Today is Tu Bishvat (or 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 went a bit mad. It blossomed over a month ago, then shed its leaves, and then blossomed again over Shabbat! I think it needs a new body clock… 🙂 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 Bishvat 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.
Last night we made a small Tu Bishvat Seder of sorts with a selection of fruits, nuts, whole wheat bread (wheat is one of the 7 species of Israel), olive oil (I had forgotten to get olives) and of course wine.
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. Last year was was a Shmitta year, the “fallow year” which occurs every 7 years, when no planting takes place. But this year, unfortunately it looks like the tree-planting ceremonies will be postponed if not cancelled outright as a huge storm, with the first snow of the season, is sweeping Israel. There will doubtless be many disappointed children, but on the other we really need this rain.
The Israel Meteorological Service predicted snow in Jerusalem and the Negev mountains starting Monday night and continuing into Tuesday and Wednesday, along with strong winds and the risk of flash floods in the desert riverbeds of the Negev and West Bank. Temperatures are expected to rise only on Thursday.
Heavy winds were reported in the coastal city of Ashdod on Sunday while authorities in the southern seaside town of Ashkelon ensured machinery was ready in the event of flooding. The town suffered serious floods in November and December, amid new records for precipitation in a single hour.
Snow began dusting Mount Hermon’s ski slopes Sunday morning, and the site was closed to visitors, while thunderstorms and even hail were predicted as far south as the northern Negev.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat told staff to intensify efforts to identify homeless people and teenagers sleeping outside and to out them up in community centers until the storm has passed.
“Snow in Jerusalem is a cause for celebration for Jerusalemites, and we expect to see the most beautiful city in the world covered in white,” he said in a statement. “We call on all residents to prepare for the snow, prepare as necessary, show responsibility, and follow the instructions of the municipality and rescue services.”
The municipality canceled tree-planting ceremonies to mark the festival of Tu Bishvat, the NRG news site reported, while the Education Ministry ordered school trips to be diverted to places where snow or floods were not expected.
On the other hand, my own grandchildren were ahead of the game and got planting in their community of Peduel while the weather was still fine last week. 🙂
An interesting project launched in honour of Tu Bishvat – surely an “only in Israel” moment – is the Agriculture Ministry’s Tree Heritage website and app:
In honor of Tu Bishvat, the Agriculture Ministry launched its Tree Heritage website and smartphone application on Sunday.
They are part of an online project to identify and tell the stories behind thousands of trees around the country with a unique connection to Israeli and Jewish history and culture.
With 1,457 trees currently in the system, anyone in the Hebrew-speaking public can browse an online map and learn about the unique trees around the country or even around the corner.
The Tree Heritage map pinpoints the locations of different, significant trees around Israel and highlights trees that are especially old or historically important in either Judaism, Christianity or Islam.
The oldest tree in the system is a 2,000-year-old jujube tree ( “Ziziphus spina-christi” “sheizaf” in Hebrew) in Ein Hatseva, near the Dead Sea.
Haggai Snir, who oversees forestry at the ministry said that in Israel, every tree has a story.
“If only one knows how to understand a tree’s story, it can ‘tell’ the history of everything that happened around it,” he said.
What a fascinating and innovative idea! Kol hakavod to the Agriculture Ministry and the team behind this development.
Dvora Waysman in the Jerusalem wishes the trees Happy Birthday and provides us more background to this happy holiday:
Until Jews began to return to Eretz Israel in 1948, no-one thought of them as farmers.
For nearly 2,000 years we had been dispersed throughout the world, and in many places were not permitted to own land or engage in agriculture.
But in ancient Israel, we were an agricultural people. We treasured the olive tree, the grape vine and the date palm. The Bible encouraged us to plant “all manner of trees” and forbade the destruction of trees of a conquered land.
Just as we believe that on the first day of the seventh month, Rosh Hashana, we are judged and our fate for the coming year inscribed in the Book of Life, so we are taught to believe that trees are similarly judged on the New Year of the trees, which occurs on 15th of Shvat (this year January 25), called Tu Bishvat, the first day of spring.
This semi-holiday has always been associated with tree planting. In ancient times, one planted a tree at the birth of a child… cedar for a boy; cypress for a girl. Special care was given to these trees on Tu Bishvat, and when the children married branches of their own trees were cut for the wedding canopy.
It is said that on 15th of Shvat the sap begins to rise in the fruit trees in Israel. So we partake of the fruits of the Land… apples, almonds, carobs, figs, nuts, dates and pomegranates.
The pious among us stay up very late on the eve of the holiday reciting passages from the Bible that deal with trees and the fertility of the earth. We read the story of how trees and plants were created (Genesis 1:11-18); the divine promise of abundance as a reward for keeping the commandments (Leviticus 26: 3-18: Deuteronomy 8: 1-10) and the parable of the spreading vine which symbolizes the people of Israel (Ezekiel 17).
No religion has closer ties to agriculture and ecology than Judaism.
In fact, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai once declared: “If you hold a sapling in your hand and hear that the Messiah has arrived, plant the sapling first and only then go and greet the Messiah.”
With these wise words I wish you Happy Tu Bishvat, and to our trees I say Happy Birthday!
I leave you with Dry Bones’ cute take on this: