Tu B’Shvat is one of the four New Year celebrations on the Hebrew calendar, demonstrating that the Jewish nation always had an appreciation for nature.
Tu B’Shvat, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shvat, always falls in January or February and is known as the Jewish New Year for trees. When the Holy Temple was standing, Jewish farmers used to offer the first of the year’s fruits to G-d as a sacrifice, provided the tree was at least four years old.
Indeed, Tu B’Shvat is one of the four New Year celebrations on the Hebrew calendar, demonstrating that the Jewish nation always had an appreciation for nature.
After the Temple was destroyed, traditional customs for the holiday changed. During the Middle Ages, Jewish mystics who lived in Safed (Tzfat) developed the Tu B’Shvat Seder, where four cups of wine would be consumed and the seven fruits of Israel would be eaten. These fruits would often be dried and imported to the Diaspora from the Holy Land, which helped to preserve the Jewish connection to the Land of Israel. With the rise of Zionism, it would also become popular for Jews to plant trees in the Holy Land for Tu B’Shvat.
Trees play a very important role in Judaism. Jewish law protects fruit trees during wartime and to prevent fruit trees from being harvested prior to reaching maturity. Rabbenu Bahya, a medieval Jewish philosopher, wrote, “The commentators explain that the life of man and his food is [from] a tree of the field…and it is not the way of a wise and understanding nation to needlessly destroy something so worthy, and therefore you should not cut down a tree of the field. Rather, you should protect it from destruction and damage and take benefit from it.”
This is one of the reasons why Israel is the only country that entered the new millennium with a net gain in trees, for Jews have always held trees in great esteem. In fact, according to the Mishna, “It is forbidden to bring wood from olive trees or grape vines [and some add wood from fig trees and date palms] to the [Temple] altar because of [the mitzvah of] yishuv Eretz Yisrael (settling the Land of Israel).” The mitzvah (Torah commandment) of Yishuv Ha’aretz [settling the land) teaches that while it is important for us to utilize the natural world in order to provide for our basic needs, we must nevertheless balance these necessities with ecological and environmental concerns.
One may ask: Aside from appreciating the environment and celebrating trees, how does Tu B’Shvat have significance for us as Jews today? The Torah compares trees to human beings. According to Isaiah 65:22, “For as the days of a tree shall be the days of my people.” Jewish wisdom compares a man to a tree because the same elements that a tree needs to survive – soil, water and air – are also required for Man to live.
By Rachel Avraham