Many of us wish we had more New Year celebrations, if only for the fact that it’d make it easier to rewind and start over with our (uncompleted) resolutions. For Jews, Tu Bishvat is only one of the New Year celebrations people observe. If all of these concepts are still relatively foreign to you or if you’re simply curious what this is all about, then read ahead. It’s time to learn the basics of Tu Bishvat, the Jewish New Year of trees.
When Is Tu Bishvat?
Tu Bishvat (or Tu B’Shevat) is a holiday that takes place on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat. The month of Shevat is the fifth of the civil calendar and the eleventh of the ecclesiastical year. The civil year starts in Tishre whereas the ecclesiastical year starts in Nisan. As for the Gregorian calendar equivalent, Shevat is a winter month which corresponds with days of January and February.
The month’s name stems from the Akkadian language, spoken during the Babylonian Captivity.
Worth noting is that the very name of the holiday can be roughly translated to “fifteenth of Shevat.” The word “Tu” isn’t an actual word and, rather, an alternate alphabetical means of writing the number. To compare the situation, let’s imagine that we decided to give a different spelling to the Fourth of July using Roman numerals. The result would be “IV July” and then this is roughly what the situation with Tu Bishvat is.
What Is Tu Bishvat?
Tu Bishvat is one of the four new years that Jewish communities observe. It’s mostly a day of ecological awareness where people boost fruit consumption and plant trees.
The Four New Years
The Jewish calendar observes four new years, with the Tu Bishvat being one of them. In the Mishnah in Tractate Rosh Hashanah, we may notice the fact that there are several variations rabbis listed.
“And there are four New Year dates: – The first of Nisan – New Year for kings and festivals – The first of Elul – New Year for animal tithes. Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Shimon say: – The first of Tishrei– New Year for calculation of the calendar, sabbatical years and jubilees, for planting and sowing – The first of Shevat, according to the school of Shamai; The school of Hillel says: the fifteenth of Shevat” (Rosh Hashana:2a)
The rabbis have been debating for a while whether the so-called “New Year of the trees” should be on the first of Shevat or on the fifteenth. Eventually, the rabbis of the Talmud reached a consensus and established that the final date they would go for was the fifteenth.
Context Of Tu Bishvat
The first mention we have of the Tu Bishvat is around the end of the Second Temple period, between 515 BCE to 20 CE. At the time, it was the day designated for levying the tithe on the produce of fruit trees. The significance became even bigger when Jewish colonists went back to Palestine in the 1930s. As a symbol of them reclaiming the land, they planted trees wherever they could. Moreover, it’s an old custom to plant a tree every time a new child is born. For boys, a cedar and for girls, a cypress or a pine.
Tu Bishvat Customs
Customs related to this holiday aren’t abundant, but they’re simple enough to allow for anyone to try them out. The most typical custom involves trying out a new fruit or to eat either of the Seven Species (shivat haminim). The Seven Species appear in the Bible, which mentions that these are the foods that the land of Israel is rich in. Respectively, the foods of the Shivat Haminim are:
- Dates (honey).
Although it’s perfectly fine to consume one or more of these foods individually, you can prepare fantastic rice which blends all of these ingredients. The best part is that it’s vegan friendly.
Another popular custom refers to the aforementioned planting of trees. Several institutions in Jewish communities organize gatherings dedicated to the planting of trees.
Old Tu Bishvat Customs
During the Middle Ages, respectively around the 16th century, people who celebrated Tu Bishvat did so in the typical style of any New Year’s celebration: with a feast. And not just any kind of feast – a feast of fruits.
Kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchak Luria of Safed instituted together with his disciples a Tu Bishvat seder which gave birth to a tradition with spiritual subtext. They suggested eating ten different fruits and drinking four different types of wine in the right order. Supposedly, if doing so while reciting a particular blessing, you can help get closer to spiritual perfection. Despite having occurred so long ago, the tradition is alive in plenty of places around Israel, where special haggadot exist to calibrate this purpose.
Tu Bishvat isn’t a national holiday, though certain Jewish communities temporarily cease their activities for the day. It’s a day we dedicate to the honoring and celebration of nature. Moreover, we could definitely do with more holidays that have us eat fruits and plant trees.