What is Tu B’shvat/Tu Bishvat?
Tu Bishvat is a Jewish holiday celebrating the New Year of the Trees. It is one of the four Rashei Shana (“New Years”) mentioned in the Mishnah. Tu Bishvat marks Rosh Hashanah La’Ilanot “the New Year of the Trees”. The name Tu Bishvat comes from the date of the holiday, the 15th day of Shevat. Shevat is the name of a Hebrew calendar month and Tet Vav, read as “Tu,” is how the number 15 is represented by Hebrew numerals using the Hebrew alphabet. It is sometimes referred to by its full name Chamisha Asar Bishvat, “The Fifteenth of Shevat”. This date generally falls on the second full moon before Passover, or, in a leap year, the third full moon before Passover. This year Tu Bishvat falls on January 22, 2008(which means January 21st at night)
Tu B’shvat was originally a day when the fruits that grew from that day on were counted for the following year regarding Ma’aser (tithes). During the Middle Ages or possibly a little before that, this day started to be celebrated with a minor ceremony of eating fruits, since the Mishnah called it ‘Rosh Hashanah’ (New Year), and that was later understood as being a time appropriate for celebration.
Tu B’shvat Seder
The Mishnah more specifically called Tu Bishvat ‘Rosh HaShanah La’Ilan’ or ‘the New Year for The Tree, hence, in the 1600s in the Land of Israel, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria of Safed and his disciples created a Tu Bishvat Seder, somewhat like the Passover Seder, that celebrated the Tree of Life. The earliest published version of this Seder is called the P’ri Eitz Hadar, which means “The Fruit of the Beautiful Tree”.
In more depth, the Seder evokes Kabalistic themes of restoring cosmic blessing by strengthening and repairing the Tree of Life, generally using the framework of the Four Worlds of emanation that can be roughly mapped onto the physical metaphor of a tree, that is, roots, trunk, branches and leaves.
There is a Hasidic tradition for one to pray on Tu Bishvat for a kosher Etrog (citron) to be used in the four species held during Hallel prayers on Sukkot. In conjunction with this practice, many Hassidic Jews eat etrog on this day.
The traditional Tu Bishvat Seder ended with a prayer which states in part, “May all the sparks scattered by our hands, or by the hands of our ancestors, or by the sin of the first human against the fruit of the tree, be returned and included in the majestic might of the Tree of Life.” While the Kabalistic interpretation of this tree is quite specific, the image of the Tree of Life has proven quite amenable to new interpretation.
In modern times Tu Bishvat has become popular with many Jews, and is celebrated with much enthusiasm in Jewish schools, synagogues, and communities. There are two general interpretations of the holiday which are echoed in most of these celebrations. The first is reclaiming of the land of Israel through tree-planting. This is the main activity in Israel, and in this aspect the holiday quite resembles Arbor Day as celebrated in other parts of the world. The second is the celebration of the earth, in essence a Jewish Earth Day, often accompanied by reflections on ecological or environmental issues.
The tradition of planting trees started in 1890 when the teacher and writer Zeev Yabetz went out with his students in a school in Zichron Yaakov for a festive planting. This initiative was adopted in 1908 by the Israeli Teachers trade union and later on by the Land Development Authority (Hakeren Hakayemet L’Israel, also called the Jewish National Fund). This practice is shunned by some Orthodox Jews due to its secular origin.
The ecological interpretation of Tu Bishvat can be dated to the 1970’s, emerging to some degree out of the awareness that was engendered by a Jewish campaign of protest against U.S. use of Agent Orange called “Trees for Vietnam”. One of the earlier Tu Bishvat Seders created by Jonathan Wolf, incorporated information from groups like Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) and the JNF directly into the Kabalistic framework.
It is generally customary to eat dried fruits and nuts even among those who are not following the Kabalistic rite. Figs, dates, raisins, carob, and almonds are especially popular. Many people also incorporate into their Seders the Seven Species associated with the Land of Israel in the Torah, which are:
You can create platters of various kosher fruits and nuts that can be sampled as you reach the historical period in your discussion or saved for the conclusion. You can also serve sweets (cookies or candies) made from these fruit ingredients, such as sesame candy, banana bread, etc.
It is also a tradition to eat unique fruits and preferably that have not been eaten the whole year so that one may recite the Shechiyanu blessing on the fruit. Among those unique fruits may be Ersrog, carob, persimmon, chinese apples etc.
What is Tu B’shvat/Tu Bishvat?