Tu b’Shevat, the New Year of the Trees, coincides with the flowering of the almond tree in Israel. (photo from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shevat)
Tu b’Shevat, which falls this year on Feb. 3-4, marks the end of the rainy season in Israel. Buds are beginning to appear on the trees, and the blossoming almond trees, the harbinger of spring, have begun to dot the landscape. So, on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, we celebrate the yearly cycle for the growth of trees in Eretz Israel.
According to Jewish mystical tradition, Tu b’Shevat is the day when G-d renews sustenance and the “life-cycle” of the trees, when the sap starts to rise.
There are many customs to remind us of the meaning of this day, including a Tu b’Shevat seder, not unlike the ritual meal we have on Passover.
On Tu b’Shevat, fruit trees were measured for growth in order to calculate the annual tithe to the Temple. Even long after the Temple was destroyed, this seder was a new way to reaffirm the spiritual bond with the land in celebration of the approach of spring and the fruit of the earth.
This ancient tradition was developed in Safed, the seat of kabbalistic studies in the 16th century. Traditionally, we eat nuts and the fruits for which the Torah praises the Land of Israel, including grapes, figs and pomegranates, olives and dates. The table is set with a snowy white tablecloth, candles, fruit and nuts, and the sharing of prayers, readings and songs.
It is traditional to enjoy four cups of wine, like on Passover. Those glasses of wine can be paired with a corresponding fruit and divided into ascending levels of spirituality.
The first cup, therefore, is often white wine, symbolizing winter, accompanied by a fruit that needs a protective covering, such as oranges or almonds.
The second cup is white wine mixed with a small amount of red, signifying spring, the budding of new life. This glass is served with olives, apples, peaches and dates: the outer layer is eaten, yet the heart is protected and has within it the seed of new life.
The third cup is red wine with a small amount of white mixed in. This is the symbol of summer and a perfect world in which nothing is wasted. With this, fruits such as figs, grapes and berries are eaten. These are considered to symbolize the highest level of spiritual openness.
The fourth cup is red wine only, representing fertility and the bounty of the autumnal crops.
What else happens on Tu b’Shevat? Very little religiously, but a lovely ritual has arisen in Israel, one that’s now been adopted all over the Jewish world. It is a popular observance to plant trees, one of the greatest mitzvot we can perform.
Trees have great significance in Judaism. This Tu b’Shevat, however, we are still in a Shmita (jubilee) year in Israel; the land is resting, so no plantings will take place.
Trees hold a special place in Judaism. It is written in Deuteronomy: “When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it to seize it, don’t destroy its trees….” In the Midrash Shmuel on Pirkei Avot 3:24, it is written that man is like a tree in that his good deeds are his produce, his “fruits,” and his arms and legs the “branches,” which bear these fruits. He is, however, an “upside-down tree,” for his head is rooted in the heavens, nestled in the spiritual soils of the Eternal, and nourished by his connection to his Creator.
At the end of the Hasmonean dynasty, there lived a holy man named Honi, known as the circle drawer, Honi HaMa’agel, and we read his story in Talmud Ta’anit 23a. One day, Honi sees a man planting a carob tree and asks him, “How many years does it take for the carob tree to bear fruit?” The man replies, “Seventy years.” Honi asks, “Do you think you will live another 70 years and reap its fruit?” The man responds, “I am planting the tree not for myself, but for my grandchildren.”
Although the world may not regard Jews as being tied closely to the land, the truth is that Judaism has close ties to agriculture and ecology. The midrash teaches us that man’s life depends on the tree, and we are forbidden to live in a city that has no gardens and trees. They are so important that Rabbi Yohanan Ben-Zakai declared, “If you hold a sapling in your hand and are told, ‘Come look, the Messiah has arrived,’ plant the sapling first and only then go and greet the Messiah.”
Happy Tu b’Shevat!