Tu Bishvat in the Jewish Tradition
An Ancient Holiday Takes on New Form
More than any Jewish holiday or day of the year, Tu Bishvat is identified with Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund. It is considered as a Jewish 'Arbor Day', and thousands of young saplings are planted in Israel’s woods and forests, in order for them to take root and grow into part of our country’s flourishing green belt.
While Tu Bishvat has been celebrated for centuries and is strongly rooted in the Jewish tradition, the custom of planting trees is relatively new, originating in the modern era with the early pioneers who settled the land of Israel.
In 1904, Professor Otto Warburg proposed establishing a Zionist Fund for the purpose of planting olive trees on lands redeemed by KKL-JNF. The development of planting trees into a Jewish tradition is to the credit of the Teachers’ Association of Eretz Yisrael. In 5665 (1904), it decreed Tu Bishvat as an Arbor Festival for tree planting in all the schools throughout the country. This is the origin of the truly beautiful ceremony, which has been observed annually since, to this very day.
Tu Bishvat is therefore a day when, with the help of KKL-JNF, Israel turns its focus to its natural heritage, and devotes time and attention to the land. It is also a day deeply rooted in Jewish history. We would like to share with you the following explanations of Tu Bishvat’s historical origins, its spiritual significance, and the symbolism of trees in Jewish literature.
An emotional event
Tu Bishvat (15th Shvat) is when the trees begin to bloom in Israel. This sight is more than a pleasant sight in nature; it is an also an emotionally uplifting event. It raises our awareness of the miracles of God; it reminds us not to take life for granted, and it gives us hope that the cold, dark, barren winter is over and fresh, new days are before us.
On the Source and Significance of Tu Bishvat
The fifteenth of Shvat is mentioned for the first time in the Mishna (1st-2nd century) as one of the four New Years of the Jewish calendar:
"There are four New Years: On the first of Nisan is the New Year for Kings and Festivals; on the first of Elul is the New Year for the tithe of animals—Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Shimon say; on the first of Tishrei is the New Year for the years, for Sabbatical years, for Jubilee years, for planting and for vegetables; and on the first of Shvat is the New Year for trees, according to the view of the school of Shammai, but the school of Hillel says on the fifteenth [of Shvat]".
(Tractate Rosh Hashana, folio 2b)
We see that this is not an “arbor day,” but rather a date used by farmers as a basis to calculate the annual yield of fruits, in order to know the amount of the tithe that the Bible requires. It also determines the beginning and end of the first three and four years of the tree’s growth, during which it is forbidden to eat fruit from the trees.
Why was there a need for two new years, the first of Tishrei for planting, and the fifteenth of Shvat for trees?
The Talmud states that the reason for choosing Tu Bishvat:
"Until this point, the trees are sustained from the rainwater of the past year; from this date they are sustained from the rainwater of the following year."
(Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Rosh HaShana)
In other words, winter has already passed its peak, and fresh new growth can begin. Spring is drawing nigh, and the trees are taking their first steps on the road to their goal – bearing fruits. Until now, the tree received water and nourishment from the earth – now it is transformed into a giver of fruits. Its potential for growth begins to be realized. So too, Tu Bishvat, is a time for the realization of growth potential, in anticipation of the spring.
Tu Bishvat in Jewish Law
Jewish law preserves the tradition of this day and transforms it into a semi-holiday. Jewish law prohibits fasting or eulogizing on this day. Some people observe the practice of teaching Psalms as songs so that children will sing them at their parent's table.
The promise to the children of Israel
"For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing forth in valleys and hills; a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing; a land whose stones are iron and out of whose hills you can dig copper. And you shall eat and be satisfied and you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land he has given you."
The significance of the fruits of Israel
"When Moses wanted to praise the Land of Israel, he made special mention of its fruits… "Honey" refers to dates, because they are sweet."
(Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, RaShBaM)
Tithes – or fruit taxation
"You shall not delay to offer of the fullness of your harvest and of the flow of your presses."
According to the Babylonian Talmud, Tu B’Shvat is the cutoff date for determining which tithing year the fruit of a tree belongs to.
"Our masters taught that a tree whose fruit has ripened in the past year is tithed for the past year. After Tu biShvat, it is tithed for the coming year."
(Talmud Bavli, Rosh HaShana 15b)
Children bringing 'bikkurim' on Shavuot, 1953. Photo: KKL-JNF Photo Archives
In the Temple the tithing was as follows:
Teruma Gedola - The Great Contribution – was about 2% of the harvest, to be presented to the priest in the Temple.
Maaser Rishon –First Tithe – of the harvest was given to the Levite.
Terumat Ma'aser – The Tithe Contribution – the Levite gave a tenth of his receipts to the priests.
Maaser Sheni – Second Tithe – a tenth of what remained of the harvest after all the deductions mentioned above, had to be taken to Jerusalem (aliya l'regel) where the farmer and his family had to eat it or sell it. This was done on the first, second, fourth and fifth years of the seven-year cycle.
Ma'aser Ani- The tithe for the Poor – was the portion of Ma'aser Sheni that was set aside for the poor during the third and sixth year.
The month of Shvat
According to the ancient Hebrew lunar calendar, which begins counting the months from the month of Nisan, the month of Shvat is the eleventh month. However, according to the Hebrew calendar in use today that begins to count from the month of Tishrei, it is the fifth month. It is assumed that the source of the name of the month, Shvat, is from the Acadian language, and its meaning is rod, or hitting (like the famous verse, he who spares his rod (shivto), hates his child). The reason for this is that rain and wind smite the earth during this month (It is interesting to note that in Arabic, the word shevet means to strike). Another interpretation is that the source of the name is from the word shivtut, which means a tender, young and soft branch, which reminds us of the renewed growth that begins in this time of year in Israel.
Aquarius – the Astrological Symbol of Shvat
According to the rabbinic adage that “most of the year’s rain come down by Shvat”, since most of the rain has already come down during the previous month, from Shvat onward we can put the harsh winter behind us. For this reason, the month of Shvat symbolizes the end of the peak of the winter rainy season, and the plentiful rain is represented in the Zodiac by the sign of Aquarius.
Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath preceding Tu Bishvat
The Sabbath on which we read the weekly Torah portion of Beshalah, which comes out before TuBishvat, is known as Shabbat Shirah – the Sabbath of Song. This Torah portion concludes the story of the exodus from Egypt and describes the splitting of the Red Sea and how the children of Israel crossed it on to dry land. The miracle of how God revealed Himself in order to liberate the People of Israel by intervening in and changing the course of nature caused Israel to break out into song before the Lord -the Song of the Sea.
The Song of the Sea (Shirat HaYam) is recited daily – the importance of this miracle and its status in Jewish religious awareness is emphasized by the fact that it is read every day of the year during morning prayers, before the recital of the Shema. The Zohar declares that whoever says Shirat HaYam daily and purposefully will also merit to sing it in the World to Come. During a Jewish boy’s ritual circumcision at eight days old, the Song is recited responsively by the mohel (circumciser) and the sandek (the man honored with holding the child during his circumcision). It is also recited on the last day of Passover in all Jewish communities.
The Song of the Sea, which expresses the children of Israel’s faith in God and in His servant Moses, begins with the words: “Then Moses and the children of Israel sang this song to God, and they said: I will sing to God, for He is exceedingly high, He has cast the horse and its rider into the sea.”
The fact that the Shabbat on which the Song of the Sea Torah portion is read occurs right before Tu Bishvat, and sometimes even coincides with the festival, makes Shabbat Shira extra special.
Tu Bishvat throughout the ages
In the beginning:
"And God said, "Let the earth put forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to his kind, upon the earth." And it was so… And God saw that it was good."
In biblical times:
Our fathers were farmers who appreciated nature as their lives depended on it. They celebrated the changes of the seasons, with bikkurim -first fruits to the Temple, terumot- leave-offerings and maasrot- tithes.
In the middle ages:
In the 15th century, when the Jews of Spain were expelled, those who settled in Zefat continued the traditional celebrations of Tu biShvat. The students of the famous kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria formulated the symbolic Tu biShvat Seder – prayers and readings centered around a meal. By eating fruit, our ancestors identified with their land. They added to the fruit, the drinking of wines and the singing of songs and compiled a new Tu BiShvat Haggadah Seder named Etz Pri Hadar- The Glorious [Citrus] Fruit Tree.
In the land of Israel:
In 1892 Ze'ev Jawitz and his pupils planted trees in the Zichron Yaakov region and in 1908, the Teachers' Federation and the KKL-JNF institutionalized this practice. Today, thousands of adults and youth go forth on Tu BiShvat to plant trees throughout Israel, to feel with their own hands their ties with their land, the tradition of their fathers and their country:
"When you shall come into the Land, you shall plant all manner of trees…"
Around the world:
The custom of planting trees spread among the Jewish communities in the Diaspora, becoming another symbol of the strong connection between the Jews in the Diaspora and in the Land of Israel.
Celebrating Tu Bishvat today:
As well as eating fruit, drinking wine and singing, we celebrate the Tu BiShvat Seder by reading portions of the Bible that mention the Land of Israel and her fruits; thanking God and all His endeavors for us; reviewing specific mizvot - commandments - relevant to the Land of Israel; eating from the Seven Species mentioned in the Torah; and welcoming the New Year for Trees with the blessing "Shehechiyanu" – Renewal – over fruits we have not yet eaten.
On Tu Bishvat in the Land of Israel in Contrast to Wandering in the Desert
Tu Bishvat is the New Year for trees. It marks another year that the trees were planted firmly in the earth. Planting expresses our being rooted in our homeland. Living on the land, in the Land of Israel, is different than the forty years of wandering in the desert in two major ways: Firstly, we are no longer in an interim state, which is neither here nor there. We know exactly where we belong – we are not torn by longings for the past, and we are not waiting for some better future. And secondly, living in Israel, we are no longer limited solely to intellectual and abstract means of expression – we can also express our physical abilities – tilling the earth, planting trees, and protecting our homeland’s eco-system and its magnificent natural beauty.
What We Can Learn from the Carob Tree
Over time, carobs became very identified with Tu Bishvat. To this day, Jews in the Diaspora eat carobs from Israel on Tu Bishvat as a means of experiencing their connection to the Land of Israel. Here is an interpretation of a Talmudic legend that teaches us what we can learn from the carob tree. In tractate Ta’anit, the Talmud tells us about Honi Hame’agel, who was befuddled all his days by the biblical verse: “When God returned the exiles to Zion, we were as dreamers.” Honi could not understand – this verse refers to the Babylonian exile, which lasted seventy years. Can a man dream for seventy years?
Once he was walking on the road, and he saw someone planting a carob tree. Honi said to him: This tree that you are planting, when will it bear fruit? The man answered: Seventy years from now. Honi retorted: Do you think you will be alive seventy years from now? The man responded: When I was born, I found a world full of carob trees. Just as my ancestors planted trees for me, so too, I plant for my children.”
Honi understood the biblical verse as referring to the exile. When we returned to Israel, the entire time of the exile seemed like a dream. This is what Honi could not understand: How could seventy years be like a dream? Life goes on, things happen both to individuals and to a people.
Honi received his answer from the man who was planting the carob tree. Since the carob tree bears fruit seventy years after it was planted, the planter will not eat of its fruit. Even so, he toils and cares for it. From his answer, Honi understood that the time of exile is not just a time of waiting. Just like the carob – from the time it is planted until its fruit is ripe, it is busy. Roots delve deep in to the earth, and branches reach for the skies. Complex botanical processes are taking place until it reaches the stage when it is ready to bear fruit. At that point, it becomes clear that everything that went on during the past 70 years was absolutely necessary. Honi learned from the carob tree that planting has intrinsic value, even for someone who will not eat of its fruit. The process that eventually leads to the fruit bearing time has great value in and of its own.
Trees for the Future
The Talmud recounts that a king rode by an old man planting a carob tree.
"Old man," the king called out. "How old are you?"
"Seventy years, your majesty," the man replied.
"How many years will it take before that tree will bear fruit?" the king asked.
"Perhaps seventy years," the man replied.
Mockingly, the king went on. "Do you really expect to ever eat of the fruit of that tree?"
"Of course not," the man said, "but just as I found fruit trees when I was born, so do I plant trees that future generations may eat from them."
The Rights of Trees
Jewish tradition relates to trees with great respect. Its written and oral laws proclaim the rights and uniqueness of each tree:
- Until a tree is three years old, its fruit is forbidden for human consumption.
- Even though you may "own" an orchard, you may not deny the tree's right to offer its fruit to a hungry traveler or worker.
- When you go to war against a city, you must not destroy its fruit trees.
- You may work the land and gather its fruits, but every seventh year you must allow the land to rest.