Tu B’Shevat: Harbinger of Spring and More

Tu B’Shevat (the 15th day of the Hebrew month Shevat) is not well-known or widely celebrated. That is a shame, since the holiday has a festive tone and imparts important contemporary lessons. It helps us mark time, it honors our earth and our partnership with its Creator, and it connects us to our biblical Israeli roots.

This Jewish holiday is not one that is mentioned in the Torah. Work is not prohibited and there are no special Tu B’Shevat prayers (in fact, some regular prayers are specifically omitted). The Rabbis, in the Mishnah (oral law), teach that Tu B’Shevat is the Rosh Hashanah, or Jewish New Year, for trees. As environmentally sensitive as celebrating trees’ birthdays may sound today, the historical and practical reason was to know when to begin the harvest and when to tithe the fruits for the Temple.

The Jewish people have a long tradition of appreciating trees. There are laws about when to eat fruit and when to let trees rest. There are laws prohibiting the cutting down of fruit trees when a city is besieged. There is a tradition to plant a cedar tree for a baby boy and a cypress tree for a baby girl, the idea being that the children would care for the trees and use them as poles for their chuppahs on their wedding days.

Today, with our changing environment, Tu B’Shevat offers the chance to perform the mitzvah of tikkun olam (repair the world). When we plant trees in Israel (a long-standing holiday tradition), we literally and physically recognize our responsibility to repair the damage we have inflicted on the earth. We also repair the spiritual damage we have done to ourselves and to our environment by taking both for granted. The day encourages us to appreciate the beauty and mystery of the natural world.

Tu B’Shevat also connects Diaspora Jews to the land of Israel. It is a holiday deeply rooted in Israeli soil. While our trees are bare-branched and our soil is frozen at this time of year, in Israel the appearance of the first buds signal the beginning of spring. It is customary to eat fruits and grains identified in the Torah. These seven foods or “seven species” (wheat, barley, figs, pomegranates, olives, dates and grapes) are indigenous to Israel (See recipes, page 21).

Finally, Tu B’Shevat is an opportunity to come together as a Jewish community. Thanks to the 16th century Kabbalists, who developed a Tu B’Shevat seder loosely modeled after the Passover seder, we have a ritual that imbues eating the seven species with spirituality and reverence. We gather in celebration, to praise God as we honor the fruit of Eretz Yisrael.

Tu B’Shevat is a day to praise and connect to Israel and the strength and holiness of its soil. It is a day to come together as a community and celebrate and revere the gift of our physical and spiritual environments. It is a day when being called a “tree-hugger” takes on religious meaning.

This originally appeared in the Jewish Journal on January 29, 2015.

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