Jewish Arbor Day, known as “New Year of the Trees” or Tu Bishvat is a holiday that Jewish people observe during the Hebrew month of Shvat on the 15th (Tu). Originally believed to be an agricultural festival which signaled the oncoming of spring, Kabbalists originated a ritual similar to a Passover seder for Tu Bishvat. Tu Bishvat has become a way to remember and honor loved ones and friends we have lost with a tree-planting festival in Israel. This festival draws Israelis and Jews from around the world to take part in the festival.
History of Tu Bishvat
The first mention of Tu Bishvat appears in the Mishnah, which dates back to 200 C.E. and is the code for Jewish law. Rosh Hashanah 1:1 tells us of four new years which due to an ancient cycle of tithes are all connected. The Israelites were expected to offer to God and help sustain the poor and priestly class by bringing one-tenth of their fruits to the Temple in Jerusalem each year. Rabbis were the ones to decided when a crop year began and ended as the fruit from one year couldn’t be used in a tithe for another, the month of Sh’vat was chosen as the cut-off date. In Israel, this is when the trees awaken from their winter sleep, sap starts to run from the trees and they haven’t produced any fruit yet.
Created by Rabbis, Tu Bishvat, much like Hanukkah, is a post-biblical festival but with biblical roots. A deep concern with trees, harvests, and the natural world as the basis for the tithing system that Tu Bishvat is built upon and also at the heart of the festival’s focus which dates back to the Torah. This emphasis on trees can be felt from the beginning with the Tree of Knowledge of Good an Evil located in the Garden of Eden. This continues through Deuteronomy’s instruction to not destroy fruit trees during war and looking deeper into the biblical text, the lessons told to us have an abundance of trees, which appear both literally and metaphysically. Often referred to as a eitz chayim or “Tree of Life”, this reference of the Torah is made from a passage in the Book of Proverbs.
While the Tu Bishvat celebration has a theme that is mostly attributed to the environment with the holiday that is celebrated today, its history is long and varied. Full of wonder, joy, and thankfulness for God’s creation and anticipation of the renewal of the natural world, Tu Bishvat is seen as a festival of nature. During this time, the Jewish people recall their sacred obligation and responsibility of caring for God’s world and sharing the fruits of God’s earth with everyone.
Falling at the start of spring when the rains of winter end and the almond tree begin to bud pink and white blossoms all over Israel. During the Tu Bishvat seder, many fruits and nuts that are common to Israel including almonds, barley, dates, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and wheat are eaten by the Jewish people celebrating.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, Tu Bishvat was nourished from the rise of the Zionist movement. This helped the Jewish people re-emphasize their connection to not only the land but the natural world as well. Zionist pioneers, along with the strong financial support from Jewish people around the world donated trees in order to mark special occasions or smichot. Through this, they were able to re-forest the land of Israel under the guidance of the Keren Kayemet I’Yisrael, otherwise known as the Jewish National Fund. Because of the importance placed on tree planting, whether on Tu Bishvat or anytime throughout the year, Israel has the recognition of being the only country that has an almost constant net growth of trees.
Customs and Rituals
Even the trees get a new year of their own!
We are not alone in celebrating the new year as the trees also have their own new year. Every new year that begins in Israel, Tu Bishvat or “New Year of the Trees is also celebrated and on the fifteenth day of Sh’vat, this holiday is observed.
While not mentioned in the Torah, many scholars feel that the holiday was designed to be an agricultural festival that occurs in line with the start of spring in Israel. A historical event, which is common with many observances in the Jewish religion, served as a catalyst to its creation. In 70 C.E., the Second Temple was destroyed and an exile soon followed, there were many Jews who felt that they needed to symbolically bind themselves to their former homeland. That spiritual need was filled in part by Tu Bishvat. While no longer able to bring tithes to the Temple, the Jewish people would use this time each year to obtain various fruits and nuts from Palestine and eat. This physical association with the land of sorts would continue for many centuries.
Kabbalists during the 16th and 17th centuries elaborated on these exilic customs and began to create a ritual similar to the seder at Passover for Tu Bishvat. People would gather in their homes for a fifteen-course meal on Erev Tu Bishvat with each course of the meal being a food associated with the land and in between courses, an anthology called P’ri Eitz Hadar, which translates to Citrus Fruit would be read. This compilation would be made of passages on trees that came from the Bible, the Talmud, and the mystical Zohar.
In modern Israel today, Tu Bishvat is celebrated as a national holiday and is celebrated with a tree planting festival for both Jews and Israelis throughout the world. The Jewish National Fund is deserving of much of the credit for the joy and spirit that is experienced during the holiday.