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 it blossomed a whole day early! It really is miraculous how the tree bursts into blossom literally overnight. I get such a kick from seeing it. 🙂
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.
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.”
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.
The most popular way of celebrating Tu B’shvat in Israel today is by planting trees, and usually ceremonies are held all over country, particularly by young children. This year however is a Shmitta year, the “fallow year” which occurs every 7 years, when no planting takes place. Instead we will concentrate on the “greening” of Israel through conservation and innovation.
The blogger “First One Through” has a lovely Tu B’Shvat post entitled “Israel, Mother Nature’s Son” in which he brings us the following fascinating details:
The modern country of Israel has been deeply connected to the land since the early pioneers tilled the land and fought off malaria in the swamps in the north. Today the country stands as a leader in environmentally-friendly projects:
- Israel was one of only two countries to enter the 21st century with more trees than it had entering the 20th century, thanks to the planting of 240 million trees
- Israel developed drip irrigation in the 1960s, which it introduced into Africa to help the people develop crops in desert conditions
- Israel developed the first commercial wind farm in the Middle East in 1992
- Israel developed the first permanent bike-sharing program in the Middle East in 2011
- In 2012, Israel surpassed the European Union as the biggest recycler of plastic
- The country has also helped the entire world reduce its consumption of plastic bottles through its business SodaStream
However, just 150 years ago, the land was in serious neglect under the Ottomans. In 1867, Mark Twain remarked while he visited that the holy land was “A desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds… a silent mournful expanse…. a desolation…. we never saw a human being on the whole route…. hardly a tree or shrub anywhere. Even the olive tree and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country.”
Indeed we can be proud of our country that has worked so hard to fulfill David Ben Gurion’s dream to make the desert bloom.
Happy birthday trees!