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Beth El's Guide to Tu B'Shevat

02/07/2020 02:15:54 PM


Ben Kreshtool, Ritual Director

Tu B'Shevat is commonly thought of as the "Birthday of the Trees" or the "Jewish Earth Day."

In 2020, the "Birthday of the Trees" begins at sundown on Sunday Feb. 9 and ends at sundown on Monday Feb. 10.

The name of this festival comes from its date: "Tu" is a pronunciation of the Hebrew letters for the number 15, and it falls in the Hebrew month of Shevat. The "Tu" in Tu B'Shevat is the numerical equivalent for the number 15 by using gematria, the letter tet ט is 9, and the letter Vav ו is 6, so 9+6 = 15.

The origins of Tu B'Shevat come from Mishna Rosh Hashanah 1:1 "There are four new years. On the first of Nisan is the New Year for Kings and for Festivals; on the first of Elul for the tithe of animals. R. Eliezer and R. Shimon say it is on the first of Tishrei. On the first of Tishrei is the New Year for years, for Jubilee years, for planting and for vegetables, and on the first of Shevat is the New Year for trees, according to Beit Shammai, but Beit Hillel says it is on the 15th day."

Tu B'Shevat was initially not a religious festival but marked an important date for Jewish farmers in ancient times. The Torah states: "When you enter the land [of Israel] and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden for you, not to be eaten" (Leviticus 19:23).
The fruit of the fourth year was to be offered to the priests in the Temple as a gift of gratitude for the bounty of the land, and the fifth-year fruit "and all subsequent fruit" was finally for the farmer. This law, however, raised the question of how farmers were to mark the "birthday" of a tree. The Rabbis, therefore, established the 15th day of the month of Shevat as a general "birthday" for all trees, regardless of when they were actually planted.

For Jews living in the diaspora, the true meaning of Tu B'Shevat (a day marking the calculation for the agricultural cycle for tithes) has little practical application as the bible's agricultural laws only apply to the Land of Israel. Nevertheless, Tu B'Shevat is a significant day; otherwise, the Rabbis would not have mentioned it so prominently in the Mishnah.

We can surmise Tu B'Shevat's importance through the holiday's most intricate ritual: the Tu B'Shevat Seder. The Seder dates back to the 16th Century when Lurianic Kabbalist created a unique Haggadah (Pri Etz Hadar) as a guide for the Seder. The Kabbalists used their Haggadah to explore the connections they observed between the Tree of Life and the mystical Sefirot of Kabbalah. The Kabbalists believed rituals like the Tu B'Shevat Seder would help bring us closer to God by understanding the hidden nature of God's creations.

In modern times, Tu B'Shevat has become a symbol of both Zionist attachments to the land of Israel. Moreover, Tu B'Shevat is indicative of the Jewish people's commitment to environmental justice. Early Israeli settlers began planting new trees not only to restore the ecology of ancient Israel but also as a symbol of the renewed growth of the Jewish people returning to their ancestral homeland. While relatively few Jews continue to observe the kabbalistic Tu B'Shevat Seder, many American and European Jews celebrate Tu B'Shevat by eating fruits, traditionally from the Seven Species of the Land of Israel. However, any fruit - especially fruit that you have not yet tasted this year - will do.

Tu B'Shevat allows us to think about the Mitzvah of Shemirat Adamah, protecting the earth. Caring about the world we live in as keeping the world safe and beautiful is a core Jewish value.


Wed, January 27 2021 14 Shevat 5781