as important, the day symbolized the creation of the “New Jew”, one who worked the land, farmed and produced his own crops and fruits.
One of the customs of Tu Bishvat, even in olden times in the Diaspora, is to eat either the 7 species of produce native to Israel, or to eat 15 different kinds of fruit to represent the 15th day of Shvat. The “shivat haminim” are listed in the Torah, Deuteronomy 8 v. 7-8:
כי ה’ אלוקיך מביאך אל ארץ טובה ארץ נחלי מים עינות ותהומות יוצאים בבקעה ובהר. ארץ חיטה ושעורה וגפן ותאנה ורימון ארץ זית שמן ודבש.
For the L-rd your –d is bringing you to a good land, a land of rivers of water, fountains and deep wells coming out of the valley and mountain. A land of wheat and barley, and the vine and fig and pomegranate, a land of olive oil and honey (dates).
Around this verse another tradition has been reintroduced: the Tu Bishvat Seder. This tradition started with the growth and development of Kabala and is slowly gaining popularity, especially in Israel.
Indeed, last night in our shul we celebrated a Seder of sorts, with the Rabbi explaining the history and meaning of each of the Shivat Haminim before tucking in to delicious fruits and drinks.
Tu B’Shvat commemorates another important date – it is the birthday of the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament. The first elections to the Knesset were held on Tu B’shvat.
Today the Knesset is celebrating its 65th birthday, and it marked this auspicious occasion with an open house and other events:
The Knesset celebrated its 65th birthday by opening its doors to 4,000 visitors who took part in its annual open house on Tuesday and hosting speeches about the legislature’s role in democracy.
“We have a wonderful Knesset,” Speaker Yuli Edelstein enthusiastically declaimed from the plenum’s stage.
“Sixty-five years ago the seed was planted and the foundations of Israeli parliamentary democracy were laid.
Since then, it has grown into a glorious tree and its roots have deepened in Israeli society,” he said, referring to the Knesset’s birthday coinciding with Tu Bishvat.
Visitors – individuals and groups ranging from air force personnel to kindergarten pupils to young Diaspora Jews participating in long-term Masa programs – filled the legislature’s committee rooms and auditoriums for a range of activities led by lawmakers.
Edelstein, Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar and others read stories to children, while Education Minister Shai Piron and other legislators moderated debates between high school students.
During a storytelling hour, in which Edelstein and author Rinat Hoffer read her book Hannan the Gardener out loud, a child asked Edelstein why he became a Knesset member.
The speaker responded with a smile: “When many new immigrants came to Israel [from the USSR in the 1990s], someone had to make sure they had houses and jobs. I and others saw that in order to help them, we had to be in the Knesset. It’s hard work, but it’s always interesting.”
Chief Rabbis Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau led afternoon prayers in the Knesset’s synagogue, with male MKs from Bayit Yehudi, Shas and Likud participating.
Wouldn’t it be nice if the Knesset really lived up to its vaunted ambitions and founding ethos?
As I mentioned above, a new tradition has been developing of holding a Tu B’Shvat Seder. Our synagogue held a condensed version last night, accompanied by a fascinating talk on grafting and hybrid plants in the eyes of halacha and botanists.
Here is an excerpt about the Tu B’Shvat Seder tradition:(the link is also provided above):
Kabbalists from the northern Israeli city of Safed in northern Israel created the ritual of the Tu B’Shevat seder to celebrate the idea that even God’s smallest creations—be they tree, pomegranate, or date—are all equal within nature’s grand web. The initial ritual was outlined in “Peri Etz Hadar” (Fruit of the Goodly Tree), part of an anthology of Kabbalistic customs called the “Heindat Yamun.”
To fully appreciate nature’s bounty, Kabbalists matched up Israel’s regional fruit to symbolize the four physical elements: air, earth, water, and fire.
- Assiyah, or earth, is symbolized by fruits or nuts with an outer shell and fruit within. This includes walnuts, pomegranates, pistachios, and coconuts.
- Yetzirah, or water, is symbolized by fruits with edible outer flesh and inedible cores. This includes cherries, apricots, olives, and plums.
- Briyah, or air, is symbolized by fruit that is entirely edible. This includes apples, pears, figs, and raisins.
- Atzilut, or fire, is not symbolized by fruit but by things that represent God’s presence all around us. This can include smelling something natural like pine, cedar, or spices.
“Trees are so important in Jewish thought that the Torah itself is called ‘a tree of life.’ Perhaps this Torah wisdom can help us think more wisely about using these resources carefully and living in a more sustainable way,” write Dr. Akiva Wolff and Rabbi Yonatan Neri in their article “Trees, Torah, and Caring for the Earth” as part of Jewcology’s “Year of Jewish Learning on the Environment.”
The most popular way of celebrating Tu B’shvat in Israel today is by planting trees, and ceremonies are held all over country, particularly by young children. In Tel Aviv they are planning to plant a “mini-forest“:
Three-meter-long trees will be placed at Rabin Square to create a mini-forest in the center of Tel Aviv on Tu B’Shvat, which falls on Thursday this year. Pupils from all over the city will come to celebrate the holiday by writing their wishes for this year and hanging them on the trees. Traditionalists can still plant trees in events throughout the country sponsored by the Jewish National Fund (JNF). The age of high-tech now enables people to “plant” a tee via a “click and plant” (and pay) program on the JNF’s website. An ecological element has been added to the holiday in recent years with an emphasis on conservation.